Research News

CERC Conference: Sustaining Life, Securing Our Future

2011-03-11

On March 1, 2011, the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) hosted the “Sustaining Life, Securing Our Future” symposium celebrating the diversity of life on Earth, attended by approximately 300 people from the academic and civic community. The symposium began with introductions by Nancy Degnan, executive director, who underscored the message of the conference. “We can think better, do better and utilize better. Through science and systems thinking, we can become more informed and more capable stewards of the Earth and life upon it.” Shahid Naeem, director of science, made opening remarks in which he laid out some of the current challenges to sustainability as a result of human activities. “Many envy our dominance of the planet … but somewhere close to half our population isn’t doing so well.” He also observed that “nature’s built-in resiliency” has something to teach us all about how we pursue sustainable development in a changing global environment.

The day’s panels were filled with professionals and academics from a broad range of institutions and organizations focusing on the challenges of food security, ecosystem maintenance, urbanization, integration of biodiversity into markets and the inherent problems of attempting to scale up from local to global efforts. Degnan chaired the panel on the role of educators in moving the sustainability agenda forward.

A number of key themes emerged repeatedly, with speakers presenting new counterintuitive perspectives on urbanization. On the one hand, according to Matthew Palmer, a member of the faculty of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) at Columbia University, if you have people all over the world living in denser pockets, then you spare the rest of the land from the negative effects of human settlement. On the other hand, there is a growing population that may never have seen and possibly doesn’t have reason to care about the wilderness. But environmental groups need the city people behind their causes because the city population votes and has the financial resources to put toward sustainability causes. Therefore it has become increasingly important to educate city dwellers to the point that they start caring about outlying ecosystems. According to Palmer, it is best to start with what he calls the Pigeon Paradox—teach people to appreciate whatever is worth appreciating about the local bird that city-dwellers know best—and focus on parks and other parts of the urban-dwellers’ immediate experience of nature. Only when people begin to have a better appreciation of nature in their immediate surroundings can they be stretched to have a wider conservation perspective.

The afternoon panel on education looked at other aspects of the challenge to educate urban dwellers about issues of sustainability. Minosca Alcantara, the associate director of education programs at CERC, talked about a different urban paradox: having children familiar with the Grand Canyon and other remote famous natural places through 3-D website renditions, but at the same time totally ignorant of the ecosystem in and around the city in which they live. Children learn in school that there is run off in the cornfields of the Midwest but are ignorant of the fact that cities have serious run-off problems as well. The consensus among panel members was that as long as environmental education is absent from the basic school curriculum, environmental literacy will remain a minor area of study.

Jon Paul Rodriguez, an associate professor of the Center for Ecology of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations, discussed a successful approach to increasing popular awareness about sustainability issues. His organization publishes a series of widely available best-selling “red books” that depict the endangered species of Venezuela to raise awareness. The campaign to keep the need for biodiversity in front of the public was recently given a further boost when the government of Venezuela decided to decorate their paper currency with images of the threatened species. So now, every Venezuelan has the threatened species “in their pockets” and is reminded multiple times a day about the job that the whole population has ahead of it if they are to remain proud stewards of their wildlife.

Panelists had varying opinions on the threat of climate and environmental change. Jim Miller, dean and vice president for science with the International Plant Science Center of the New York Botanical Gardens, expressed a cataloguer’s anxiety that the race is on to find the 70,000 to 80,000 species not yet identified in a time of unprecedented extinction. His belief is that we need to finish listing all the species so we know what exists before so many more go extinct. On the more optimistic side of the discussion was Cheryl Palm, who pointed out that many ecosystems that we label “degraded” are actually amazingly resilient. Perhaps there won’t be the same level of biodiversity, but what survives can serve important functions. Agricultural landscapes offer “ecosystem services,” such as performing the role of denitrification to avoid run off into streams.

One of the day’s highlights was Jeffrey D. Sachs’ compelling keynote address, in which he stressed the importance of combining sound science, global reach and education by creating international science-based alliances and networks. He pointed out that CERC is well positioned for such a task. The day’s symposium seemed to suggest many new collaborative alliances between researchers who were brought together by the conference. Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, offered the closing remarks to a very rich day.

For further information or for updates on the digitization of the conference, please contact:
Rita Ricobelli
Deputy Director
rricobelli@ei.columbia.edu