I helped put nature conservation on the global agenda. But now I fear for Earth’s future. Will the next generation save us from disaster?

Weve made progress protecting Earth So why am I gloomy

Climate change, conceptual illustration (Photo by SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via AP Images)

This story by News Decoder correspondent Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is adapted from his latest book, A Conservation Notebook, published in March 2022.

Are you optimistic about the future of our natural world?

If you had asked me this question four decades ago when I joined World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, I would have given you my most earnest smile and said “Sure, it won’t be easy, but if we work together …”

Today I’m not so sure.

By many measures, the people of the world have succeeded in mainstreaming environmental concerns. You could argue a case that we are winning the battle to save nature.

Consider the good news:

  • The nations of the world have agreed to more than 1,300 multi-lateral environmental agreements and more than 2,200 bilateral treaties.
  • Most countries have significant laws protecting nature, as well as cabinet-level ministers of environment.
  • Several countries include rights ensuring environmental quality in their national constitutions.
  • Some 32 countries have formally recognized non-human animal sentience.
  • The number of independent non-governmental groups working to protect nature has risen exponentially in the past two decades.
  • Countless individuals work tirelessly, and often at personal risk, to save the environment — true “Conservation Heroes,” or, in United Nations-speak, “Environmental Defenders.”
  • The Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and other industry groups have been created to provide certification for sustainably-produced products and food.
  • River restoration works: Prominent examples include the Thames river in England and the Singapore river, where otters now flourish in the middle of a bustling urban setting.
  • Conservationists regularly team up with economists, development aid officials and captains of industry to develop innovative and sophisticated methods of saving nature.
  • David Attenborough, an English broadcaster, biologist and natural historian, is Britain’s most trusted person, and high-quality nature programs that focus on environmental issues, such as his for the BBC, are appreciated worldwide.
  • Our children and grandchildren are significantly more environmentally aware than I was at their age.
  • Thousands of universities offer degrees in environmental science and similar disciplines.
  • People are increasingly choosing to buy local, eat less meat and more organic produce, reduce plastic consumption, drive electric cars and follow a “healthy nature, healthy me” lifestyle.
  • In many countries, people are increasingly concerned about environmental issues such as climate change.
  • Green technology works and is getting better.
  • Terms such as “carbon footprint,” eco-friendly,” “green economy,” “biodiversity,” “ecocide” and “corporate and personal responsibility” have been mainstreamed.

Environmental disasters hit us daily.

And yet, and yet …

I feel like we in the conservation movement are doomed to push a green boulder a few meters up a hill only to lose control and watch it tumble. Eco-Sisyphus takes one step forward, two steps back.

Sobering environmental news hits us daily. As I finished writing my latest book, A Conservation Notebook, in March, reports in most world newspapers read “Amazon Reaching Point of No Return.” This news joined hundreds of other doom-and-gloom reports from around the world.

Many environmental disasters never make it to the front pages of the Western media. But for one example, search for environmental news about Tonle Sap, in Cambodia.

The broad strokes are startling:

  • We are losing species to the point where conservationists have said we are in the Sixth (or Anthropocene) Extinction phase of Earth’s existence, the most serious loss of biodiversity since the Fifth Extinction some 60 million years ago when dinosaurs died out.
  • Virtually all biomes are under threat — forests, watersheds and rivers, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs, lakes, savannas and peat bogs.
  • Climate change is accelerating and likely to continue.
  • The oceans are being over-fished and clogged with plastic waste.
  • While there are numerous efforts to move away from fossil fuels, fossil-fuel energy sources, such as oil and coal, remain essential to provide electricity worldwide.
  • Pollution of air and water threatens the lives of millions.
  • Many countries hesitate to buy into the climate change agenda and push ahead with expansion of coal-energy projects.

I find it exhausting and depressing just writing these few lines.

Can young conservationists save us from climate calamity?

In 1981, I was offered arguably the best job on the planet: head of creative development at WWF International, based outside Geneva, Switzerland. Shortly after I joined, we launched a groundbreaking campaign to raise funds to protect the giant panda, which was, and still is, WWF’s well-recognized logo.

This effort required delicate diplomacy by my colleagues to catalyze an embryonic official conservation movement in China, then a rather closed and semi-xenophobic state. We called it Panda Diplomacy, in recognition of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” a few years earlier.

We created worldwide visibility of the plight of rainforests, then the need to protect plants and wetlands. We latched on to the then poorly known concept of biological diversity and generated awareness of the importance of maintaining a complex living natural world. I had the privilege of consulting some of the great conservation thinkers.

With our partners, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Programme, WWF co-authored and launched in 1980 the World Conservation Strategy, a landmark document that introduced the concept of sustainable development, the idea that a society cannot develop over the long run without protecting and valuing its natural resources.

When I joined WWF, I had a single major objective: Get nature conservation on the global agenda. This was my goal, but it was never stated in my contract, my job description or consciously articulated by my supervisors. In this, we largely succeeded.

I’m now 75, and, as they say, “over the hill and picking up speed.” Am I optimistic? No. Ask any senior conservationist if he or she is optimistic. The initial answer is likely to be, “Maybe, if such-and-such happens and so-and-so does this and so-and-so doesn’t do that.” After you get to know the person, and after an evening of wine and talk, you might get a more pessimistic prognosis. Try it.

However, if — and this is a big if — you ask the same question of young, keen conservationists, you might get an answer full of hope. And maybe youthful enthusiasm will prove my aging, perhaps outdated, experience wrong. Maybe these new-bloods can change the agenda. We started the action — now it’s up to others to finish it.

My hope: In a few decades, when we are safely up in heaven, playing beach volleyball and writing novels that win the Heavenly Pulitzer Prize, we will look down on Earth and say: By golly, we were wrong. Our descendants were smarter than we were. They took care of the problem and solved the challenges we whined about.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Are you optimistic?
  2. If not, which group bears primary responsibility for nature conservation — individuals, politicians, businesspeople, scientists or non-profit organizations?
  3. What specific actions would you like to see taken? (Don’t be general and say something like “reduce pollution” or “save the rainforest” or “reverse climate change.” Suggest precise actions and identify who should implement those points.)
Paul Sochaczewski

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski graduated from George Washington University and served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. He lived in Southeast Asia for 15 years, then moved to Switzerland where he was head of Creative Services at World Wildlife Foundation International. He has written 20 books and more than 600 by-lined articles in publications including News Decoder, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Travel and Leisure. He gives presentations about Wallace, and other subjects, worldwide. He is French-American and lives in Geneva, Switzerland.

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