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Tipping Points for the Environment

In March 2006, Conservation International (CI) held its 10th Los Angeles fundraising dinner. The evening’s program featured Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin as the Master of Ceremonies as well as award-winning author Bill Bryson as the featured speaker.

CI’s chairman and CEO, Peter Seligmann, also spoke to the audience about the need to scale up conservation efforts—to create new “tipping points” for lasting environmental change. We are pleased to present his complete remarks from the evening below.

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What we have to do at Conservation International is challenging. We are really dealing with a global pandemic with threats to this planet, to our climate, to our water and soils, and our health that are real, and they are big and in every country on earth. We have a huge challenge, and what we know from these challenges is that when things go extinct that means they we not able to adjust to the threats and they couldn’t change.

What all of us know in our lives is that it is hard to change behavior. You think about your life and what it’s filled with from car-pooling, to getting food, to going to work. Ninety-nine percent of my life, and I’m sure with your life, is filled with things that you have to do. So how do you fit into that ability to change? And if you don’t change, then where are we going?

We have a real problem. Our challenge at CI is to help figure out how do we change. Luckily, I think what I find inside, and I know that so many of the people that are with me at CI find inside, and that I think many of you have inside, is that you still have that exuberance and energy from your childhood when you didn’t have boundaries and barriers, but you could just do things because no one had yet forced upon you those blockages.

We need to keep that if we are going to be effective in changing, we have to keep that inspiration. And just think about what has been in the news, amidst all the terrible things, what hits the news and goes into every media, is this extraordinary discovery in New Guinea of all places, of this Shangri-La, this Eden, and this enthusiasm that there are 30 new species discovered that no one knew about.

Birds walked into our scientists’ camp in New Guinea early in the morning the day after they set up their tents, and they are looking and saying, “we’ve never seen these animals before.” That is inspiration and that is the positive enthusiasm that turns people on. It’s been in the news for weeks. And if people make jokes about it, they read about it in Science, Time, and Newsweek. So, what we need to do is find out how to hold onto that!

The job at Conservation International is to be able to take things like that and make it bigger. And what we search for in building this organization, we search for tipping points; we have to get to the place where things just move on in the right way—good tipping points, and now I would like to talk to you about three.

● As all of you know, CI for years has looked at all parts of our society as being necessary and included in conservation- and corporations are a key part. Years ago, when we started CI, we started with little endeavors—we made buttons, the Gap and Patagonia sold them, and those buttons came from a fruit that was found in the forest. And from that, it grew into a relationship with Starbucks, working on rainforest shade coffee that employs more than 3000 farmers in three countires. That’s great progress. But what would happen, if the largest corporations on earth decided that their supply chain had to be sustainable? What would happen if we could get to the place where the biggest institutions on this earth said, for our future, we need to have a supply chain that’s sustainable, that our customers want. That would be a tipping point, wouldn’t it?

And what is really encouraging to us is that Rob Walton, Chairman of Wal-Mart and Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, and their entire senior team got the bug. They became enthusiastic and now 65,000 suppliers, and probably about 100,000 or 200,000 additional companies that would like to be suppliers are getting the message that they need to think about environmental sustainability. Now, if that goes the way I hope it will go that could be a tipping point. That’s what we need to be looking for, those types of tipping points.

● At our last CI board meeting, Meredith and Tom Brokaw said to me,

“there’s a guy out in Colorado you need to meet.” His name is Pastor Ted Haggard, and he is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Tom said that I think he understands about the environment. We went to meet him in Colorado Springs, and I had the most fascinating day of my life.

I described this global pandemic, and he said to me, you need to understand something, “I don’t believe in evolution and I don’t believe any new species are being created.” And I said to him, “I can’t even begin to understand that,” but let’s just pretend, let’s assume that you are right. We have a set number and we’re going to lose them, we have one climate, we are going to destroy it, and where does that leave life? And he engaged.

And if you’ve been reading the papers lately, you’ve seen that the National Partnership for Religion and the Environment, consisting of Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Evangelicals are now saying climate change is a real threat. That could be another tipping point. We need to be pushing for those tipping points.

And when you begin to talk to the Faith and to the corporations, what is remarkable is that governments begin to listen. We need to engage governments.

● A few months ago, I went with a few CI board members and some of our staff to visit with U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to talk to her about the global pandemic, specifically to talk to her about the fact that we are dealing with a feeding frenzy for natural resources. India and its growth are demanding resources. China is just demanding resources in a way that is indescribable. The United States and Europe are demanding resources. And when there is a feeding frenzy, there are winners and there are losers. And when there are winners and losers, there is conflict.

And what we spoke to the Secretary about was the need for the United States and China to engage together in thinking about this feeding frenzy and think about sustainability. And now the Secretary has a bilateral commission to address natural resource sustainability between the United States and China. That could be another tipping point.

These are examples as to what we need to do. There is a huge opportunity if we continue to create in all of our hearts and minds this innovation, this search for ideas to break down all the barriers of inactivity—all the barriers that say, well it’s too bad, it’s too late, we can’t do it.

We cannot believe that.

The reason we cannot believe it is because we have children and we have an obligation, and we have one place, this is our home, it’s spectacular, and it’s our earth.

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 Photo credits for banner image: (Zebras in Botswana) © CI, Chris Brooks