A History of Environmental Conservation with Larry A. Nielsen

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Everyday Heroes

Professor Larry Nielsen has chronicled the lives of the most inspirational conservationists the world has known. From accounts of a man who tied himself to a tree in a storm, just to see what the tree would feel, to the story of a woman in Kenya who caused 50 million trees to be planted, and many others. These are examples of some of the amazing acts of selflessness these incredible people performed in the name of conservation.

Waste Not, Want Not

In creating the distinction between environmentalists and conservationists, Larry points out that it’s not necessary to stop using the resources around us, but rather to use them wisely. Did your grandma ever scold you for wasting the last bit of soap? It’s cultivating that mindset of “waste not”, and thinking ahead to make sure there’s enough for everyone, consistently, that will help bring balance back to the world.

Do What You Can, Where and When You Can

It’s no secret that Earth needs our help. While you may not be able to single-handedly save the orangutans, there are always little tweaks you can implement that will make a difference. Especially if we ALL did that! Larry provides great inspiration, examples to follow and the reminder that ordinary people can change the world. You may not win a nobel prize for planting wildflowers in your yard, but the bees will thank you!

Interview Notes From The Show:

– Welcome back to the Urban Monk, Dr. Pedram Shojai here talking about a subject that is near and dear to my heart, nature. We have so much going on right now with environmental protection and all these shifts in our relationship with conservation and so I found it important to reach out to someone who knows what they’re taking about in this, and really start talking about what it is that we can do to really create a class of heroes and really put people who have stood up for the environment on a pedestal and show that the work that they did is A, meaningful and important to us, and then also be able to follow in their footsteps. So today I have Professor Larry Nielson here, who has a new book called Nature’s Allies, and he’s following eight conservationists who have changed the world and has had a wonderful career in really looking at this and also just trying to preserve the heritage of these individuals. So welcome to the show, Professor.

– Thank you.

– Yeah, so what drove you to write the book?

– Well conservation is a field that’s really pretty new, it’s about a century old. And you know, in any new field, it’s individuals that tend to drive it, make it move forward. And I have always thought, through my career, that it was important to know, for current students and people to know whose shoulders they’re standing on. And so, it’s been a career-long goal of mine to write this book that highlights some of the greatest conservationists of the last century, and give an opportunity for people to learn about them, and to be inspired by them.

Nature Is There To Use, But It's There To Use Well - #LarryNielsen via @PedramShojai

– So you started, your first chapter is on John Muir, who is a man near and dear to my heart, who was a pacifist and was against the war, and then really became one of the first conservationists, especially in California. I mean, I’ve hiked the John Muir trail. It’s a very big part of my history, growing up hiking in the High Sierras. And so, you went through each of these individuals and chronicled their lives. What commonalities did you find, what differences, and was there some sort of union of a thread that drove them all?

– Well, you know, as I started compiling the names for who I would cover in the book, I got lots of ideas from people and John Muir’s name came up with everyone. Certainly, John Muir is considered to be the father of conservation, probably the greatest, most famous conservationist, certainly in the United States. But then as I started working on other people, I began to think, well what do they have in common? Were they all scientists? Did they live away from people, were they hermits? Or were they introverts? Were they rich or poor or educated? You know, what kind of things did they have in common? And I was surprised at the end, after completing these eight biographies, that personally there really wasn’t anything much that was common. Some were great family people, some were loners, some lived in the city, some in the country. Some had a scientific basis, others didn’t. But there’s a couple of things that really, I think, are common and not common to everyone, but are shared by these people. And I describe it as three words: passion, persistence or perseverance, and then the use of partnerships to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish.

– Passion, perseverance, and partnerships. That’s something we could all learn from, right? It’s funny, we talk about that in businesses, bill, buy or ally, right? So if you don’t have partnerships in what you’re doing, you’re really going uphill, and it’s hard. So you’re in North Carolina, you’re a professor of natural resources, and so that to me sounds like passion, I mean that’s not a common field, I don’t hear too many people going into that. To me, it’s such a noble thing to go into. This passion to preserve and conserve, how hard is it now, in our current climate, to really get people to understand why it’s important to look after our resources?

