- Issue: Winter 2021
When I first joined the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts in 1989, I made the long drive from Boston to the Berkshires nearly every week. I’d pull up in a beautiful watershed called Schenob Brook, small but precious, with a clutch of plants and animals rare in all the world and a wonderful community of people who cared about it.
The scientists I joined there pulled out maps showing calcareous fens, showy lady’s slippers, land titles, and threats. Together, we made plans to secure the mapped properties one by one. I think the first land deal we did in Schenob was all of 23 acres—but it was a vital part of a systematic plan to keep the place whole and flourishing. Thousands of acres of the watershed were protected because of a community that joined arms to save a place they loved.
Decades later, we know nature and humanity are far more intertwined, and far more at risk, than we ever imagined. The security of the entire world is in jeopardy, with the undeniable march of climate change, the accelerating loss of nature, and the erosion of the benefits that a stable climate and undiminished nature provide.
Over time, I’ve come to cherish conservation solutions that consider the entirety of a place—its ecology, culture, economy, and politics—and that unleash the political, cultural, and financial might of communities, nations, and markets. This kind of work rests on learning and partnerships. When I look at the history of conservation, some relevant models come to mind.
I think of the 32 water funds that the Nature Conservancy has created across Latin America to protect forested watersheds that provide drinking water for 50 million people.
I think of the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund created by Conservation International to build local capacity in 25 biodiversity hotspots around the world.
I think of the U.S. Beyond Coal campaign that the Sierra Club and Bloomberg built together, which has accelerated the retirement of 318 out of 530 coal-fired power plants in the United States.
I also think of certification programs (such as the Forest Stewardship Council) and science-based targets that WWF has built with partners to drive sustainable production of major commodities.
Freshest in my mind is Project Finance for Permanence (PFP), an innovative approach to securing full permanent funding for conservation areas. These efforts look at the protected and conserved areas of a whole country—or a whole region, like the Brazilian Amazon—to identify gaps in representation and financial support and then create a plan to finance those national systems of parks and Indigenous reserves in perpetuity.
The PFP model has been launched in Costa Rica, Bhutan, Peru, Colombia, the Brazilian Amazon, and Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, covering close to 247 million acres of irreplaceable landscapes. Now we are working closely with leading foundations, the Nature Conservancy, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and members of the Walton family to do far more.
In all of these examples, institutions went beyond making commitments in a snappy announcement; over time, they designed powerful mechanisms for conservation, then stayed with those mechanisms year after year, scaling them up in coalition with others. Commitments matter, but execution also matters. We will be marshaling our assets and forging radical relationships that bring together the collective energy of some of the world’s largest conservation groups to support communities and governments in executing the plans and delivering the goods to make those commitments come to life.
All of these efforts bring to the table unique skills and partnerships that can contribute to keeping natural places intact. Getting to that goal requires an approach called “systems-level thinking.” I also call it the ability to learn in a profoundly multidisciplinary way and to connect the dots between the relevant sectors.
That ability is where the good stuff lies. Whether the place is a jewel of a watershed in the Berkshires or a vast and complex system like the Amazon, keeping it whole is fundamental to the stability of our climate and the future of life on Earth.
President and CEO