Marrying science and art in forest conservation with Martha Stevenson

Martha Stevenson selfie

My work on global forests originates in my love for the specific forests that I call home: the mesmerizing oaks and bearded hemlocks of rural Pennsylvania, where I spent my childhood, and the majestic black walnuts and cucumber magnolias of Shakerag Hollow in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I attended college. As with anything that is worthy of our love, much about these forests—not to mention nature in general—is beyond our understanding. For me, the traditions and languages of science and art offer parallel pathways for exploring these mysteries.

At WWF, I bring both science and art to our strategies to conserve the world’s most important forests. To do this, I use a tool shared by the two fields: abstraction (or stripping a complex system down into its simple parts to try to understand it better).

Working with scientific colleagues, I ask: What is the carbon density of the forest? How many species are in this forest, and how many members of each species? What are the major threats to this forest? How many people depend on it? The answers to these questions produce data that help us understand the forest numerically. But we lose information when we abstract. So, while numbers may inform our decision-making, they will never perfectly describe the natural environment and its governing rules and laws.

That’s why I also engage artist collaborators who ask questions like these: How does a growing tree sound? What does smog taste like? Can a poem change our connection to a landscape? This is to ensure that we connect with places through more than just data.

Thus science and art teach us the humility of never expecting our forest interventions to work exactly as planned, even as they help us understand something about the forest we would have missed otherwise.

Most recently, my team and I have been working on translating global sustainability goals related to nature and climate into actionable steps for corporations, cities, and other entities. For example, we work on translating the “well below 2 degrees” goal of the Paris Agreement into science-based targets for companies in the forest, food, and agriculture sectors. And we’re developing methods for companies to support global biodiversity targets in line with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Our hope is that if we have everyone driving toward the same target—doing their share and a little bit more—then we have a chance of creating desirable futures for our children and helping nature thrive.

“Science and art teach us the humility of never expecting our forest interventions to work exactly as planned.”

Martha Stevenson
Senior Director, Forests Strategy and Research

Some of our partners are motivated by climate action and some by action on nature—and the convergence is in the “doing.” A climate-positive and nature-positive future will look different in every place: It might mean protecting the central Amazon from deforestation or revitalizing secondary forests in the Mekong region to ensure local needs are met. My job is to make sure that actions by citizens, cities, companies, and countries are aligned in support of global goals for climate and nature. And I use the tools of science and art to inspire these groups toward action.

My partner, Jason, and I also discuss our family’s contribution to the global goals and how to celebrate them at home. Driven by science, we’ve invested in solar panels, built a rooftop vegetable garden, and prioritized biking as our main mode of transportation. On the artistic side, we’ve sewn a UN Sustainable Development Goals flag for the front of our house. And we spend countless hours teaching our daughter Sylvia (whose name means “spirit of the forest”) the natural wonders of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park—from the smooth bark of an American beech to the flash of a belted kingfisher.

At WWF, I aspire to leave this institution better than I found it—to grow our ideas and each other, to learn from other sectors, to elevate women and diverse voices, to strengthen our problem-solving on large-scale environmental issues—so WWF can grow to have even more impact over the next 60 years. My Twitter bio says it all: “to grow family, plants, institutions, and ideas.”

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