I was also raised to enjoy, and understand, nature. We had a bird book by the breakfast table so we could identify unusual visitors to our feeder. I took many classes at the local nature center in astronomy, flowers, birds, and, my favorite, insects. We took family vacations to state and national parks, and we always signed up for the interpretive programs. I grew up canoeing the Au Sable and Shiawasseee Rivers.
Being a conservative and a student of nature were never in conflict for me. Later, as I took courses in environmental studies, I came to appreciate the long history of Republican support for nature. As a teen, I read about Teddy Roosevelt and I met Bill Milliken; both are among my heroes. And even as environmental policy has become more partisan in recent years, the basic facts of nature–the science–has always been a non-political touchstone.
The Nature Conservancy’s work starts with science, and for that reason it has been the environmental organization that has received the longest and largest of my financial support, going back to 1983. For over a decade now, I have also had the honor to serve as a trustee of the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. I have seen first hand how science grounds, guides, and challenges the conservation work of this international organization. More than 600 actual living scientists are employed by The Nature Conservancy to understand and protect nature near and far.
For instance, The Nature Conservancy works in the Saginaw Bay watershed to help farmers put in place agricultural practices to reduce polluted run-off and make streams, and the fish who live in them, healthier. A new computer mapping tool allows in-the-field technicians to determine the precise water quality benefits of certain agricultural practices on specific farm fields. The science is complicated, the tool is not. Crop advisors, conservation district staff, and Nature Conservancy scientists can use their tablet or laptop computer to quickly and easily give real-time advice to farmers. To see other examples of how The Nature Conservancy beneficially uses science, read this account from Hugh Possingham, their chief scientist.
The Nature Conservancy has worked hard to stay out of the political fray. Science has been their antidote to, and their defense against, partisan efforts to use conservation causes for political gains. A reliance on facts, research, and the best collective knowledge can help avoid, or at least limit, partisan arguments. Sound science can often form the basis for common agreement among those with differing views.
Two other values of The Nature Conservancy align with their commitment to science: being non-confrontational and pragmatic. A scientific approach to conservation puts the focus on practical solutions that are most likely to achieve a conservation outcome, not necessarily the one that will gain the most political or popular praise. Likewise, confrontation, lawsuits, and public criticism are not likely to lead to the compromises often necessary to address complex environmental challenges.
Science is under attack, unfortunately, and that diminishes the ability of well-meaning conservationists to do their best, non-partisan work. The challenges we face as communities, nations, or the world as a whole have become much more complex and difficult in the last few decades. For instance, water pollution sources used to be easily identified by finding a pipe and then cleaning up the source. Now, pollution flows from the land from a thousand different sources: excess fertilizer in fields, toxic run-off from parking lots, herbicides overused on a lawn. Figuring out the many sources, their relative pollution contributions, and–most importantly–how to clean them up, is now a complicated science exercise.
As scientists work to understand our modern pollution problems, sometimes the answers they come to are not certain, or are difficult to explain, or challenge long-held notions about how human society operates. And, as our environmental challenges become more severe, the responses necessary to solve them demand more from us in financial resources, changes in how we live, or completely new approaches to long-standing business practices. Sometimes, rather than face these difficult policy or moral choices, public and private leaders have chosen to criticize or challenge the science instead.
Often a challenge to the science presented is a good thing. It is the long-standing practice of scientists to critique each others’ work, just as lawyers present the best side of their arguments before a judge. The debate can identify mistakes, lead to new knowledge, or help create alternative solutions. However, in the last few years the science, and the scientists themselves, have come under attack. Our best and brightest thinkers at our most prestigious institutions–universities, research centers, and organizations like The Nature Conservancy–have had their hard-earned knowledge ignored, dismissed, or trashed. Even worse, the commitment, honesty, and good character of the scientists I know have been criticized.
I am joining the Science March in my state Capitol because I want to re-establish science as the bedrock of non-political, bi-partisan conservation efforts. Sadly, many of the special interests that feel threatened by our difficult environmental challenges have aligned themselves with the Republican party, and the attacks the have fomented from a few Republican politicians pain me. Democrats have their own biases and flaws, but the abandonment of science by the majority party leaves me little option but to stand up in the public square and speak up for science-based conservation.
Some will criticize scientists for engaging in public speech this way, and a few years ago I would have agreed with them. However, science has been too quiet, or ineffective in communicating through traditional means, or purposefully ignored. A public protest should not be the only way science seeks to re-establish its voice, but it is a way to start. The issues we face are too serious for science to be silent.
So, I will be there on Earth Day, an event that began as a “teach-in” in 1970, doing what I can to speak up for science, to provide testimony for the conservation solutions we gain from science, and to support the many smart and committed men and women who use science to tackle the serious environmental problems that threaten the ecosystems that sustain us.
I invite you too to stand for Nature and make the pledge to support science.