– You know, I think it’s easier today than it’s ever been, actually. I teach a course of, well this semester I had 291 students in my course on conservation of natural resources, and I find that students are as concerned, maybe more concerned, as committed then they have throughout my 40-year teaching career. I’m constantly impressed by the dedication I see in students today. Now, they may come at it from a different perspective than in the past. They tend to be more urban and interested in big-scale things like biodiversity. 40 years ago, they were more interested in wildlife management or fisheries management. But that doesn’t matter, what really matters is that there is a growing understanding that to maintain life as we know it on Earth, we have to think sustainably. We have to live sustainably, and we have to govern sustainably. And I think that, I’m encouraged that it seems to me every year, every 10 years, every generation, there’s more of a recognition that longer-term questions, longer-term issues, require our attention today. It’s not something we can just put off till tomorrow. I’m really quite encouraged.

– So there seems to always be this dynamic tension, at least since the Industrial Revolution, between business and progress of business and the environment. Kind of the tragedy of the commons, as you know many would say. So is that really what you face, like say being a professor of this material and looking at the long-term thinking that goes in? How do you struggle against this notion of progress without the checks and balances?

– Well I think that’s what’s really great about conservation. And I make a distinction when I talk to students, and just about anybody, between environmentalist perspective and a conservation perspective, because the conservation perspective is the important one, I think. And that is that we recognize that our lifestyle, our quality of life, is really a function of using nature well to provide the resources that we need. And clearly, we’re all dependent on nature for the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the pollination that occurs, everything really. And so, conservation is really understanding that it’s not save everything, or people are evil, but that together, nature and conservation can produce great things. And there was a paper written back in the 1970s by a famous microbiologist, that sort of ecological guru Renee Dubeau, which he called the Genius of the Place. And what he meant by that was that there is something wonderful that happens when people use nature in a way that gets at its highest productivity, its highest value, and they do it in a way that doesn’t use up that value, but uses it in a sustainable way, as a renewable resource. It seems to me that the work of conservation is to find that balance, that genius, that allows us to live sustainably on Earth with nature as a partner, rather than something to be conquered.

– You know, this distinction you make between environmentalism and conservation is an interesting one, it’s one that I’m actually new to, and you know I’ve spent a lot of time in the last several months kind of just looking at the political climate and what people are fighting about and trying to piece that apart. And what I’ve found is, a lot of people on the conservative side, kind of the red side if you will, who are less quote unquote environmentalists are still conservationists. And it’s to the point where I’ve gone and talked to people who are, you know, hunting, and I say well okay if you see a deer, and you don’t have a tag, what do you do? And it’s like I would absolutely never poach that. And so I started talking about this and said what is this? And they say well, you know, it’s about the deer community and keeping it there, and Fish and Game really cares for this. And it’s just like wow, you’re an environmentalist that hunts. And so it’s like it’s very fascinating to see that these distinctions are a lot in nomenclature, but is there something in there that I’m missing between and environmentalist and a conservationist that sets them apart?

Let's Do Our Best To Maintain Life As We Know it - #LarryNielsen via @PedramShojai

– Well the first thing I’d say is you make a really interesting point, because if we look at where we are today in environmental matters and in conservation, and you start to trace that back, you find that the people who have supported conservation and developed conservation were originally hunters and fisherman. That’s were the conservation business came from. They were people who lived and enjoyed being close to nature, close to those resources, and they are the first ones to realize when things are going off the rails. And they were the ones that said we need to support conservation, we need to set aside lands for wildlife, we need to start to do things. That’s where it started, and I guess I make the distinction with environmentalism, or environmentalists, and I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, because there’s a lot of overlap here, but you know, there is, I think, a significant difference that there are people who think that humans are evil and that the use of the Earth is evil, and we shouldn’t be doing it, and I find that a defeatist kind of approach, and I’m very much on the other end, which says that nature is there to use, but it’s there to use well. You know one of the people I profile in the book is Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister who was the head of the World Commission on Environment and Development, and she defined sustainability as we talk about it today, as living today in such a way that future generations will have a full range of choices about how they want to live. And that, to me, is the essence here. It’s not to point fingers and say that you’re bad or you’re good. It’s to say how can we live on Earth without spoiling it?

