What does your role as Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President Science & Exploration at the National Geographic Society involve?
I oversee our impact-related work, all our grants and programmes. This includes our Explorer programmes where we work to enable leaders around the world who are trying to drive knowledge and innovation to push towards a more sustainable planet. It also includes our International programmes working with National Geographic partners in different regions to amplify our message and collaborate with exciting conservation leaders all over the world.
I also oversee our three ‘Labs’:
Our Exploration Technology Lab is trying to scale up our response for technology used in exploration and conservation as well as helping us to visualise the natural world and culture in ways that have never been done before, to help us see the world in a different way. It provides tools to our large network of explorers, helping them to be much more effective in their work.
The second is the Geographic Visualization Lab, which takes complex data and helps the public to understand the status of the natural world and its people. With this Lab we’re trying to really identify the vital signs of the planet, to provide indices so the world understands where we actually are, and also to create projections into the future to understand what the implications are if we don’t take certain actions now.
The third Lab focuses on citizen exploration or citizen science, and is essentially about engaging an entirely new community of people in science and exploration and not only engaging them but having them produce and get involved in providing data that helps us understand the world and identify solutions.
Challenges in conservation
What do you consider to be some of the greatest challenges the conservation community is currently facing?
Well, there are numerous challenges. If you try to pare it all down to its basics, a lot of these challenges started when we developed the ability to access energy that was locked up in the form of coal and oil – and now gas. This has allowed us to do many wonderful things, but it’s also allowed us to expand in terms of agriculture and to colonise the planet in ways that have never been seen before, and that’s brought many challenges. We’re looking at a planet in 2050 with 10 billion people, so the issue is how we feed that population and how we maintain an environment that allows all other forms of life to exist and to produce the benefits that they do and keep the planet going. So, I would say our greatest challenge going forward is how to provide for humanity while also providing for other forms of life. To do that we really need to focus on creating a protein source – a food source – that isn’t going to require dominating and harvesting the entire planet, and we also need to find a clean form of energy so that we don’t heat up the planet to the point where it’s an uncomfortable and unliveable place for much of life that exists today. Energy and agriculture are what we really need to focus on.
What obstacles do you see standing in the way of effective conservation?
There are various obstacles. One is our current economic system: it is based on indeterminate growth – which any ecologist will tell you is not possible. It is difficult to imagine effective conservation if the global economy continues to be dependent on growing consumption and the associated overexploitation of natural resources. If the current economic system is not revised, future generations will inherit a depauperate planet and a very large debt.
The conservation movement, I feel, needs to think more about how it communicates its message, and how it encourages people to understand the importance of other forms of life. For me, that narrative and that knowledge is an area that we need to work a lot harder to both identify and articulate in a way that’s relevant to different cultures all over the world. We’ve obviously not been telling the most relevant story, so one of our greatest barriers is our ability to effectively communicate.
In an address you gave to the National Geographic Explorers Festival last year, you said: “We have to figure out how to maintain the heart and the lungs and the arteries of the planet so that it can continue to generate the resources that we all need.” In the face of so many threats to biodiversity, is it possible to identify particular regions to prioritise?
Well, right now, we need to make some pretty bold decisions as a society: it’s not a matter of conserving a small chunk of the planet here and a small chunk there. We’ve basically converted over half the planet and we have an impact on an even larger proportion of the Earth’s landscape and seascape, but if we want it to function in the future we are likely to need to retain a very large part of the planet intact.
For example, we know that the ocean is providing every other breath we take, or that the Amazon rainforest has an extremely important role in driving weather patterns, but we still don’t fully understand how all the pieces fit together, and that’s a very dangerous situation to be in. We’re taking apart the pieces when we don’t fully understand how they all function together.
When I was talking about ‘heart, lungs and arteries’, I was highlighting the need to better understand how the world works, and that we need to articulate that a little more clearly. We’re not talking about isolated pieces here and there but entire systems that we have to keep in place. I’m talking about the Amazon rainforest, about the Congo Basin, about ensuring that we have half the world’s oceans under some form of protection. We need to make some significant changes if we want to maintain the critical ecosystems that allow a broad diversity of life to survive and ensure this world can be sustainable into the future. Right now, we’re dismantling those critical ecosystems without any understanding of the implications.
Do you think there is generally a need for a more collaborative and strategic approach to conservation?
I think we need greater leadership in the conservation space and greater collaboration and we also need to look at things on a landscape scale and bring together the relevant players, understanding who is able to and who is going to do what, instead of having competition among organisations. We also need to create a new paradigm where we understand that there are these last wild places that are essentially the engines of life and the next generations should just know what they are and we shouldn’t have to explain why they’re important to keep going – it would be like trying to explain why you would need your liver! It’s part of the fabric of the planet that we live on. We don’t have that narrative clearly articulated, but we need to.
