Animal instincts: Can we harness human nature to do good for the world?
As a budding ecologist, I often struggle with the Yeti-sized carbon footprint I create when traveling to faraway field sites. Research in Hawaii last summer entailed a three-hour car ride to the airport, a six-hour flight to Honolulu, a 45-minute flight to Hilo, and then half-hour car rides twice daily from our base site in town to our field site in the highlands. I always return from these trips feeling reinvigorated as an environmentalist, but I know my new knowledge and passion come at a cost.
Like it or not, travel has hidden environmental price tags. Some green-minded individuals have sworn off plane travel or confined themselves to an area reachable by bike. But for one longtime thinker on these topics, there is no contradiction between the terms “eco” and “tourism.”
Bill Durham, a professor of human biology at Stanford University, believes sustainable, well-managed ecotourism may just be an important part of the solution. Travel, he says, is in our genes: “Humans are curious primates.” We’re predisposed to wander. The question then becomes, how do we channel this human nature to do good for the planet, not just damage?
Experiential, place-based learning can foster an environmental ethic, Durham says, helping drive the long-term behavioral shifts needed to confront the Anthropocene. Visiting places like the Galapagos Archipelago or Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula — where Durham spends much of his time as a researcher — can reveal the fundamental evolutionary ties that connect humans to nature.
I spoke with Durham recently about topics ranging from ecotourism to experiential learning to the challenge of promoting conservation in a country where many people don’t even believe in evolution. Along the way, this truly interdisciplinary thinker provided some hope for a budding environmentalist struggling to understand everything from her role in the green movement to the impact of her next journey.
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This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.
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