Peter Seligmann Has Taken His Own Advice

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In honor of earth day, glassybaby’s giving color craft blog is publishing this brief profile of Peter Seligmann, founder and C.E.O. of one of the world’s most effective environmental organizations: Conservation International.

Lucky people have a certain epiphany at some point in their lives, when they realize: “This is what I love. This is what I was born to do.” The good luck required to have this epiphany is fairly common. What is uncommon is the courage and curiosity to follow that passion without relent. People with this type of curiosity and courage are the ones through whom world-changing energy can flow.

Peter Seligmann has an early memory of sitting in a puddle. He was harnessed at the waist, splashing about, and thinking, in a pre-linguistic way, how cool everything was. There were ridges and trees, fluffy clouds drifting through blue, and the feeling of water on his skin. Later, this impression would be put into context by Peter’s parents. He was two years old on a family vacation in the alps, waist leashed because he was apt, even back then, to explore. There was so much to see, and so much to learn.

Eleven years later, another memory, more sunshine, more green, water flowing slowly through an irrigation ditch that he opened and closed for a summer job in a high Wyoming valley. I love this, he realized. I always have. I am alive to work with nature.

This premise led Peter on a winding path of experiences. He attended Rutgers Agricultural School, worked on Grizzly bear field biology back in Wyoming, and then got his Master’s Degree at the Yale School of Forestry. Some time during this period, Peter realized that the nature he loved was threatened. Nature needed help and protection. He tweaked his reason for being: I am alive to help and protect nature.

He worked for years at the Nature Conservancy, until a difference in philosophies spurred he and several others to break off and form a new organization, Conservation International.

Species of living things are not distributed evenly over the surface of the earth. In general, the closer you get to the equator, the more different species you will find. This is especially true near the Amazon, the Congo, and on the jungle islands of Australasia. These areas have many more species of animals, insects, and plants than the rest of the earth’s land combined. In biological parlance, they are extremely biodiverse.

A founding principle of Conservation International (C.I.) was that hotspots of biodiversity are important to protect. C.I. worked with governments and cultures of all kinds, from Charles Taylor in Liberia to the Kayapó people of the Amazon basin’s most remote jungles. Peter developed a wide network of donors and scientists. He brought all of these people together with the goal of preserving the world’s ecological treasures.

C.I. was correct to consider biodiversity extremely important. Consider the Amazon rainforest, which generates clouds and rainfall to support hydropower and agriculture for 30 million people. Much of the Amazon’s water (and carbon) is stored in enormous trees such as mahogany. The interesting thing about these gorgeous trees is that their seeds can only sprout and grow after being eaten and digested by a tapir, the Amazon’s largest animal. This highlights a general truth about nature: if one element of the ecosystem (such as the tapir, which is endangered) goes down, then the entire system’s ability to benefit mankind is threatened.

C.I. executed their strategy. There were some major successes, such as the creation of some of the world’s largest nature preserves in Suriname, Brazil, Indonesia and the South Pacific — but the victories were dwarfed by the inexorable trend of global development. The rates of species extinction were accelerating. Enormous swathes of rainforest were being torched and converted to soy, palm oil and cattle fields. Ocean life was overfished, choked by plastic debris, and atrophied by warmer, more acid waters.

While C.I. was succeeding at their strategy, they were failing to accomplish the goal that motivated Peter all along, to help and protect nature. Many leaders of organizations as large as C.I. would have exhibited denial or despondence when confronted with this fact. Some environmental groups continue to dig in, trying to protect exquisite (a word Peter loves) natural areas that are free from humans’ unholy influence, viewing development as the enemy, fighting a battle that they will inevitably lose. But under Peter’s leadership, C.I. adapted. They developed a new strategy and a new focus with which to use their excellent funding and networks. This new ethos came with a tagline, “People need nature to thrive.”

Notice the first word in this environmentalist credo: ‘people.’ The statement is a recognition that environmentalism is an humanistic movement. It always has been. Even in the wilderness raptures of John Muir, the human is central. The mountains are calling me. Spending time in unspoiled nature fills a hundred subtle voids in the human soul. Simply the knowledge that the Grand Canyon still has a river at its bottom, and not a lake behind a dam, is reason to rejoice.

During the last century and a half, these last three beliefs only convince a minority of people in western culture. A lot of people couldn’t care less about natural ecosystems, biodiverse or not.
C.I.’s new focus expanded the paradigm of environmentalism. It implies that all people need nature. Everyone. From Manhattan to Yosemite to Papua New Guinea. We need natural ecosystems to thrive not just to fulfill ineffable needs of the soul, but also for reasons that we can describe with quantitative precision: this much intact forest sequesters that much carbon. This wetland cleans water for that many people to drink.

