Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tom Rogers, of Stowe, who is associate director of philanthropy at The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.
I was struck by the global response to the fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this April. Offers of money to rebuild the church poured in, and within hours more than a billion dollars had been raised. People the world over said in one voice that we will not lose this piece of our global heritage to the dustbin of history.
Among the voices in the discussion, though, was Native American activist Casey Douma, who compared people’s dismay over Notre Dame burning to the horror her people feel when their sacred lands are lost forever due to human development. She pointed out that rivers, forests, oceans, and all of nature should be seen as equally sacred, equally worthy of passing down through the generations, as a church. Now, the world watches as fires rage in the great cathedrals of the Amazon, furthering deforestation of the planet’s greatest rainforest.
I’ve worked in conservation for several employers over my career, but ultimately, I believe that I truly work for my two daughters – Claire, aged 3, and Nora, aged 5. I see my job as trying to create the world I would like to leave behind for them.
Conservation can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. Right now, the number of plastic “Sophie the Giraffe” toys sold annually in France is nine times the number of actual giraffes remaining in the wild. Pesticides and habitat destruction have led to the decline of half the world’s insects – the “insect apocalypse” as some are calling it – including the pollinators that farmers depend on. This has forced apple growers in China to hire people to walk from tree to tree manually pollinating apple blossoms, a job the bees previously did for free.
The biological destruction caused by humans has created the threat of devastating mass extinction across the globe, according to a sweeping new report from the United Nations. Other recent comprehensive reports have referred to the “biological annihilation” or “the sixth great extinction” currently taking place, with more than a million plant and animal species at risk as humans continue to alter the planet. The total mass of humanity is currently 10 times that of all the other land mammals combined. And we have developed more than half of the land on earth, turning what was previously nature into rows of corn and suburban sprawl.
Vermont is doing somewhat better than many other places, having recovered species from loons to bald eagles and conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of land and water. This was accomplished by small groups of passionate and dedicated people working on shoestring budgets. Funding for the Agency of Natural Resources is less than 2% of Vermont’s general fund, and conservation nonprofits make up little more than 1% of global charitable giving.
But we are by no means immune from global conservation trends. In the past decade, white-nose syndrome has devastated Vermont’s bats, while our moose are struggling with parasitic ticks that have become more numerous in a warmer climate. Emerald ash borer, an invasive insect, arrived in Vermont last year and will likely wipe out our ash trees within years, taking with them 5% of the state’s forests. Lake Champlain’s water quality remains poor. The cumulative threats to the natural legacy we leave behind can seem daunting.
More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt said, “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.” I fundamentally believe that conservation of the natural world is still the most important challenge of our time, even more so in the face of a changing climate. Without nature, we will have no water, no air, and no food. Since Roosevelt’s time, we have seen tremendous conservation successes brought about by people who cared enough to say that theirs would not be the last generation to hear the call of a loon or see the forests come alive with autumn colors. That their children may also swim in a stream and cook a freshly-caught trout on an open fire as humans have done since the beginning.
I know I will never grow rich working in conservation and my daughters will not inherit great material wealth. But I can try to leave them a world that still has loons and moose and trout. We all can strive for our children to inherit an inhabitable planet of breathable air and drinkable water. But only if we increase our investment in nature, support policies that keep our lands and waters healthy, and take on climate change as if we will live not for the next 50 years but for the next 500. Otherwise, we will have to look our children in the eye and explain why we stood by and watched as the sanctuaries and shrines of our natural world burned.