Our relationship with the natural world
In your address to the Explorers Festival, you also talked about cultural and biological diversity and the current cultural relationship that we have with the natural world. Do you think that cultural and biological diversity are in some ways two sides of the same coin?
Well, we evolve in an environment, and that environment influences our culture. By going in and taking down forests, for example, for some communities you’re basically dismantling the culture. I personally see our environment as part of who we are, the two are inextricably linked so, if we want to maintain who we are as a species, we have to maintain the world around us, and that’s what makes me somewhat nervous for the future.
If we choose to live in a depauperate world, what does that mean for being human? What would it be like to live without the companions we’ve lived with for millions of years, the other forms of life that actually made our own lives possible? We’re discovering more and more that there are all sorts of psychological and health benefits of having the natural world around us, and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of further isolating ourselves or what it’s doing to us as a species. I think it’s important for us to understand that and to better make the case for the psychological and health benefits that the natural world brings us because it helps us to be human. Initial studies are all showing that it’s extremely important and that it affects things like aggression, crime rates and recovery times from illness. We clearly need other forms of life, both in a utilitarian sense as a species but also as a way of being.
How would you describe our current relationship with the natural world?
I think we – especially our generation (X) – has lived a massive transition. We’re moving from a society where we used to play outside a lot and we used to engage with nature much more, to one where we’re engaging with nature a lot less. The average distance a child travels around their home has decreased and they spend far more time, often hours and hours a day, looking at screens and so on. That is starting to alter our cultural relationship with the natural world. We’ve created these constructs where we can justify the destruction of any forest or the homes of other species and we have somehow created a framework by which we think that’s OK, as long as it brings a few short-term gains and economic benefits. But I think if we start to understand more about other forms of life and how we’ve evolved with them and depend on them, and reflect on our relationships to other forms of life, then we’ll be a lot more receptive to helping make sure that there is space for other creatures and other ecosystems.
The way we view the world has changed through time. For example, if you go back a generation or two, you can say that he or she was a person of their time. My hope is that when we look back at this period, we look back at a time when we had an unacceptable relationship with the natural world, but we were able to rectify it and move towards a way of living that enables future generations to have thriving and vibrant lifestyles and allows the other 10 million-plus species that we share the planet with to also persist. It’s an odd thing for us to think that it’s acceptable to wipe out other forms of life.
Communication and Education
In trying to redefine our cultural relationship with the natural world, and as you have already pointed out, it’s clear that we need to communicate more effectively, we need to tell the right stories. What do you think the ingredients of a good story are if we want to communicate these messages?
Well, I think like any storyteller, you have to know your audience, so telling the right stories will depend on the group you’re talking to. I think that basically there are different points in our lives at which we form our opinions and if you want to be effective, you need to be speaking not just in the right way to your audience, but to the right demographic within the audience. We need to focus on young people and show them the amazing diversity of life, to create a sense of awe. We need to create a sense of respect and appreciation and a sense that they have a responsibility to ensure that this amazing life force, this system that is providing for everybody, is maintained for future generations.
Talking about young people specifically, do you think schools are generally doing enough to help them connect with the nature around them?
Well, having children, it’s clear that they love being outdoors and they love being in nature. I think we need to make sure that is maintained in the curriculum and that we provide opportunities for children to explore and to engage and discover. I think the new rise in citizen science is a great way to get people out and feeling part of the process, collecting information and seeing that it’s relevant and actually has an impact.
I also think there’s an opportunity for schools to introduce students to amazing individuals around the world that are doing things for the planet. At the National Geographic Society, we have a programme to link children to explorers on the ground. So, for example, we can have Lee Berger looking at the discovery of bones that belonged to Homo naledi in real time with students watching it: that changes their lives. It’s not about just providing knowledge and saying, this or that is important, it’s about showing them inspirational leaders that are actually doing something about it. It’s about giving them the tools in their hands to get out there and do it themselves, about helping them achieve a victory at a small level – or maybe at a big level – whatever that may be: they can stop using straws or plastic bags or they can take some empowered action, and that creates a mind-set that they will hopefully then have for the rest of their lives. That’s what our schools need to be focusing on, creating stewards of the planet leading to a sustainable future for all.
Do you think that’s something that could be really built into the curriculum in better ways? Do you think there should be a subject based specifically around nature and the environment?
No, no I don’t. I think it needs to be part of all s