Past recipients have included:
- Energy Access Foundation, an organization that increases access to clean and renewable energy through rural energy enterprises
- Aqua Para La Vida, an organization that works in rural Nicaragua to build safe drinking water and sanitation systems
- Trees, Water, People, a group dedicated to helping communities protect, conserve and manage natural resources
- IDEA WILD, a group dedicated to helping preserve the earth’s biodiversity
- Union of Concerned Scientists, a group dedicated to improving the environment
- Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), a group dedicated to advancing the science of marine conservation biology
- Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI), a group that uses science-based, cooperative solutions to maintain natural ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them
- Conversation Law Foundation, an organization working to solve significant environmental challenges facing New England
A new approach is called for involving the preservation of large landscapes that forge linkages between natural habitats, thereby forming conduits for animals. That philosophy underlies the “Two Countries, One Forest” initiative, an international effort to protect and maintain the northern Appalachian/Acadian ecoregion, which covers 80 million acres of mountains and woods and stretches across five states and four Canadian provinces. Dominated by northern hardwood forests, this vast complex forms an ecological transition zone between the boreal forests of the North and warmer temperate forests to the south. The initiative was founded in 2001 by scientists and environmentalists actively pursuing conservation in that region. Participants quickly realized that there was no clear ecological framework for understanding how their separate efforts fit together as part of the larger puzzle. “And there was no network for sharing vital information and strategies across the international border,” explains Emily Bateson, the first executive director of Two Countries, One Forest. The initiative’s purpose is to provide that missing framework, Bateson says, facilitating U.S.-Canadian cooperation toward a common goal: saving “an ecosystem in a race against time.”
A major focus of this initiative has been to establish natural bridges between forested zones. Five corridors have been identified. One such corridor lies between the Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Researchers have identified two principal wildlife routes between these mountain ranges, both of which pass through Rutland County, Vermont. The challenge now is to find ways of making it safer for animals to get across major thoroughfares.
In 2012, a thousand-acre patch of conservation land was secured on Vermont’s northern boundary—a missing link that connects tens of thousands of acres of protected land on both sides of the border. The purchase established a corridor for bears, moose, deer, lynx, bobcats, foxes, and other wildlife to move freely between the Green Mountains and the Sutton Mountains of Quebec. “This was a major coup”, claims Canadian environmentalist Nathalie Zinger, representing the “essence of a shared conservation strategy between organizations in Vermont and Quebec.”
The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is one of the groups working toward the Gulf’s recovery. CLF attributes the fishery’s depletion to overly generous catch limits and loose restrictions. The group has fought for tighter restrictions that would give fish stocks a chance to rebound.
While continuing its efforts to improve the management of Gulf fisheries, CLF is also striving to preserve key habitats from harmful fishing techniques, like bottom trawling. In particular, the group is pushing to have the region’s biodiversity hotspots classified as marine protected areas (MPAs), which would afford them a higher level of protection than they currently receive. New England presently has no MPAs.
One key conservation priority is Stellwagen Bank. Located 25 miles east of Boston, this underwater plateau is known for its diverse habitat and rich concentration of marine mammals. Stellwagen is a prime feeding ground and nursery for the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis), one of the world’s most endangered species. Bottom trawling is still permitted in some portions of the Bank. CLF and other environmental groups would like to see that practice stopped. They also seek reduced congestion in Stellwagen, which now endures the Gulf’s highest levels of commercial boat traffic.
Conservationists have also set their sights on Cashes Ledge, a 25-mile-long underwater mountain range that is home to the largest kelp forest off the eastern U.S. coast, along with a wide assortment of marine life. CLF has taken the lead in trying to protect the Ledge from damaging fishing gear, such as the mid-water trawlers still allowed there.
The nutrient-rich waters of the Gulf are home to an array of rare and precious species of sea life that would benefit from the protections afforded by enhanced conservation efforts. The unique underwater geography of the region, which boasts volcanic outcroppings, known as seamounts, creates a perfect habitat for endemic cold-water corals, sponges and sea anemones. Perhaps, with the help of CLF and others, the Gulf of Maine’s once bountiful marine life can rebound and flourish for years to come.
