Will nature always be the last book on the shelf?
Driving with my kids the other day, I saw a sign announcing: “Borders Books Going Out of Business: 90% Off!” We headed in with great enthusiasm, thoughts of nearly free books dancing in our heads.
The place was swarming with bargain hunters. The remaining inventory had been moved to the front; the rest of the cavernous box store was gloomily empty behind movable partitions.
Though there were still thousands of books, I quickly realized the store had been picked clean, like a carcass where all the soft parts were long gone and just the hide, hoofs, horns, and bones remained. Like those ungulate parts, the titles left behind were mostly undigestible.
Jackal-like, I joined the others sniffing among the store’s skeletal shelves for some overlooked palatable morsel. There were literally no books for kids — those sections simply didn’t exist anymore.
“Sorry, guys, I guess there’s nothing left,” I said to the dejected pair shuffling along behind me.
But just then I turned a corner and stumbled upon the “Nature/Environment” section. It had books. Lots of books. New hardcover books, including four for which I’d recently read reviews and mentally filed away as potential reads. Two were on the future of water, and two were on the climate crisis.
My elation at finding such great bargains soon waned as I realized what their presence indicated.
Here were brand-new books on some of the most important challenges facing society today — now priced to move at about $2.50 — and they’d been left behind by the swarming scavengers, lingering on the shelves in the company of the odd, obscure, and obsolete. What I found to be intriguing evidently had as much appeal to the general public as Getting to Know Your Commodore 64, Knitting with Dog Hair, and Nasal Maintenance Made Easy.
It made real for me the now ubiquitous adage that conservation must strive to be more relevant to people. But relevant in what way?
Major conservation organizations have responded to the need to increase their relevance by placing most of their money on … money. With an undercurrent suggesting that nature’s beauty, majesty, and mystery are perhaps frivolous, our dominant themes now emphasize the economic returns from nature.
Don’t misunderstand me: I think that quantifying and demonstrating the economic value of natural ecosystems have great potential to improve decisions and increase investments in conservation. While we must pursue such opportunities for progress, I question the extent to which those concepts will expand the appeal of conservation to new audiences or galvanize the broad level of support that can undergird tough political choices on climate change, for instance.
Why am I skeptical? Because of the letter D and the number 35.
The letter D is the grade given by the American Society of Civil Engineers for the condition of, and investment in, infrastructure in the United States. This grade includes a D- for both levees and water-treatment plants.
Since flood-risk reduction and clean water are two of the best horses in nature’s stable of ecosystem services, these near-failing grades offer a sobering reality check. While I believe strongly that demonstrating nature’s benefits will resonate with certain key audiences, and thus advance our mission, when it comes to expanding the relevance of nature to broader audiences, establishing nature’s bona fides as infrastructure may produce underwhelming results. “Hey, nature,” says the levee, “congratulations on joining a woefully underfunded club!”
The number 35 is the percentage of U.S. charitable dollars going to religious organizations, considerably ahead of categories such as education (14 percent), human services (9 percent), health (8 percent), and environment/animal welfare (2 percent).
Philanthropic giving flows first and foremost to something that provides people with a sense of connection, spirituality, and refuge. Giving to categories focused on advancing economic growth or material well-being for the poor and disadvantaged lag behind.
Nature as infrastructure may be important. Nature as NGO calendar scenery may be inspiring. But nature’s most essential relevance may be in its intimate connection with our daily psychological, spiritual, and physical well-being.
I just heard a speech by Martin Palmer, leader of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (a wonderful speaker, by the way). He said: “No one has ever been converted by a pie chart” — and added that, when trying to connect with people, we should only use words that are “sufficiently understood, indeed sufficiently loved, to have been used in a poem.”
I can’t imagine a sonnet that contains “green infrastructure” or “ecosystem services” — or even “nature’s benefits.” Yet nature is the etymological raw material of poetry.
Conservation organizations must find the words to convey how nature is intertwined with the things people care most deeply about: their connections to family, community, sense of place and love of country.
The next time some big bookstore goes out of business, what will be the last book on the shelf? Something about wastewater treatment plants or highways? Or books about God, yoga, food, or how to stay connected with your children?
Nature has deep relevance for everything on that second list, and we should not forget to write those books, too.