Ideas

Science: On Earth Day, Hope for a Better Future

April 13, 2017

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Chris O’Bryan and Eddie Game program a dissolved oxygen logger. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Justine E. Hausheer)

The word “science” means many things to different people. While some see science as nerdy and boring, others are in awe of the discoveries that have been made and the technologies that change our lives.

To me, science means hope.

As a conservation scientist, I spend my days tracking such threats as climate change, deforestation and the overfishing of our oceans. You might think it would be depressing.

But science provides the tools to overcome these threats.  Science has achieved once unimaginable things – the internet, human flight, antibiotics.  And I fully believe science will save the planet for us and the other 8 million species that live on it.

As we celebrate Earth Day this year, science and hope are firmly at its core.

Tens of thousands of people around the world will take part in the March for Science on Earth Day, calling on our elected officials to continue investing in scientific research that serves as the foundation of a strong, healthy and productive society.

I and others across The Nature Conservancy will join those marchers to raise awareness of the central role science plays in conserving the natural systems we all rely upon for survival.

Hugh Possingham, Chief Scientist, The Nature Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Hugh Possingham
Hugh Possingham, Chief Scientist, The Nature Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Hugh Possingham

For example, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy five years ago, scientific studies found that intact coastal wetlands prevented $625 million in flood damages. Today, state and municipal governments across the country are following that science to restore and protect wetlands, sand dunes, oyster reefs and other natural areas that can help protect communities and defend against future storms.

Science also underpins how state agencies around the Gulf of Mexico are bringing their coasts and waters back to health in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Congressionally-passed RESTORE Act specifically mandated that “the best available science” be used to determine the most effective strategies for restoration. With that mandate, projects are now being launched across the Gulf that rebuild oyster reefs and create “living shorelines.” These natural solutions not only clean gulf waters and strengthen coastal areas, but they support recreational and other commercial economies, as well as provide habitat to wildlife.

Armed with science, we can find the hope needed to overcome even the greatest challenges and build a stronger future.

But we don’t need to wait for disaster to find inspiration in science.

The Nature Conservancy's Galbadrakh (Gala) Davaa, (on right) Director of Conservation for the Mongolia Program, uses a GPS to show the locations of mines to herder Nanzaddorj Namkhai, (center) a volunteer ranger at the Ugtam Nature Reserve, and a second local herder on left. Photo © Ted Wood
The Nature Conservancy’s Galbadrakh (Gala) Davaa, (on right) Director of Conservation for the Mongolia Program, uses a GPS to show the locations of mines to herder Nanzaddorj Namkhai, (center) a volunteer ranger at the Ugtam Nature Reserve, and a second local herder on left. Photo © Ted Wood

In Mongolia, for example, The Nature Conservancy worked with the government officials to scientifically analyze the country’s landscapes. Mongolian decision-makers are now using the maps to ensure energy and infrastructure projects needed to support communities are being developed in areas that do not harm sensitive natural areas and wildlife.

In Oregon, The Nature Conservancy is using satellite imagery to monitor the health of grasslands. The data is being shared with ranchers to help them determine the best grazing areas for their cattle while also conserving wildlife habitat.

And in Iowa, The Conservancy is working with farmers, agriculture businesses and food distributors to scientifically test farming practices that reduce erosion, keep rivers cleaner, improve soil health and save farmers money.

TNC staff Aquatic Ecologist, A. Maria Lemke with TNC conservationist and farmer, Tim Lindenbaum and TNC partner, farm owner John Franklin (left to right) discuss wetland pond water monitoring devices. The farm is used as both a test facility for conservation oriented agricultural practices and as a demonstration-farm of those practices. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Mark Godfrey)
TNC staff Aquatic Ecologist, A. Maria Lemke with TNC conservationist and farmer, Tim Lindenbaum and TNC partner, farm owner John Franklin (left to right) discuss wetland pond water monitoring devices. The farm is used as both a test facility for conservation oriented agricultural practices and as a demonstration-farm of those practices. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Mark Godfrey)

As global populations grow, the demand for food, water and energy are putting unprecedented pressures on our natural systems. Disastrous storms and floods are also increasing as a result of climate change.

But around the world, governments, businesses and communities are using science to support jobs, feed families, power cities and protect nature.

That’s why, to me, science means hope.

Hugh Possingham

Hugh is the Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy having recently moved from the University of Queensland. His group of 29 PhD students and 15 postdocs (embedded in three centres) work all over the world using decision science tools from economics and applied mathematics to formulate and solve conservation problems in the real world. More from Hugh

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9 comments

  1. Grateful to have organizations and talent such as Hugh’s on these big problems. Hope is a great way to frame the prognosis and still seems a little too passive. People want a way they can get involved locally, so I hope to translate these smart programs to mobilize on-the-ground efforts, too. Thank you Nature Conservancy!

  2. How can I segue into a wildlife/conservation/ecology career having completed my undergrad in Biology? I refuse to go back to school until I have a career to dictate my path. I already owe more than enough student loan debt, thank you.

    PLEASE HELP!!!

  3. Sure, as a Humanities professor I’ve always been aware that power fears our pesky questioning nature and openness to a plurality of voices/perspectives, but I have to admit I didn’t think that one day we would have to march in the streets to protect/validate scientific thinking/reasoning. They used to talk of the Humanities and the Sciences as two cultures – separate and opposed in a way. It should be clear by now that we need to be joined together in a project of opposition to those that seek to manipulate the populace through alternative facts and historical erasure. Solidarity!

  4. I was unable to propose a sign for the “March for Science on Earth Day” but would like to propose the following for use at some time:
    S ave
    C onserve
    I nvolve
    E ach
    N ature
    C onvert
    E veryone

  5. You are mistaken about climate change causing disastrous storms. Storms are no more common than in past times. Damages are much, much greater recently because of increased development. Confuse the two at your peril (and credibility).
    I fully agree about science being the way forward, but don’t think the federal government (nor other levels of government, necessarily) ought to be the funder. There are too many perverse incentives tempting the researchers.
    I do support TNC and other land ownership- and management-based conservation organizations doing research (Conservation Fund, Ducks, land trusts). I believe that the fundraising- and membership-focused groups (Humane Society of the US, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, etc) are deeply compromised as cash machines enriching their executives.
    Full disclosure, my former employer is a multi-million $$ funder of TNC. I have been on your river-oriented outings (and have the frog necktie to prove it)

  6. Cherishing all living beings is the root of us saving the planet. Science will be a tool to help make it happen. Developing a mind of love and compassion is #1.

  7. Good Morning.
    To create a new generation of ecologically conscious citizens dedicated to protecting the natural world that sustains us, early science education may be just what we need.
    Environmental educator Anthony Cortese and David Orr both argue that ecological literacy should be taught along with basic writing, math, and physical education skills from a very young age. It is a prerequisite for responsible decision making in a fundamentally interconnected world.
    “We are what we think, all that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we do the
    world.”
    Keep up the important work.
    I’m from Brazil.