Learning to Swim

To save nature, we can’t be scared of the deep end

I was born in Sri Lanka, a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean. When I was a young boy, my grandmother took me to an astrologer to have my head read, an island tradition similar to palm reading in Western cultures. The verdict: I was going to die by drowning. My grandmother — and the entire community — did what in her eyes was the sensible thing: She insisted that I stay away from water. And my mother agreed, as was expected of her; she didn’t want to be seen as a bad mother. For many years, I was not allowed to go in the ocean.

We later moved to West Africa. And there, away from the pressures of family and community, my mother took a daring step: She taught me to swim. Instead of trying to avoid danger, she wanted me to confront it. She wanted to give me a fighting chance. And her decision completely changed the course of my life.

In talking about environmental issues today, it’s easy to feel like my grandmother felt. The death of the natural world has been foretold. It is tempting to turn away, to keep it all at arm’s length. But with more intense disasters — from fires to floods to hurricanes — nature is screaming at us to act. Facing this challenge, I, for one, want to be like my mother: I want to give Earth a fighting chance. Here’s how we start.

Move from love to value

I’m going to venture that if you’re reading this, your relationship with nature is about love. From the time I was a child I loved nature, which is what drove me to study conservation biology. And while love is a wonderful, powerful thing, love alone isn’t enough. For most of the planet, it comes down to value. If you want to scale conservation, you have to make the value of nature evident and quantifiable to the people who interact with it every day.

On the coast of Brazil near the mouth of the Amazon River, Conservation International is helping communities sustainably catch crabs by hand in the mud around mangrove forests. To sustain healthy populations of these crabs, local fishers agree to catch them when they’re a certain size and not during breeding season. In return, Conservation International has provided this community with the capability to tag and track each crab from swamp to table. Working with some of the top chefs in Brazil, restaurants are willing to pay a premium to know where their crab comes from. This gives the community an added incentive to sustain their crab fishery for the long run.

But there is another benefit to this work, one buried deep in the mud of the mangroves. In this one small community, the 2,000-hectare patch of mangroves they rely upon stores an amount of carbon equal to 1.5 million cars driving for one year. Protecting this place is a win-win-win — for the community, for nature and for all of us. We can scale this example to promote a stable climate: There are 15 million hectares of mangroves around the world, and despite representing less than 1 percent of all tropical forests, they account for 20 percent of carbon emissions from tropical deforestation.

Upend entrenched, unjust systems

The ultimate injustice is climate change — caused by the richest one billion, felt by everyone else. But inequality is pervasive. Africa faces huge challenges — including in South Africa, a nation with 55 percent youth unemployment and the highest level of inequality in the world. South Africa is also one of the planet’s most biodiverse countries, hosting 10 percent of the world’s plant diversity, plus the Big 5: elephants, lions, leopards, rhinoceroses and Cape buffalos.

Ironically, the key to saving these iconic African species may start with caring about cows. In the poor communities surrounding the famous Kruger National Park, the threat of disease transfer from wildlife to cows means herders are prohibited from selling cattle outside their communities, the latest in a long history of how these impoverished communities disproportionately pay for nature. Through CI’s Meat Naturally program, we’re working to correct this injustice by disrupting the traditional cattle market with a mobile butchery and new relationships with Kruger National Park. In partnership with the park and private tourist lodges, CI’s venture enables local herders to sell their meat for a profit — an opportunity that had long been closed to them.

As part of the partnership, the community trains and hires “eco-rangers,” who improve rangelands by cutting back invasive species and instituting rotational grazing plans. Some 300 eco-rangers have already restored and improved an area larger than Yosemite National Park. The opportunity is huge to expand this model across the continent’s rangelands, which cover 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa. If these rangelands are not managed sustainably, people and wildlife will suffer.

Focus on the messenger

The message is as important as the messenger, if not more important. Dr. Ramanathan, a noted atmospheric scientist and personal friend, was named to the Vatican’s scientific advisory council for his expertise in climate change. One day, he received a message that Pope Francis wanted to meet him. Dr. Ramanathan prepared and memorized a scientific speech in Spanish, the Pope’s native language. But when the time came to talk to Pope Francis, he was rushed out onto the Vatican grounds to greet the Pope — literally a parking-lot pitch.

Caught off guard, Dr. Ramanathan forgot his scientific speech and his Spanish. Switching to English, he instead spoke simply and from the heart. He explained to Pope Francis that climate change is a moral issue, not a scientific one. He said that as one of the world’s moral authorities, the Pope had a unique opportunity to speak out on the issue. The next day, Pope Francis tweeted for the first time about climate change, the first in a long string of advocacy. As a result, pollsters recorded a bump among Catholics in their understanding and opinions of climate change. Political scientists call this the “Francis Effect.”

You can each create your own “Francis Effect” in your circles of influence. People listen to their neighbors, their families, their coworkers. All of you have communities that I could never reach, and so all of you have the power to be a messenger. You don’t need to be a scientist to talk about nature, and you’re much more likely to influence people who trust you.

Navigating toward a better future

It may feel discouraging these days to focus on climate and nature. But we can take a dose of inspiration from our Pacific Island neighbors, the greatest explorers humanity has ever known. Pacific Island nations are uniquely connected to the ocean, tracing their origins to the ancient art of voyaging in ocean-going canoes known as vakas. Before the wheel, before the compass or maps, these pioneers traversed thousands of miles of blue ocean, attempting to hit vanishingly small islands. To do this, they turned to nature, observing the color of the water, marine wildlife, winds and stars to find their way.

These navigators of the past are once again showing the way, with international leadership on climate change and a historic push to establish large-scale ocean conservation areas. Their perseverance gives me hope.

I recently had the chance to sail on one of these traditional voyaging vakas. On board these traditionally built canoes, you realize very quickly that there is little separating you from the water below. Peering through the boat’s planks into the blue deep, I thought of the choice my mother made years ago to teach me to swim. Even now, these many years later, her action was protecting me from fate, giving me the best possible chance to survive. She took on an enormous risk because she knew it was right, and in doing so she opened a new world to me.

The death of our natural world has been foretold. What are you going to do about it?

I say, we all learn to swim.