A New Year’s Tree

The other day I was walking to work at The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., when I noticed that a small tree was sticking up from part of the roof just behind the big Conservancy logo sign that’s over our building’s front door.

The little tree is also visible from the windows of our U.S. government relations office. Through them, I could see that a seed blown on the wind had found a place between some gravel and a rain gutter and managed to take root. While eventually I am sure the tree will have to go, it seems to me a symbol both of the tenacity of nature and of the stubborn determination required by the Conservancy to save the natural world.

Despite nature’s grace and strength, that determination is no match — at least in the short run — for the pressures that will be placed on Earth by the 9 billion people expected here by mid-century. But the tree tells us where the Conservancy and conservation should be going…and how we will get there.

Not long ago, of course, humans thought nature to be all-powerful, and subduing forests and prairies for our purposes was seen as an admirable endeavor. Today, people have been so successful at converting natural habitats to other uses that we have impacted virtually every natural place on Earth. As a result, the extinction rate for native species continues to increase.

But some scientists now argue that nature is more resilient than we had thought — that, given assistance, natural systems can adapt and be more resilient to change. A four-foot tree growing out of roofing gravel may be evidence of this. We better hope so, because climate change, population growth and infrastructure development will further stress Earth’s ecosystems in the years to come.

One of the most exciting things happening at the Conservancy as we enter 2010 is the idea that we can pioneer ways to help nature be more resilient. Aiding resilience takes us beyond our historical model of preserving natural areas as they are, with all their species and interactions intact. It means that we might have to let go of some of the details to save the natural processes, connectivity and the dynamic quality of large ecosystems which may in time become different, but no less remarkable. This task can and should be done by continuing to work at real places — but at larger scales, and with new and sometimes risky ideas about the future.

An apparent success of the Copenhagen climate conference was the commitment of substantial amounts of money to climate change adaptation. No organization is better suited to invest some of that money well than the Conservancy is — provided that we are tough enough for the challenge.

This new sort of conservation will be less about setting aside preserves apart from people (which is still a good, straightforward task) and more about figuring out how nature and people can work together at large scales to create a more sustainable world. And that figuring-out process gets messy. The bargaining is not always easy. People get angry. If we want to make a difference, we cannot always stand aside from controversy.

Left to its own devices, human society moves toward what is not sustainable; our species is not respectful of the finite capacity of natural systems to support human endeavors. Conservation — even conservation that respects the human benefits of land and water — runs in a counter direction.

Getting society in the United States and around the world to change its course, to respect natural systems and functions at the scale necessary to make a difference, is an arduous but exciting task. For all this, we at the Conservancy (and all of us concerned about the natural world) must be strong and resilient — like a tree growing unexpectedly in the middle of the city.

(Image credit: Robert Lalasz/TNC.)

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  1. “Getting society in the United States and around the world to change its course, to respect natural systems and functions at the scale necessary to make a difference, is an arduous but exciting task.”

    I have always thought that if all people in developed countries could experience two weeks without electricity (especially kids), that experience would go a long way toward “changing course” in many of our society’s unsustainable ways.

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