– Yeah, amen, amen. And look, at the end of the day, I eat fish, right? And I also eat meat, and so there’s a lot of that, there’s a lot of arguments and a lot of directions, but you know I love finding common ground. What can we learn from these guys? So you traveled through the lives of eight people who were very distinct characters in the history of conservation. What do you hope that readers are going to get from reading these stories and understanding who these people are?

– Well so the first thing, I’d say is that to understand that these are fully complex, full-lived people, that they weren’t sort of saints sitting on the top of a mountain somewhere, looking down and proclaiming how the world should be. They were people who had families, who had jobs, who had failures and successes, but through that all they worked towards the common good of conservation. So I hope that one, people understand that these heroes are really like them in many ways. And two, that they can be a hero as well. Now maybe you’re not going to win the Nobel Peace Prize for planting 50 million trees, or maybe you’re not going to climb one of those trees in the middle of a raging storm and lash yourself to it like John Muir did to get a sense of what it felt like to be a tree in a storm, but you can make a difference, you can make a difference, a small difference or a large difference. And so, to be encouraged, to be optimistic, to be part of the solution.

– Did you say John Muir climbed a tree during a storm just to feel like what a tree would feel?

– Absolutely.

– That is gangster, I had no idea, oh my god, that’s funny.

– It’s the sort of thing he did routinely. You know, he would do things that no one else would do, just because he thought it was authentic, and he wanted to experience nature in a very raw, very real way. And his stories make compelling reading, even today, a hundred years after they were written.

– When we filmed our Origins movie, we hiked the John Muir trail, and I gotta say it’s some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I’ve been in the Himalayas, I’ve been in the Andes, and in the Alps. I’ve been to a lot of mountains, and man, it was just, it’s God’s country up there, it’s really beautiful. And there is conservation all over, right? The rainbow trout in those lakes are very well-preserved, and you know you have to be very mindful of where you’re fishing, how you’re fishing, all that. It was pristine because someone had taken the steps to keep it that way. And so I started reading up a lot about his story. So I know about John Muir, I don’t want to like, get into that. Who is your favorite? You looked at all these people, was someone like a breakout hit for you?

– You know, I thought you might ask me that question, because everybody does, and it’s like saying you know, which of your children do you love the most? So I have some different answers. I would say that, you know, if I were going to have dinner with somebody, then I would surely pick John Muir. He’s the most interesting character of the bunch. And you know, people think of John Muir as a hermit who didn’t like people, but he loved people as individuals. He didn’t think much of them when they got together in groups, but he really liked them as individuals, and he loved to party, and he loved to be the center of attention. So I’m sure it would just be great fun to sit and have dinner and listen to John Muir tell stories. As an inspiration, I think the person I am inspired by the most is Billy Frank Jr. Now unless you’re from the Pacific Northwest and involved with Native American affairs and salmon, you’ve probably never heard of Billy Frank Jr, but he was a native Nisqually fisherman in the state of Washington who was arrested more that 50 times for fishing according to the treaty rights that were provided to the Nisqually and their fellow groups in that area, more than a century and a half ago now. And he persisted in that drive to stand up for the rights of the Native American fisherman, and eventually, eventually it led to a huge decision in 1974 that gave half of the Pacific salmon to Native Americans, and half to the rest of us. Now, that’s wonderful, and the reason that’s so wonderful is because it led, really, to the need to do much more elaborate and scientific study and management of those salmon populations, and that’s why many of them are coming back today. But Billy Frank Jr had every reason to turn out to be angry or grumpy about what had happened to him in his life, but he didn’t, he transformed himself into an ambassador for salmon. He became friends of presidents of the United States, he was revered all over the world for his passion and his persistence to get these things done. And I also like him because he reminds me of my late father-in-law, who was a grand man, and loved everybody he ever met. I would say one other thing, that when I was a boy, I read one of Rachel Carson’s books, The Edge of the Sea, and that’s the thing that really made me want to become a fisheries biologist and conservationist. So you know, it’s hard for me to say who I like best. I like them all.