In this new paradigm, economic development is not necessarily evil. “There are two ways of looking at it,” says Peter. “One is, development is greed and it eats everything. And in a certain sense that’s true. But the other side is, development has provided prosperity and security for a billion families.”
And on top of that, development is not going to abate in the foreseeable future, certainly not on behalf of endangered ecosystems and species, which can’t vote or own stock in a corporation. And yet, development must change. The health of ecosystems must be a factor in development decisions.

So Peter approached the leaders of several companies that drive global development. Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, mining and agriculture interests, all traditional enemies of environmentalists. He talked to the leaders of these companies about climate change and ecosystem services, he discussed the perils described in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, he brought them to visit pristine and imperiled forests and rivers. He began to persuade business leaders that the future of their businesses depends on nature’s health.

Many environmentalists saw this as betrayal. Some employees quit C.I. To them, the new strategy was capitulation. But many people stayed, inspired by Peter’s leadership, convinced that the new strategy would have more impact than the old.

In person, Peter gives off a grounded, optimistic energy. He often whistles as he walks from one room to another. He flies from one hemisphere to the next and rises at dawn without missing a beat, and he laughs often. He is happy in his work.
That work is beginning to pay off. Wal-Mart now requires suppliers to prove that they don’t cause deforestation or unsustainable overfishing. McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the government of Rwanda have committed to the sustainable coffee challenge, a program that seeks to make coffee the world’s first truly sustainable trade good.

C.I. still protects large swathes of natural land and ocean. Recently, C.I. was instrumental in protecting the world’s most biodiverse marine area, the 9 million-acre bird’s head region in Indonesia. At 2015’s climate conference in Paris, C.I. championed the idea that nature is “30% of the solution” to climate change. In other words, we need to not only change our energy systems away from fossil fuels, we must also stop destroying forests and fisheries. We must be more efficient and effective at growing food on farmland we already have, and we must work hard to reforest and restore degraded ecosystems.

Two other facets of C.I.’s strategy impact and involve a vast range of people. One is an awareness campaign. In an ongoing video series called “Nature is Speaking,” the world’s most famous actors speak in character as one or another natural force. With a menacing growl, Harrison Ford warns us that he, the ocean, once covered nearly all of the earth, and if humans keep acting the way they are now, he might cover it all again.

Historically, the human victims of global economic development have been indigenous peoples all around the world. But even now, those cultures are still the main inhabitants of at least 25% of the earth’s land surface. The ecosystems within that 25% are the world’s healthiest, most biodiverse, and valuable in terms of ecosystem services (clean water and carbon). C.I. has a long history of working with indigenous peoples that continues to this day: in the vast rangelands of northern Kenya, C.I. has recently partnered with the nomadic Samburu people to help protect elephant populations. An elephant orphanage, an upscale safari camp, an anti-poaching training program, and a crackdown on international ivory gangs all help to re-align the economic incentives for the Samburu, because in the long-(and now, with C.I.’s help, the short-) term, a living elephant is much more valuable than the tusks of a dead one.

For Peter, partnering with indigenous cultures is not just about protecting the ecosystems with which they live. It’s also about learning.
“The attitude of western culture has always been, okay, we’re going to impose our values and our economics on this land, because we’re superior, and you’ll have to adapt,” says Peter. “We’ve done everything to these people except listen. And so what we try to do is to listen. Because when you do, you realize that indigenous people are part of nature, deeply and consciously. They know all the plants in the jungle and know which to use for food, for medicine, for contraceptives, for poison, for shelter, and on and on. They have a lot to teach us about living on the earth, if we listen.”

Remember C.I.’s credo: People need nature to thrive. The genius of the sentence is that it contains two meanings. One is that people need for nature to thrive. Nature must thrive. The other meaning is that people need nature in order to thrive. We need nature, we need contact and communication with nature, if we ourselves want to thrive. Both nature and humanity must thrive.

During the next year, Peter will be leading a new initiative designed to empower indigenous cultures with a louder voice and greater influence. Working to help and protect these people is a logical next step on his winding path toward the goal of helping and protecting nature.

Peter tells a story about sitting on the plane beside David Packard, one of the innovative computer engineers who founded Hewlett-Packard, and wondering why his attempts at conversation were falling flat. Packard didn’t say a word except for single-syllable responses to Peter’s questions. When they landed, Peter asked Dave why he hardly spoke.
“I never learned much by talking,” said Packard.

“That guy,” says Peter, “Was an absolute master of listening. And learning.”

Peter himself is rarely short of words, particularly on the subject of environmental protection. But he also knows how to listen. “The most foolish thing you could ever think,” he says, “Is that you’re the smartest person in the room.”

And yet, you are often the only one who can know what it is that you’re supposed to do. I asked Peter what advice he would offer to a young person who wanted to protect nature and didn’t know where to start.
“Start small, follow your strengths and skills,” Peter says, “And don’t let your passion get buried. Always listen to your passion, and let that guide every single decision you make.”
Since age 2, Peter Seligmann has taken his own advice.