With those words in mind, TNC is giving business-not-as-usual a try in the waters off California’s Central Coast. The goal is to maintain a financially solvent fishing industry while, at the same time, maintaining healthy fish populations—a difficult balancing act that has proven elusive. Too often, the net result has been a decline in fishing stocks, despite the good intentions of regulators and fishermen alike. TNC is trying to change this equation and, in the process, offer a new model for sustainable fisheries.
After Congress passed a law in 2006, imposing more stringent catch limits on overfished species, TNC took the unusual step of purchasing 13 fishing boats and permits, which would be leased to local fisherman, for fishing in the area near Morro Bay, California. Rather than trying to put fishermen out of business, the environmental group wanted to make fishermen their allies—an integral part of their plan to protect offshore habitat and establish more responsible fishing throughout the region.
So far, the results have been encouraging. Under current regulations, fishermen are granted small quotas for heavily fished species and face steep penalties for exceeding those limits. That makes the indiscriminate (and environmentally harmful) approach of bottom trawling less attractive to fishermen than more selective fishing methods. TNC got rid of the trawling equipment and offered fishermen vessels with more environmentally-friendly fishing gear, such as hooks, lines and lighter (seine) nets. The group also enlisted the fishermen’s support in creating 3.8 million acres (or about 6,000 square miles) of no-trawl zones off California’s Central Coast, closing areas that fishermen, based on their collective judgment, deemed most vulnerable.
“The Nature Conservancy has demonstrated that, when fisheries are truly managed for sustainability, it is possible to yield both economic success and ecological benefits,” comments Seth Atkinson of the National Resources Defense Council. “Now that we’ve seen how to do it, the government must learn from the example. It’s now time for the National Marine Fisheries Service to step up and manage the rest of our nation’s fisheries equally well.”
Ultimately, we need to switch to reliable, inexhaustible and renewable energy sources. Some technologies, like photovoltaic arrays, capture sunlight directly in order to generate electricity; others, such as wind turbines, harness indirect forms of solar energy. One promising approach under development, artificial photosynthesis, mimics the form of solar energy utilization that nature has employed with great success.
“For the past two hundred years, we’ve run this experiment with fossil fuels, and it’s not working so well,” Daniel Nocera, an MIT and Harvard researcher, told the New Yorker. “I wanted to go back to what worked for two billion years before that.” Nocera and his colleagues have developed an "artificial leaf" that, like its natural counterpart, converts sunlight into chemical energy. Specifically, the proof-of-concept device consists of credit card-sized silicon wafers coated with metal catalysts. When immersed in water and exposed to sunlight, the cells split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which is one of the first steps in natural photosynthesis. Hydrogen is a fuel that can be stored and later recombined with oxygen in nonpolluting fuel cells to create electricity.
Whereas natural leaves typically convert about 5% of incident sunlight into stored chemical energy, the artificial leaf currently achieves a 2.5% conversion efficiency. Nocera is trying to boost that number while reducing the costs.
Other researchers are exploring different avenues. A team at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology has been experimenting with molecular catalysts, finding one that splits water as fast as it occurs in natural photosynthesis. “This speed increase opens the possibility of building large hydrogen production facilities in the Sahara, for example, where sunshine is plentiful,” team leader Licheng Sun notes. Within 10 years, this solar technology may be cheap enough to compete with coal. While that prediction may be overly optimistic, the goal is hard to contest. The climate data indicate that global warming is well underway, necessitating a shift from fossil fuels to clean, carbon-free energy sources. And the sooner we make this shift, the better.
Not surprisingly, these majestic trees garnered the interest of lumber companies in the mid-1800s, after the forests of the Northeast had been largely depleted. White pines were logged because of their height, strength and transportability; this wood could float down rivers (an advantage in areas without roads), whereas denser hardwoods would sink. A great timber rush ensued, with Michigan becoming the United States’ leading lumber producer during the last three decades of the 19th century. The value of the harvested wood exceeded that of the gold extracted during California’s gold rush. And, at the end of this frenetic logging surge, nearly all of the marketable white pine had been chopped down or burned.
