Jonathan Baillie is Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President Science & Exploration at the National Geographic Society. Before that, he was at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where he founded the EDGE of Existence Programme focusing on Evolutionarily Extinct and Globally Endangered species, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. It was in his capacity as Conservation Programmes Director at ZSL that Jonathan met Jessica and Adam Sweidan, the founders of Synchronicity Earth. He has been a friend and important adviser to Synchronicity Earth ever since. We spoke to Jonathan to get his views on conservation, communication and our relationship with the natural world.
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 subjects, when we’re doing science, when we’re doing geography and so on. We have a serious problem ahead of us! We can close our eyes and just sort of run at it, but I think we’re doing a disservice to future generations if we don’t both create that excitement but also prepare the younger generation to deal with the issues that are facing them. For us not to do that, as a parent, or as a member of society, is irresponsible. We need to completely change our mind-set and how we think about species and ecosystems.
On the subject of changing mind-sets, there are a number of ‘optimism’ movements at the moment e.g. Ocean Optimism, Earth Optimism, Conservation optimism (led by EJ Milner-Gulland), which look to highlight positive conservation stories and solutions and change an often negative narrative around the environment. How important do you think this type of movement is right now?
I think it’s brilliant! I think these movements are extremely important. I think that the conservation movement is starting to learn a bit more about communication and realising that if you just tell people how things are going badly, they will shut down. We have to be honest about what’s happening and make people aware, but we also have to provide some hope, some direction and some actions that they can take. So, I don’t think it’s really a service to anyone to talk about problems we’re having if we’re not putting out solutions, and I’m really happy to see people in conservation becoming more solutions-focused. You have movements like Earth Optimism, and people like EJ Milner-Gulland with Conservation Optimism, who are really pulling people together to ask what’s working, how do we know what’s working and how do we amplify that? How do we show the world that it is possible and that there is a good vision for the future? The lack of vision for the future – although different depending on the culture – is a real problem.
Could you tell us what role you think an organisation like Synchronicity Earth can play in helping to conserve biodiversity and redefine our cultural relationship with the natural world?
I think there are two key areas. One is what it does on the Arts side. Synchronicity Earth has always come at this from a unique angle, trying to tie the arts together with science and bringing in a different audience, engaging people through a different doorway and talking to people about the natural world in an exciting way that gets them more involved. I think it has been extremely successful at that and should continue.
Synchronicity Earth also has a really strong role in terms of convening leaders in the space even in very informal – or perhaps more importantly – in very informal atmospheres where you bring key speakers together on a certain topic in ‘salon’ type events. You can’t underestimate the impact that bringing leaders together in an informal space actually has.
It’s important to actually convene people around a certain topic. If you’re trying to address – say – oil palm, you would pull together all the people working in that space, you would map it out, then you would think about what needs to be done to be successful and where the points of intervention should be. When everyone sees an issue mapped out like this, it helps them to understand that this is where we are, this is where we can engage, this may be where we need to put a little more emphasis and pressure and so on. It is important to do the due diligence and the strong research behind a conservation issue, and help to work with and figure out the relevant people so others understand that landscape and can help fill in the gaps. It’s so important to bring in the right partners and to make sure that everybody has something to contribute. We spend a lot of time in the conservation movement trying to create partnerships where sometimes there are none, so we just need to understand what a good partnership is, who has added value and structure them appropriately at the beginning. I think Synchronicity Earth has a big role to play there.
Finally, do you have a favourite species and if so, what is it?
Well, I don’t really have a favourite species, but I have been known to be a bit biased towards the pangolin..
I first started thinking about pangolins when I was working with Simon Stuart at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Pangolins were mostly listed as Near Threatened and nobody really knew anything about them, but we both suspected they were a lot more threatened than anybody thought. An opportunity arose to start the IUCN Specialist Group with Dan Challender, and to try to raise the profile of the species. Basically, this was a starting from scratch scenario, where we could create the action plans, bring the experts together, and define the pangolins’ status. We found that they were much more threatened than anybody thought. We then pulled together all the data on trade, worked on major influencers to make them a profile species, started various initiatives, for example, creating a gaming app about pangolins with the Royal Foundation. We managed to get all sorts of media coverage and stories about the most threatened, illegally-traded mammal in the world. We created the narrative by which people wanted to engage and the species became listed on CITES.
It has been a really interesting process being on that journey with a species that was basically unknown to many, to one that is now familiar to many children … you know it’s in Disney films now. Most children could at least know something about what it is, and that to me is exciting and shows that you can at least bring species into the public consciousness. We still need to push harder to protect it, but I think the pangolin has a much better chance now than it did five years ago.
But I really don’t have a favourite species!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.