Addressing root causes:
I often get asked why Synchronicity Earth has such a broad remit: why don’t we focus on the orangutan, for example, since it was our awareness of its plight that got us started?*
Bornean Orangutan, by Clare Shenstone
To understand the loss of a species means looking below the surface. The decline of an animal, plant or fungi is often just the visible tip of a vast, underlying iceberg. For example, orangutans are being pushed towards extinction as their habitat disappears; a complex web of economic, political, social and cultural factors lies behind the destruction of their rainforest home. As John Muir, one of the founding fathers of American conservation, said:
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
One cannot, therefore, conserve a species without addressing the underlying roots of its decline. By this logic, one may need to begin somewhere less obvious than the species itself. Protecting a species could involve evaluating the effectiveness of the organisations carrying out the work; or questioning why philanthropists are barely supporting it. It could lead to us looking closely at supply chains of certain commodities that have a direct part to play in said species demise.
If we wanted to protect multiple species, globally, we might begin to assess the effectiveness of a range of conservation organisations, and ascertain whether they are adequately supported or even hindered by donors. We may feel the need to go deeper – to challenge contemporary (Western) values, or connect with indigenous forms of knowledge to answer questions about how we are to live on this planet: this work may, ultimately, call on us to take a deeper look at ourselves and our own actions.
When we first saw the Financial Times advert asking us to help save Orangutans in 1997, Adam and I tried to find an organisation to support. It was hard to know how to give well – there was no ‘intellectual infrastructure’ to help us dedicate our resources wisely which is why, ten years later, when we realised that the species was being driven further towards the brink, we decided to create one.
Synchronicity Earth was born.
Now, ten years after the first shoots of Synchronicity Earth appeared, our in-house research and the advice we have received from conservationists, partner NGOs, scientists and donors has led to greater clarity: to offer truly effective protection for any species, we must bring a variety of components together:
- partnerships, founded on trust, with organisations built by visionary and inspirational people who are able to grow dedicated and passionate teams;
- connected conservation actions, grounded in evidence and rooted in the local context, that can adapt to their circumstances and innovate where required;
- close and positive relationships with local communities and knowledge of local and national political structures and influence, in places where species and landscapes are most threatened, to nurture the best possible outcomes for people and nature through livelihood-friendly habitat protection or restoration initiatives;
- outreach and education and the ability to articulate the need for change whether to consumers, businesses, governments or philanthropists.
My point is simply: the environment is people and people are the environment – our lives are intricately connected.
Conservation can be approached from the perspective of a young Muslim girl who lives on the Kinabatangan River in Borneo, whose mother spends her days in the intense heat clearing brush to plant native saplings that she has nurtured from seed, so that she can restore as much of the forest as she can in her lifetime, creating wildlife corridors for threatened species. The girl knows that her own wellbeing is inextricably linked to her mother’s and to the forest’s: her mother gains an income from her dedicated reforestation work, and that – in turn - enables the forests to provide shade, oxygen, watersheds, beauty, and the abundance of life that she calls ‘home.’
Or it can be approached from the perspective of my young daughter who lives in London and knows that she can make conscious decisions about things like which soap she uses and which peanut butter she eats, because she knows that her choices here are directly linked to the wellbeing of that little girl on the river in Borneo. And, she cares: Earth is her home.
If philanthropy is “active effort to promote human welfare” and we think about what human welfare entails and how tightly intertwined it is with the health of the natural world, then perhaps now is the time to reevaluate what we mean by philanthropy?
We have a choice and we have perspective: we just need to act.
Addressing environmental decline by tackling the problems that push through the top-soil into view – the big stories – is not enough. We need to look deeper and understand what connects today’s ecological crisis to others (poverty, displacement, hunger) – we have to see the roots - and we have to cultivate the right action.
We have to engage.
* Read how it all started: The beginning of Synchronicity Earth