Dr. George M. Woodwell, Director Emeritus and Senior Scientist of Woods Hole Research Center and recipient of the 2010 OSI Land Conservation Award, has spent a lifetime studying ecological systems. OSI spoke with him about the role of conservation in the current economic crisis, and the key to life on earth.
OSI: Woods Hole Research Center, which you founded, is celebrating its 25 anniversary. What’s the biggest change in conservation priorities you’ve witnessed in that time?
GW: The major transition has been the shift of conservation from a peripheral to a central issue in government. That’s certainly been true with the evolution of conservation law as an influence in governing this country. Conservation has produced a wholesome revolution in this democracy, which confirms the emergent power of conservation, including the conservation law and land trust movements.
The trouble at the moment is that we’re stuck with a governmental system and a way of financing democracy that really make it very difficult to meet the challenge of the present: to do away with a fossil-fuel-based economy and replace it with a solar-based economy. Right now, the government is talking about nuclear power, but the new world isn’t going to be powered by nuclear fuels any more than it’s going to be driven by fossil fuels. We have to shift to a new way of thinking, guided by a brand new set of dreams, and that vision is being defined by the conservationists more than the engineers.
This transition is the only way to avoid the greatly impoverished world we’re creating now. If we don’t move quickly, there will be more Somalias, more Haitis, crippled by dysfunctional landscapes beyond the point of restoration without massive outside aid. We are heading towards a global impoverishment, not only of governments and economies, but an impoverishment of the landscape that causes the failures of governments. The path to recovery is going to come from conservationists, from biologists and scientists, not from simple political or economic innovations. We have to grow up and stop thinking about small increments of change. Stop thinking about how nuclear power is going to save us. It isn’t.
OSI: How can conservationists address that impoverishment?
GW: One needs to ask, what is key to living on the earth? The key has something to do with what our conservation ancestors recognized, that the earth has an intrinsic capacity to run itself. It’s that capacity that is the basis of human wealth in the end. The core element is that you have to decide – we have to decide – that we’re not going to celebrate fossil fuels and overuse of mechanical energy of various sorts, including nuclear energy. Instead, we’re going to celebrate the life of the earth, and the system under which it works, and make ourselves a part of that. It’s our choice either to sustain a world that supports the life of the earth, or create a world that is pulling the potential for the life of the earth out from under it. Not just humans, but all the rest of life as well. Right now, we’re doing that. The alternative is to decide that we’re going to celebrate the life of the earth instead, and protect the systems that sustain it. That’s what conservation is all about. That’s why conservation has moved, and must move, into the central halls of government and make these changes happen.
OSI: How should conservationists respond to the economic crisis?
GW: Financial squeezes force everyone into a conservative stance, and in a conservative stance they don’t want to change because it seems risky and expensive. In fact, what’s necessary in these down times is to use the opportunity to make a new world. People have to realize that what has happened in the past has brought us to this impasse, and that we have to make a new departure, and work thorough all these seemingly impossible issues and make effective change. But people need guidance. That requires the conservation movement and scientists to figure out what the new model should look like and define it.
We can do it. We can have a new world, in which we decide the world – the whole world – is a park, and create a new set of rules that allow us to live within that park. The Adirondack Park is just one example. People live in the park, with villages, towns, agriculture, and multiple land use, all within the boundaries. So it’s not such a far-fetched dream. It sounds outrageous and impossible, but it’s the only dream that will work. We have to overlook all these reasons we can’t do, and do!
Having a policy on conservation or population doesn’t mean we have to kill people or starve them out, but they will die and starve if we don’t decide to do something about sustaining the planet on a policy level. This has to do with land use, which we have to address in order to avoid biotic and economic impoverishment. We can look at Haiti as an extreme example. You can’t have a government, let alone an economy, if you don’t even have a water supply. You need to have a landscape that functions, or there’s nothing to build an economy on. If the hills are bare, the rains wash away the soil and ruin the valleys, the fisheries, the water itself. Fundamental change in Haiti, like everywhere, is going to happen by restoring the land. We can do all this. We have to have the imagination and then the will.
OSI: You’ve advocated for recognizing forests as environmental capital. Have you seen positive changes in acceptance of this concept?
GW: As you know, it’s an uphill battle. We are making progress in an intellectual sense, but not in a political sense. It’s a terrible time. The scientific community is being denigrated systematically by, in my opinion, venal interests.
OSI: What are land conservationists doing right? What could they be doing better?
GW: Oh my. One of the big jumps in New York is recognition by the city that you have to protect your watershed, that it’s worth the investment to spend a billion dollars protecting the Catskills and other areas in order to keep the city’s water clean. That’s big and that was a part of the conservation movement. But it’s bigger than even watersheds. I was just up at the Garrison Institute, on the land that OSI helped to protect, and the former monastery has this beautiful stonework, yet the stones are black, pitch black, as black as could be. No lichens were growing anywhere. So it’s a beautiful place, but the rain is rotten, filled with carbon, so that nothing can grow there. The surface of those rocks is so acidic that lichens can’t grow. And people who live there are breathing that air. So what is the role of conservation? To put forth a set of objectives that can work in a new world. We need a Copernican Revolution in thought.
OSI: How do we achieve that?
GW: We have to have a new dream. It really does take a new model of the world. A new set of objectives. A real revolution in how we think about doing what we want to do. We in the conservation world, and in the scientific world, need to work in the public realm with the public interest at heart. The government is totally failing at this. The major objective of humanity is to preserve a functional habitat, and that requires conserving the life of the earth. That has to be a central principle of a government that is established to protect the public interest, which, in the practical sense, depends very heavily on having a place to live that will support a healthy economy. But reaching for a dream is way beyond governmental leaders at present. At this point, the effort needs to come from the public at large, outside government.
I was talking to an officer of the New York City administration recently, who was struggling with the challenge of implementing their green initiatives. But the difference between what they are willing to do and what I say needs to be done are night and day. Night and day! He dismissed me with: “You’re asking the public to sacrifice.” And I said, “No, I’m asking the public to move on to a new world that is much greener, and much healthier, and more fun to live in.”