(Editor’s note: A longer version of this article was originally published by Cool Green Science on January 1, 2010. It was so good that Planet Change is republishing it for this New Year. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the tree is still there. But the sentiment still holds.)
The other day I was walking to work at The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., when I noticed that a small tree was sticking up from part of the roof just behind the big Conservancy logo sign that’s over our building’s front door.
The little tree is also visible from the windows of our U.S. government relations office. Through them, I could see that a seed blown on the wind had found a place between some gravel and a rain gutter and managed to take root. While eventually I am sure the tree will have to go, it seems to me a symbol both of the tenacity of nature and of the stubborn determination required by the Conservancy to save the natural world.
Despite nature’s grace and strength, that determination is no match — at least in the short run — for the pressures that will be placed on Earth by the 9 billion people expected here by mid-century. But the tree tells us where the Conservancy and conservation should be going…and how we will get there.
Not long ago, of course, humans thought nature to be all-powerful, and subduing forests and prairies for our purposes was seen as an admirable endeavor. Today, people have been so successful at converting natural habitats to other uses that we have impacted virtually every natural place on Earth. As a result, the extinction rate for native species continues to increase.
But some scientists now argue that nature is more resilient than we had thought — that, given assistance, natural systems can adapt and be more resilient to change. A four-foot tree growing out of roofing gravel may be evidence of this. We better hope so, because climate change, population growth and infrastructure development will further stress Earth’s ecosystems in the years to come.
Left to its own devices, human society moves toward what is not sustainable; our species is not respectful of the finite capacity of natural systems to support human endeavors. Conservation — even conservation that respects the human benefits of land and water — runs in a counter direction.
Getting society in the United States and around the world to change its course, to respect natural systems and functions at the scale necessary to make a difference, is an arduous but exciting task. For all this, we at the Conservancy (and all of us concerned about the natural world) must be strong and resilient — like a tree growing unexpectedly in the middle of the city.
Robert Bendick is director of U.S. government relations at The Nature Conservancy
Photo by: Robert Lalasz/The Nature Conservancy
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