Carter Roberts on the wonder of the Brood X cicadas

A wild cicada from Equatorial Guinea

In June of 1970, a young artist stepped to the stage at Princeton University to receive an honorary degree and was so moved by the din of Brood X cicadas in the surrounding sycamores and oaks that he penned the following words to a song he called “Day of the Locusts.”

As I stepped to the stage to pick up my degree
And the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang and they were singing for me

—Bob Dylan*

Cicadas astonish. Scientists believe the prime number 13- and 17-year cycles evolved to avoid more frequent and composite number predator population cycles. Researchers theorize their vast numbers are designed to overwhelm natural predators and ensure their own survival—a strategy known as “predator satiation.”

As for the pulsing sound of billions of creatures singing at once? Turns out they were not really singing to a younger Bob Dylan on that stage in New Jersey. They were using rapidly vibrating, drum-like tymbals on each side of their abdomens to attract mates and repel birds.

I missed Brood X in 1970 since I grew up in Atlanta. And while my hometown had an abundance of cheese straws, pickled okra, and BBQ, there were not billions of locusts singing for me.

I missed Brood X in 1987 since I was in Boston in a generally sleep-deprived state, surviving the end of my first year of business school. Nary a Brood X cicada in sight.

But by 2004 I was married with three kids, and we moved to Maryland, where my wife Jackie had grown up and where she began her career. In February of that year, I started commuting into Washington, DC, for a new job in a building whose front doors were flanked by pandas.

The 2004 Brood X did not disappoint. It was every bit as thunderous and astonishing as it is today. It filled the air with its deafening sound, animated the trees around our house, and decorated the sidewalks in our neighborhood.

WWF did not disappoint either. It offered me abundant opportunities to learn from and work with gifted people to make a difference in the world. Some of our most celebrated programs were well established when I came on board, while others were in their infancy or not yet imagined.

For example, in 2004 WWF worked with the government of Brazil, the World Bank, the Moore Foundation, the Global Environment Facility, and many others in starting the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) initiative. Together, we succeeded in establishing a vast area of parks equal to one and a half times the size of California. It was the world’s largest conservation program but still struggled to raise funds for an endowment to keep the park system intact. Seventeen years later, building on that success, a new approach to performance-based financing had evolved. It reached its consummation in a groundbreaking deal with a syndicate of donors and partners, ensuring that this important work was funded at the level—and for the duration—required. The approach was repeated in Bhutan, Peru, and Colombia. And now, a nascent collaboration with some of the biggest players in conservation and philanthropy is poised to take this promising approach global—more to come in 2022.

In 2004, truly community-based, inclusive conservation was cherished but rare. It was cherished when it worked—as in Namibia and Nepal—but not understood as fundamental to lasting conservation success on a global scale. That understanding has evolved, and today we have far deeper and broader systems to make sure communities have the seat at the table that they deserve. And in this past year we have pioneered the creation of new positions and commitments that ensure communities are the main protagonists and beneficiaries of conservation where we work and that their voices guide the work we do.

Seventeen years ago, WWF’s Science program began to pivot from the “where” to the “how.” It moved from mapping and setting conservation priorities to building greater understanding of the complex systems of place, and to devising creative approaches to create the right interventions to keep those complex systems intact. We’ve begun implementing standards for greening supply chains; understanding the relationship between nature and human health; and devising innovations to meet the needs of a growing population while restoring nature, stabilizing climate, and so much more.

Seventeen years ago, our work with business focused on making commodity supply chains more sustainable through certification systems like the Marine Stewardship Council and the Forest Stewardship Council. Almost two decades later, we now partner with more than 100 companies to transform their networks of suppliers, partners, consumers, and employees into powerful forces for good. For example, more than 1,000 businesses are working with our Science-Based Targets initiative to reduce their emissions in line with climate science. And now hundreds of millions of corporate dollars are being invested in nature-based solutions, and we’re partnering with companies like McDonald’s and Walmart to launch platforms for their suppliers to deliver massive emissions reductions and restore the nature upon which we all depend.

Brood X will return in 2038. I wonder what our world will look like then? Without the right interventions, it could all go terribly awry. Even the cicadas require undisturbed soil for their long hibernation, and that’s an increasingly rare commodity in the world today. But I have faith that we, with others, hold it in our collective power to deliver a different outcome.

Perhaps the biggest change over the past 17 years has been the advance of technology in conservation. Digitalization, social media, and real-time information are helping us to better monitor forests and oceans, and the activities of legal—and illegal—operators in those spaces. Technologies can help analysts behind desks keep watch over fishing fleets and trace seafood products throughout the supply chain. Satellite and radar imaging track land-use changes, shifts in forest canopy cover, soil carbon, methane emissions, and more. The application of handheld devices, miniature drones, smartphones, and thermal imaging helps us track animals, detect poachers, and guide authorities to intervene at a speed and scale that works. The possibilities are truly endless and extend to all aspects of our work.

Brood X will return in 2038. I wonder what our world will look like then. Impossible to know for sure. Without the right interventions, it could all go terribly awry. Even the cicadas require undisturbed soil for their long hibernation, and that’s an increasingly rare commodity in the world today. But I have faith that we, with others, hold it in our collective power to deliver a different outcome, and my money is on a more optimistic view.

In 17 years, I expect we will have bent the curve on greenhouse gas emissions and witnessed the rise of new industries that make it easier for us to live sustainable lives. If we do our jobs right, new technologies will measure the impacts of our choices on the planet and create greater accountability to help individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments do the right thing.

By 2038, I am certain the world will worry as much about the loss of nature as it does about climate change. Governments, corporations, and individuals equally will have become engines for green energy and the restoration of nature. Our interim emergency work on stemming the loss of nature, and protecting what we can, will begin to be supplanted by positive systemic forces that place the deepest value on nature, so that it becomes an intrinsic part of our currency and our cultures.

Within 17 years, our work will have evolved from protection to restoration. The world will have blown past terrestrial and marine protection targets of 30% and be well on the way to 40%. The majority of that increase will come through greater benefits, rights, and support for Indigenous peoples and local communities and their increased ability to sustainably manage and safeguard their natural resources. There will no longer be an active WWF presence in many landscapes where we work today. Instead, the only evidence that we were there at all will be the vibrant communities, strong local leadership, and solid local institutions that safeguard nature because they rightly see it as the foundation for their lives.

I hope that the deep divisions in our country, and in the world for that matter, will have diminished and that people will learn to listen to each other, to cherish our differences, and to cooperate. I hope that our political parties will replace mutual disdain with respect, meet in the middle to solve the greatest problems of the day, and build far more sustainable and inclusive educational, health care, and economic systems.

Finally, 17 years from now, I hope my grandchildren will have the chance to benefit from a stable climate and an intact planet. I hope they will experience the wonders of the natural world, including Brood X, and that there are still such massive swarms that they will understand why groups of cicadas are called a cloud. And I hope they are able to bear witness, as Dylan did, to why singing cicadas are called a chorus.

*Dylan shared the common misapprehension that the periodical cicada is a type of locust. It is not. Locusts are a type of short-horned grasshopper and belong to the order Orthoptera, along with all other grasshoppers and crickets, while cicadas are Hemipterans, which are considered “true bugs” and include aphids and planthoppers. Hey, even Dylan makes mistakes.

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