– Billy Frank took a stand for his tribe, and there’s a lot of this kind of echoing now in what we’re hearing, right? This whole Dakota pipeline thing, and you know, Obama shutting it down through the Army Corps of Engineers, and now Trump kind of opening this can of worms up, and the protests, and all these things. Do you see this today as a reflection of these battles still being waged? I mean, are we still ahead of the game, or do we need to go back and learn from these lessons of the past, to now take a stand for resources of the future?

– Well, look, I think perhaps the most important lesson is to realize that conservation is a journey, not a destination. You don’t get there and say we’re done. You don’t pass a law, or set aside a piece of land, and say okay, now we’re finished. It is a continuing process of learning about nature, about natural resources, about what the capacity of the Earth is, and then learning ways to do it differently, more equitably, more sustainably, providing for all the people, not just some of the people. And I think things like the Dakota pipeline and the Keystone pipeline and other issues, we’re always going to have those issues, because there are many people on Earth, and the drive to use the Earth in one way or another is always going to be there, and we need to be thinking about how to do it, how to do it better all the time. So, you know I think the fact that there are people that are working hard in one way or another, maybe behind the scenes, maybe in front of the bulldozers, that’s all an expression of the fact that people care and, you know, that’s essential.

– We’re covering a lot of this in our upcoming movie on conscious capitalism, this dynamic tension between planet and profit, and this contract that businesses have to, you know, be good citizens on our planet, and yet the commons are taking a lot of the cost. So a coal plant dumping stuff into a river, they’re not really paying for that, and so the downstream cost comes back on society, and so that’s tax dollars, and that’s a lot of things that become a fallout. I know there was a lot of conversation happening around this in Washington, before the administration changed, just about finding a new sector to have this dialog become a little bit more front and center, because it isn’t black or white. You know what, we breathe oxygen, we burn something for heat, and so until everything’s solar and wind and all that kind of stuff, these are issues that we’re just going to have to face. So when you have students coming through and learning this, what can we learn about this kind of passion and persistence of these characters that you’ve profiled in this next generation of conservationists that need to kind of stand up for their planet?

Conservation Is A Journey, Not A Destination - #LarryNielsen via @PedramShojai

– Well, I think the fundamental lesson here is that, even from these eight people, it’s to realize that none of them, none of them went after their passion with the idea that you had take nature and put a fence around it and never use it. They were all interested in nature relative to its value for human use. And we’re champions for the idea that if you used it well, you could use it forever. And if you used it poorly, you lost that capability. So I think the lesson I try to get across to students in my classes and in other situations is to be optimistic, to recognize that using resources is part of life, and that it’s a balance between preserving some, using some, using some now and saving some for later, being conscious of the long-term issues associated with what you’re doing as opposed to just the short-term benefits. You know, instant gratification is not something that nature’s all about. Nature’s about wait and wait and wait and take a little at a time. But you know, the eight people that I profiled, they all understood, even John Muir, who we tend to think of as another term that you may or may not like, a preservationist, you know, put the land away, John Muir very strongly understood that the utilitarian values of nature were important and had to be considered as you dealt with nature and human uses of it. But he also said there are some places that are truly wonderful, and we should not be exploiting every place just because was can.

– Hence Yosemite, hence some of the national parks and a lot of the movements around that. So the big beautiful things that we leave alone.

– Yes, absolutely. You know, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says that as a goal, we should preserve approximately 10 percent of all the major biomes on Earth as places that we can use for inspiration, as places that we can use for study, and as benchmarks for how ecosystems works, how nature works without our intervention. And so, yeah, we need to save some at the same time that we’re using others.

– How close are we to that 10 percent number across the globe?

– You know, interestingly, we’re at that number for the vast majority of ecosystems. There’s actually two that we’re not doing so well on, and those are freshwater lakes and grasslands. And I often think about, well why those two? And I think freshwater lakes because they have been used and settled for centuries, millennia, and so there’s always a high concentration of civilization around those places, and they’re hard to isolate and say okay we’re going to not use this.

– Leave this precious resource.

– Grasslands on the other hand, I think are places that people sort of drive past, and don’t realize there’s something special going on.

