February 28, 2019
A Thought Leader Series Piece
by Jack Kittinger
We know the challenges we face in conservation. Conservation is about human security — it's about people, communities, families — our children. Globally, we continue to neglect how important nature is to our survival and ability to thrive.
Even as our most pressing environmental problems multiply, our resources to combat them don't keep pace. We strive. We come up short. It's easy to look at the global scale of the challenges we face and feel overwhelmed — to want to give up.
But we don't and we can't.
I've worked in the conservation sector for over a decade — long enough to know that if there is one thing that unites people in this work, it is a sense of urgent optimism. I didn't know exactly how to encapsulate this feeling this until Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris Agreement on climate change, described it in this way.
We see the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it could be, not as a barrier — but as an opportunity. For us there is no other more rewarding work. This is why conservation often feels like more of a vocation than a profession. It requires dedication, perseverance, and sometimes great sacrifice. We can fail a hundred times but if we succeed just once, even in a small way, it is worth it because we have made a difference.
But this kind of transformation is hard, and it does not come without costs. I know people who have sacrificed nearly everything, given their whole lives to this work, just to make sure one species persists, a cultural practice is perpetuated, an acre of forest remains a forest. In the face of the incredible obstacles we face, where does this persistence and resolve come from?
I think it comes from a place that every one of us knows. It comes from home.
What is home?
Home is a place you stumbled upon as you walked your own path. It's where you connected to something that resonated. It's where you discovered something about this beautiful, incredible natural world, and in the process discovered something about yourself. For some of us — it's where we grew up. For others, is further afield. Some of us continue to search for it. It is the reason that kids who grew up hundreds of miles from the ocean have become some of the best marine scientists on the planet. It's the reason a wildlife ranger will risk her life to save an animal's. It is often deeply connected to our culture, our family, and our community. Each and every one of us has a home.
For me, home is a tiny strip of white sand in the outer banks of North Carolina. It's covered in sea oats, dunes, and a few live oak trees. It is uninhabited, and has archaeological sites from its first nations. Hurricanes regularly split it into pieces. This is where I discovered the sea, and where it shaped me. I carry this place wherever I go. Often it carries me.
Home can be disruptive. Insofar as your path leads you away from what matters to you, it will have a way of catching up with you. You will return home. I see this all the time in people who have made radical changes in their lives. They are coming back home, back to what they connected to, back to what is important to them.
When I think about the pressures we are ratcheting up on our blue planet, I think about my home. It may well disappear with rising seas. But it has a way of being resilient, as we must be. The founder of Conservation International, Peter Seligmann, once told me: "We have to have the most impact we can, in the least amount of time, with the resources we have." To do this effectively, we need a diversity of voices, experiences, and cultures, all bringing their connections — their home — to this movement.
Dr. John N. ("Jack") Kittinger is the senior director of the Global Fisheries and Aquaculture Program in Conservation International's Center for Oceans and a professor of practice in Arizona State University’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. Under his leadership, Conservation International works to protect biodiversity and improve the well-being of ocean-dependent communities by implementing sustainable fisheries and aquaculture solutions built on partnerships and investments from ocean to plate.