The forests slowly returned during the 1900s, and now more than half the state is wooded again. But a new menace emerged at the beginning of the 21st century, one that could have proven even more damaging than the unrestrained logging of the past. More than a quarter million acres of timberland in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were put up for sale to real estate consortiums, raising the prospect of large stretches of woodland becoming housing tracts. This caught the attention of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which realized that once a wilderness area was lost to development, it was lost forever. With the help of the state government and various foundations, TNC worked out a plan that offered permanent protection to 271,338 acres of forest, lakes, rivers and streams in the Upper Peninsula—the largest conservation deal in Michigan’s history. A key feature of this agreement, and perhaps the reason the idea was financially viable, owed to the fact that the land in question was “conserved” but not kept off limits; it remained open both to recreational uses by the public and to commercial logging. The caveat, however, was that sustainable forestry must be practiced in accordance with guidelines set by the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent forestry certification system that’s been used to safeguard more than 225 million acres of woodlands in more than 70 countries. Specific guarantees were put into place to ensure that the Upper Peninsula forests in question were to be responsibly harvested and not overlogged, polluted or unduly damaged by road construction. Under this landmark settlement, precious timberland was secured for future generations, while residents of remote sections of Michigan may now reap the benefits of a healthy, working forest.
In Small Is Beautiful, a book that came out a year later, the economist E.F. Schumacher similarly reasoned that the prevailing economic model, which treats natural resources as disposable items, is insupportable as a long-term strategy. Accordingly, the technology we employ should be smaller, gentler and more appropriate to the task at hand—“technology with a human face,” as he put it.
Although both books were influential in their time, they are largely forgotten today—dismissed by many as relics of a previous era, far removed from the realities of the present. Yet the issues discussed in those books are more pressing than ever, with the world’s population now exceeding seven billion, which is nearly twice the number of people living in 1972.
As global environmental problems have attracted more attention, the notion of “sustainability” has come into wider use. Although the definition remains somewhat vague, sustainability has been described as an approach to development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In June of 2012, about 50,000 people, including more than 100 heads of state, convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to attend a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, hoping to find ways of protecting our planet for generations to come. By the meeting’s end, the world leaders had pledged to set global sustainable development goals, but the specifics of those plans still need to be spelled out by future working groups on numerous environmental fronts.
For an issue like global warming, we already know— to a large degree—what ought to be done. The next step is to muster the requisite political will, come up with inexpensive solutions and determine how to establish accountability.
Achieving a truly sustainable society will take more than just bringing greenhouse gas emissions under control. In the long run, we’ll need to be mindful of population growth rates, while minimizing resource consumption and waste generation through comprehensive recycling programs that go far beyond what is available today. We may also have to shift toward a different economic model in which prosperity is not dependent on continual growth. In making such a radical transition, we might seek guidance from those two neglected works from the early '70s.
Lancaster County, which sits between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, is trying to hold onto its precious farmland before it’s too late. This picturesque county, a popular tourist destination, lies in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where Amish and Mennonite families still travel in horse and buggy and till the soil in the traditional ways of their ancestors. Agriculture is the most important industry in Pennsylvania, and Lancaster is the most agriculturally productive county. Although farming is a way of life in Lancaster, the county is not immune to urban sprawl with the attendant proliferation of fast-food chains and billboards.
In 1985, the county began acting to save its farmland by purchasing easements or “development rights” that enable farmers to retain ownership of their properties, while ensuring that their land remains zoned for farming in perpetuity. Since then—owing to the efforts of the county government and private foundations—more than 90,000 acres of farmland have been preserved in Lancaster, more than in any other county in the United States.
Looking towards the future, Lancaster County has devised a comprehensive agenda for guiding growth and protecting rural land over the next 25 years. The plan, which received a “Smart Growth” award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), preserves open space by channeling development, including the anticipated construction of 50,000 new homes, into designated growth areas and away from productive farmland. The county earned support for its land development and conservation ideas by actively engaging the public and local governments. Assuming this plan can be fully implemented, the EPA said, Lancaster County should serve as a model for communities across the nation wishing to “balance growth with natural, historical, and cultural preservation.”
When the demands we impose on natural waterways start approaching the level of the supply itself, ecosystems become strained and aquatic species can go extinct—a drama that’s now being played out in the Colorado River Basin. The 1,450-mile-long Colorado River provides water for about 30 million people and three million acres of farmland in seven southwestern states and Mexico.
