Why doesn t conservation click?


Three decades ago I began my first career working on a British television series called "Survival". Unlike the current "Survivor" series (about the politics of rejection while camping out) these were natural history documentaries on a par with the best of National Geographic and Sir David Attenborough: early recordings of humpback whales, insights on elephant behavior, the diminishing habitats of mountain gorillas and orangutans, a sweeping essay on the wildebeest migration, and my favorite, an innovative look at the ancient baobab tree.

In 2001 the "Survival" series died. It was a year when conservation efforts lagged across the board, along with other failures to take the long view. Survival programs may have told people what they could no longer bear to hear (that the human species is soiling its own den) without demonstrating constructive solutions. For example, there are precious few incentives to develop alternate energy sources despite the profound vulnerabilities that our dependence on foreign energy revealed yet again. We have no "Vision Thing," despite the many clues. "It's global warming, dude," a 28 year-old auto mechanic told The New York Times as he fished in the Hudson River; "I don't care if the whole planet burns up in a hundred years. If I can get me a fish today, it's cool by me."

Happily this provides a continuum to the question I posed at this forum in 1998:

"If tragedy + time = comedy, what is the formula for equally therapeutic music? Do (Blues) musicians reach a third person perspective similar to that found in meditation, mind-altering drugs, and genius?"

What I was reaching for with that third person perspective was a selfless overview. What I've since found is that healing dances of Native Americans and some African peoples follow the saga of a hero or heroine, much the way you or I listen to Bob Dylan or Bonnie Raitt and identify with their lyrics.

While Carl Jung delved into the healing ritual archetype among many cultures, a new science called Biomusicology suggests even more ancient origins, tracing the inspiration for human music to natural sounds (the rhythm of waves lapping at the shore, rain and waterfalls, bird song, breathing, and our mother's heartbeat when we were floating in the womb.) Songs of birds certainly influenced classical music, and the call and response patterns of birds were imitated in congregations and cotton fields, with shouts, which led to the Delta blues.

The salubrious influence of music, including research by Oliver Sacks, is featured in a Discovery Channel program that I helped research. "The Power of Music" will be broadcast in 2002, as will Sir David Attenborough's new series on a similar theme, "Songs of the Earth." But will these programs inspire viewers to relinquish their SUVs for a hydrogen-powered car? How does one convince people to address global warming when most minds are focused on the economy or terrorism?

Part one of this answer must include "An Ounce of Prevention." Richard A. Clarke, former White House director of counterterrorism, explained our ill preparedness for September 11 this way: "Democracies don't prepare well for things that have never happened before." Another senior analyst said. "Unfortunately, it takes a dramatic event to focus the government's and public's attention." Finally, efforts to prevent hijackings have been responsive, rarely proactive.

As we devise our New Year's Resolutions, how many of us will wait for a scare (positive diagnosis) before we quit smoking, drinking or sitting on our duff? Year 2002 should be the time when conservationists not only demand action, but persuade people everywhere that the demise of wild places can and should be stopped, that some of our forces of habit (unneeded air conditioning, for example) will eventually affect our quality of life in ways of greater devastation. We need people to identify with the song lyrics of others, who may live in distant lands, and feel the brunt of global warming long before we do. But first we must learn to understand their language.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera wrote, "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it." Survival indeed.