Note to class: A time for Optimism

Note to last class: this is the time for optimism.

So, we’ve been through twenty-two weeks of toxics. From mercury and lead to atrazine and BPA. Nanoparticles too. We’ve talked toxicity, and regulation (a little), and about this current administration’s roll-back of the latter. It is like the weather today, gloomy. And yes, the sun will come out tomorrow and contribute to breaking the temperature record somewhere in the world, maybe here. Maybe it’ll be another climate change kind of day. And so we could talk about the impact of climate change on pollutants. How it’ll likely make things worse, release legacies like PCBs and DDT from melting icebergs; or cause havoc in wildlife adapted to hatching out in a spring puddle. It is enough to seem like too much. Enough to seem hopeless.

Which is why I want to talk about optimism. Just last week for the first time, wildlife conservation scientists launched the Optimism Summit. Here is a bit of their vision:

Conservation is too often seen as a crisis discipline, one in which bad news predominates. Although nature is facing huge challenges, we feel there are many positive stories out there where conservation has made a difference to people’s lives and to the status of wild nature. Progress, at the moment, tends to be overshadowed by negativity. It may well be happening, but it can be slow-burning, local and less immediately obvious than the sometimes overwhelming challenges faced.

We believe this is counter-productive.

Budding and perennial conservationists need to feel inspired and continue in the profession, not put off by pessimism. The public, businesses and government need to know that their actions can make a difference.

I agree. We need to look forward. Even when those in power are looking back. If you consider our relationship with many of the most problematic chemicals – it is a fairly new partnership. For many of our plastics, pesticides and other consumer-use chemicals – we’ve “enjoyed” about a century together. Our lives have changed in large part for the better, thanks to many of these industrial age creations. But we are now undergoing another kind of revolution, that included technology and biology and in understanding the Earth and ecology. We are an innovative species. Just as the conservation biologists point to positive stories and “slow-burning” progress, I believe that applies to our relationship with industrial age chemicals as well. There is progress: ways to manage agricultural pests while reducing our dependence on toxic pesticides; or replace common industrial chemicals with less toxic chemicals that are less likely to pollute air and water. Maybe improved recycling opportunities will enable us to close the loop on our laptops – reducing the need for digging up those rare-earth elements upon which we all depend.

By nature I am not an optimist. Ask my husband. Or our kids. (Although I like to consider myself a pessimistic optimist, who is just preparing for the worst but hopes for the best.) But this isn’t about hoping. It’s about doing. And I believe, like the conservationists, that it is important to feel inspired to work towards solutions.

Your actions will make a difference. And you won’t be alone. There will be plenty of us if not cheering you on, then working by your side to ensure that we learn from our past and move forward.

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