But this glorious river, which starts in Rocky Mountain National Park and winds through the Grand Canyon, is hopelessly tapped out. By the time it reaches its terminus near Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, it has been accessed by so many users—including the cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix—that there’s essentially no water left. A once-thriving ecosystem at the river’s delta, replete with fish and other wildlife, is now a giant mudflat, kept moist by an occasional brackish trickle.
The best hopes for saving this river—and putting it onto a more sustainable footing—is through water conservation efforts on a massive scale. Although wastewater recycling is of great importance in arid regions, the main focus has to be on agriculture, which consumes roughly 80% of the Colorado’s water. One critical approach would be to eliminate inefficient “flood irrigation” techniques in favor of more frugal “drip irrigation” systems. Environmentalists in Arizona, for example, are working with farmers to limit the amount of water diverted to irrigation ditches from the Verde River, a Colorado tributary, so that key migration pathways for native fishes can be preserved.
Conservationists are pursuing a somewhat different strategy to protect another Colorado tributary, the Yampa River in Colorado. One tactic being employed there is to get rid of Tamarix trees—an invasive species that soaks up inordinate amounts of water—along a 70-mile stretch of riverbank. In late 2012, Mexico and the United States reached an agreement that allows Mexico to store a portion of the Colorado River water, to which it is entitled, in Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, on the Arizona/Nevada border. In exchange, Mexico has promised to limit its withdrawal of river water during acute shortages. One hope is that this accord, combined with various conservation efforts, can help restore flows to the mighty Colorado and eventually bring back the delta, which the conservationist Aldo Leopold once described as “still waters … of a deep emerald hue.”
Such a strategy is currently taking hold in Zambia, where people are discovering—or, rather, rediscovering— the simple techniques of “conservation agriculture.” The approach seeks to minimize soil disturbance by requiring little or no plowing. Crops are continually rotated to prevent the soil from becoming depleted, while also providing greater system resilience. All crops are planted in the same narrow furrows, which can be created by hoes and used year after year, leaving the rest of the soil intact. Crop residues and other organic material are left on the ground, creating a permanent soil cover that lessens erosion, retains moisture and supplies a steady stream of nutrients. Livestock grazing is often integrated with cropland so that manure can be used in place of artificial fertilizers. The constant presence of mulch helps suppress weeds, while crop rotation reduces the vulnerability to parasites, thereby lessening the need for pesticides.
About 250,000 farmers in Zambia have adopted conservation agriculture methods on their small farms, leading to increased food production and enhanced profits. Contrary to the belief that it takes years to realize the benefits, “independent research has shown that… farmers can increase their yields from 25% to 100% in year one,” claims Peter Aagaard, who heads Zambia’s Conservation Farming Unit. These numbers are consistent with a broader study of 286 farming projects in 57 countries, which found that sustainable agriculture increased crop yields by an average of 79%. “All crops showed water use efficiency gains,” wrote University of Sussex researcher Jules Pretty and his colleagues. Pesticide use also declined. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mechanized, large-scale agricultural production will or should be eliminated anytime soon. Conservation farming may not be necessary, for instance, in places where rainfall is reliable, abundant and widely distributed. But if the goal is to significantly boost the productivity of small-scale subsistence farmers who are struggling to survive, “conservation farming is the way to go,” says Aagaard.
To many people in the United States and other developed countries, recycling involves bottles, cans, plastics and papers. Less familiar, however, is the notion of recycling whole buildings, entire neighborhoods or city blocks. A study by the Seattle, Washington-based Preservation Green Lab concluded that “building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality.” Building reuse also benefits the local economy, the report contends, by creating more jobs, with lower environmental impact, than new construction.
Energy savings from “reuse” can be as high as 46%, the study found. This is significant in light of an estimate by the Brookings Institute that about 82 billion square feet of America’s existing buildings—one-quarter of the total stock—will be demolished and replaced between 2005 and 2030. For example, if Portland, Oregon, were to reuse and retrofit the homes and buildings otherwise slated for demolition over the next 10 years, the region would benefit from a 15% reduction in CO2 emissions.