– But we have so much grassland in the Great Plains of America. Is that just not categorized correctly, or is it just, are people farming? You know, you drive through so much of it.

– Farming.

– It’s farming.

– You know, so the vast majority of the grasslands that were natural have been turned into croplands, and we need those croplands of course, to grow our food. But saving some of them as a source of biodiversity and knowledge about how these ecosystems work, that’s an important part too. You know, one other thing I would say is that if you look at the percentages of various ecosystems around the world that are protected, in categories that are called protected, you know the degree of actual protection that occurs varies a lot, depending on the rule of law in the country, the amount of money and effort that’s spent to protect those lands. So just saying that someplace is protected doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well-protected.

– Yeah, we have a lot of that in the Amazon, and just people coming in, taking plant species or, you know, poaching elephants in wild game parks in Africa. Those stories continue to persist. I’m curious, what in your opinion, and we’re running out of time so I really want to know, like what are the big levers? Like if you told me, if everyone went out and planted 10 trees a year that would change the world, that would be an interesting data point for me to know. What big levers, in your rationale, would be there for us to be able to get ahead of this and be on the right side of it?

– Well now, there is a very interesting question. Because on the one hand, I want to say yeah, if everybody planted 10 trees a year, that would be terrific. And that’d be a lot of trees planted, you know. 10 trees a year, that’d be 70 billion trees planted on Earth every year. You look at a woman like Wangari Maathai in Kenya who led tree-growing cooperatives across the country of Kenya, and through her work, one little group of rural woman at a time, has caused 50 million trees to be planted in Kenya. So an individual doing what they can can make a huge difference. And you know, I always tell everyone remember what Margaret Mead said, and we know what her quote was, never doubt that a few committed individuals can change the world, because they’re the only ones who have, I think is true. The lesson I try to give to students, however, is that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be trying to be better. And so an outlook I think where an individual tries to cut down on their consumption, tries to do things that are more sustainable rather than less sustainable. I mean a real simple example and one that some of my colleagues make fun of is that I work at home on Fridays. And they think it’s because I can work in my pajamas, but the reason I work at home on Fridays is so I don’t have to drive to the office. And so by doing that, I save 20 miles of gas and greenhouse gases per week. So I think, you know, if as individuals we think what can I do, it doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be small thing. I mean, you can plant a tree and I can work at home on Friday, and someone else can rally millions of people to change a law, change a policy. All those things together will add up to making a sustainable Earth, I think.

– Like a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere here in America setting off a tsunami in Japan, right? Like every little person doing a little something starts to add up pretty quickly, is what I’m hearing.

– Yeah, well what I would say is seven billion people flapping their wings is going to make a big difference.

– Yeah, yeah, well people get mobilized for way stupider things, right? So this is good work, it’s noble work. So the book is called Nature’s Allies, Professor Larry Nielson. This is great great great work, because for me these are the people who are heroes, these are the people who we need to look up to, these are the examples being set that can inspire a generation to come. So I really applaud you on doing this work, documenting this work and sharing it, and I’m going to share it far and wide. This is the kind of work that I think is going to inspire the next generation, because the next John Muir really needs to be there to fill those shoes. And I know you’re a professor and you’re doing it, but you know, I want my kids to grow up with this ethos.

There's A Constant Conflict Between Planet And Profit - #LarryNielsen via @PedramShojai

– Well thank you for having me. It’s a great pleasure, and it was a great pleasure to write the book and bring these stories, I hope, to many many people.

– I’m sure it was really enjoyable. Let me know what you think, Dr. Pedram Shojai here, I’m a big fan of this, if you haven’t seen our Origins movie, you know it’s all about preserving our natural heritage, and we hike the John Muir trail. I highly recommend reading the book, reading up on people like John Muir and people that I hadn’t even heard of like Billy over here. I’m going to get into these stories, and really start to follow in the footsteps of these individuals, because these are the heroes that we need to hear more about, right? Forget about reality TV, forget about all the noise, all the junk out there that’s designed as distractions. Get out on a hike, start figuring out how you can help enhance the biosphere and the world that you live in. I’ll see you next time, thanks for being here.

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