By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and Gonzaga University’s 2013 O’Leary Distinguished Scientist, said an Earth Genome Project, similar to the Human Genome Project, could revitalize the environmental movement.
Delivering Gonzaga’s 28th annual O’Leary Lecture on Monday, Kareiva said he believes such an epic undertaking could do for the planet what the HGP has done for world medicine.
“The Human Genome Project has changed the face of medicine,” he said. “The Earth Genome Project has the same potential. I hope we announce it in Stockholm in spring 2015.”
The HGP is considered a major feat of scientific exploration and discovery. Completed in 2003, the international research effort to sequence and map all of the human genes – collectively known as the genome – gave scientists the ability, for the first time, to read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for a human being.
In his lecture titled, “Rethink, Revitalize, and Rebuilding the Environmental Movement: A Call for Tolerance and Nontraditional Partnerships,” Kareiva said the Earth Genome Project could prove transformative by enabling large-scale adoption of “nature capital” considerations for public-private decision-making by providing transparent, unbiased, easy-to-use information on impacts to the planet.
Named a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 for his excellence in scientific research, Kareiva said the Earth Genome Project could engage people, business, and government — providing a systemic approach to revitalizing the environmental movement.
Kareiva opened the lecture with a big-screen image of a youthful Gaylord Nelson, considered the father of Earth Day, who served as The Wilderness Society’s counselor after a career as a U.S. senator and governor of Wisconsin. The image included the following quote from Nelson in 1969: “I am convinced that the same concern the youth of this nation took in changing this nation’s priorities on the war in Vietnam can be shown for the environment.”
Nelson came up with the idea of Earth Day, an enormous success since its inception on April 22, 1970, which American Heritage Magazine called “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”
Kareiva, an undergraduate when Earth Day was initiated, called the first Earth Day “astonishing” in its impact.
“They had 12,000 events, Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of Congress spoke at an Earth Day event about the importance of the environment. The Today Show covered it for 10 hours,” Kareiva said. Early efforts contributed to landmark legislation protecting the environment, including passage of the Environmental Protection Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
“These changed the world,” Kareiva said. “The air got cleaner and the water got cleaner.”
Kareiva suggested broad ways in which the environmental movement should adapt to remain vital and effective: embrace technology and ingenuity, partner with major global corporations and end the “demonization and villainization” of corporations, broaden outreach efforts to be more “big tent” to expand the movement’s base, and recognize the intrinsic economic value of sustainability.
“Nature has material value and if we only recognize that people would care about the environment,” Kareiva said, pointing to a cover of The Economist magazine picturing a dollar sign overlaid on a tropical rainforest. “Economics is not just about dollars, it’s about values.”
Kareiva called major global corporations “one of our most important allies in conservation,” and compared corporations working for sustainability to “keystone species” that provide major ecological benefit. “Keystone species are so important that if you remove them you would really notice the difference,” he said.
Companies focused on sustainability perform better because they attract and retain the best employees, encourage a culture of innovation, offer consumers and investors more choice, reduce risk, and have great social license to enter new countries, he said.
“Brand matters,” Kareiva said. “Brand is probably now, in the modern world, the most important asset a company has.”