Building recycling can take many (oftentimes creative) forms: Fifty-meter-tall concrete silos in Halfweg, the Netherlands, which once stored sugar, are now part of an office complex called “Sugar City” that dominates the area’s skyline. Elsewhere in the Netherlands, a cylindrical gas tank in Naaldwijk has been converted into an office building, while giant sand and gravel hoppers left near an abandoned harbor in Utrecht have been refashioned into offices, as well. The Gare d’Orsay, once considered Paris’ most beautiful train station, was slated for demolition in 1970, but was instead converted into the world-renowned Musée d’Orsay.
The Charles Street Jail, which housed Boston, Massachusetts' most notorious criminals for 120 years, was shut down in 1973, and now accommodates a four-star, luxury inn known as the Liberty Hotel. Today, people will pay handsome sums to spend a night in a former prison, or sip a bottle of champagne in an erstwhile prison cell, showing that in the realm of “adaptive reuse,” almost anything is possible.
In the face of daunting environmental challenges, it might seem as if an individual’s actions hardly matter. As the 18th-century Irish politician, Edmund Burke, observed, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” In this same spirit, millions or billions of people acting in environmentally responsible ways can make a difference.
For example, if Americans heeded the advice of the Union of Concerned Scientists and cut their carbon emissions by 20%, annual carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by one billion tons. That goal could be attained within a year, through a combination of straightforward steps such as driving less and switching to fuel-efficient cars, installing programmable thermostats, and replacing incandescent lighting with energy-saving bulbs.
Other simple measures can yield significant benefits. People can insulate their homes, minimize waste through recycling and composting, fix leaky faucets and otherwise use water frugally. When possible, we can renovate old buildings rather than razing them and rebuilding from scratch. We can purchase sustainably caught fish and eat “lower on the food chain,” buying local foods when we can. We can rely more on walking, bicycling and public transport. We can also think about where we live, since people who inhabit compact urban centers generally use fewer resources than those residing in suburbs. People may consider living in smaller dwellings and downsizing their lifestyles in other ways, so as to consume less and spend less. Individual actions can add up, meaning that global change starts at home.
Corporations can also take the initiative, rather than just responding to government mandates. Microsoft, for instance, has taken steps on its own to achieve “carbon neutrality” in 2013, offsetting its carbon emissions with measures that remove an equal amount of carbon from the environment. New England Biolabs has undertaken a number of green initiatives to minimize the impact of its operations on the environment, including an on-site wastewater treatment facility and a company-wide recycling and composting program. The time has come for individuals, businesses and communities to take action. Although this might sound cliché, it’s actually true: The future of our planet is at stake.
It will be a challenge in most parts of the United States to transform bicycling from a recreational activity into a serious transportation option. For inspiration, we could look to Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, a city of 1.2 million, where more than 37% of the residents bicycle to work. Thanks to the growing use of bicycles in the city, a new word has been added to the lexicon, “Copenhagenization”—the process of making an urban center into a place where people willingly abandon their automobiles and hop onto bikes.
Copenhagen used to be as car-clogged as most cities of its size, but now has more than 1,000 kilometers of bike lanes. About half a million people ride a bicycle in the city every day. Copenhagen has committed to making itself conducive to bicycling and creating the necessary infrastructure, including building bridges and bike lanes that are separated from car traffic and raised slightly above street level.
In April 2012, the first “bicycle superhighway”, a 17-kilometer stretch from the town of Albertslund to the capital, opened for bike traffic. This superhighway, true to its name, is unlike the typical bike path. Stoplights are timed so that cyclists can make every light, provided they maintain a constant speed of about 20 kilometers (or 12 miles) per hour. For riders forced to wait at the occasional traffic signal, raised footrests are provided. Air pumps and repair stations can be found every kilometer, and the route is well maintained, kept free of leaves, snow, ice and other hazards.
The Albertslund trail is the first installment of a network of 26 planned superhighways that will link downtown Copenhagen with its suburbs—part of the city’s campaign to make bicycling the dominant form of transportation. “What’s unusual about the Danish biking culture is that it’s so normal,” explains Frits Bredal of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation. “The overwhelming reason people bike here in Copenhagen is simply because it’s nice and easy [and] convenient.” In the end, those factors—rather than well-reasoned arguments about sustainability—could be what it takes for bicycling to catch on throughout the rest of the world.