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Geography of Hope

People sometimes ask me what they will learn by reading Heatstroke. Basically there are two key messages. One I've already highlighted in past blogs and in a recent op-ed. Simply put, the first message is this: we've got a problem. Global warming by itself—even absent any other environmental threats—could cause the nature that humanity has long tried to save for its children to slip through our grasp, even if we could hold greenhouse gas emissions to their present values. Critically, as climate change outpaces nature's ability to adapt, what it will take to save two of nature's three faces, ecosystem services and biodiversity, will become exactly the opposite of what it will take to save the third, a feeling of wilderness. I don't know about you, but my wife and I want all three for our kids. We were talking about that when she showed me Wallace Stegner's Wilderness Letter, where he writes about the Geography of Hope—three words that became the title of Heatstroke's last chapter. Those three words encapsulate the second key message—and I have to tell you, I think it is the more important of the two. We don't have to watch nature die. We can actually treat nature's heatstroke, now that we recognize its warning signs. The Geography of Hope lies in marshalling the world's scientists, conservation organizations, and governments—and ultimately, the world's people—to coordinate a new conservation strategy I call Keep, Connect, and Create. "Keep" refers to ensuring that places on Earth where nature still thrives (like the 12 percent of its lands already protected as nature reserves) are retained, and keeping on with successful initiatives already underway, especially some relatively new ones designed to integrate biodiversity conservation with the everyday habits of people, like "win-win ecology" and trading in ecosystem services. "Connect" requires acceleration of ongoing efforts to connect natural areas with habitat corridors, with the new twist that the corridor strategies now must take into account that climatic zones are shifting and will continue to do so over the next few decades and into the next century. "Create" is the critical new component, for it requires creating a whole new concept of nature reserves. No longer can we stick to the "one-stop-shopping" conservation strategy of setting aside a big enough piece of land with the thought that in one fell swoop we will protect all of Mother Nature's Holy Trinity: ecosystem services, biodiversity, and feelings of wilderness. To save ecosystem services and biodiversity, we may have to move species from some places where their needed climate disappears into others where their needed climate exists. To save feelings of wilderness, we'll need the opposite, places where we don't mess with the species composition, where we simply let nature find its own way into this new age. That means deliberately designating two separate-but-equal kinds of nature reserves, one with the explicit goal of saving species no matter what; the other with the explicit goal of watching what happens to nature if we keep our hands off. It also means some hard decisions on some very controversial questions. Is it better to watch a species go extinct as its climate disappears, or risk the ecological consequences of introducing it to a climatically-suitable place it has never been? And if the answer is to move it, whose back yard do we move it into? A tall order, perhaps, to shift away from the prevailing wisdom of nature conservation crystallized in the Leopold Report as: "to preserve, or where necessary to recreate, the ecologic scene as viewed by the first European visitors." Articulated for America's national parks in 1963, that conservation ethic has provided a sort of guiding light ever since. But the visionaries who wrote those words never anticipated a world where the climatic rug would be pulled right out from under the species and landscapes they were trying to protect. That’s today’s world, though, and the world of our children. The last chapter of Heatstroke is titled Geography of Hope because I firmly believe that if we move forward in the ways suggested there, it is well within humanity's power to save the aspects of nature we value and need. But, the Geography of Hope has always been a shifting landscape; in an age of global warming, it's also a rapidly shrinking one for many species. We don't have much time to get it right.