Earth Day inspiration from Sonoma County scientists and conservationists

A group of Sonoma County scientists and conservationists offer reason for hope - and heartache - as the nation approaches 50 years of environmental awareness marked by Earth Day.|

It's been almost a half-century since newly minted leaders of the U.S. environmental movement called on Americans to rise and be counted as defenders of the planet and its increasingly imperiled ecosystems.

For the first Earth Day - April 22, 1970 - organizers wanted to take mainstream what had been an emerging awareness of the planet's fragility, a call to action launched in the decade that had just ended.

The risks were abundant: pesticides, air pollution, oil spills, toxic dumps, overpopulation and depletion of land and water resources.

Pioneering images from the U.S. space program at that time revealed Earth as the finite world it remains to this day - small and glowing in a vast universe. Early Earth Day sponsors saw “a grave crisis” on the horizon, one that demanded urgency, commitment and action by all inhabitants.

“Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. We have the technology and the resources,” Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, declared on that first day of mass reflection. “Are we willing? That is the unanswered question.”

His query still hangs in the air. Sustained campaigns to clean up our air and waters have seen success in the U.S., along with efforts to protect some endangered species and special places. Innovation, behavioral changes and a shared recognition of the risks to the planet all have helped.

But threats to the environment are more global than ever: Climate change and sea-level rise, mass extinctions, acidification and pollution of our oceans, disappearing bees. It's enough to bring despair to the sunniest among us.

So The Press Democrat sought inspiration and encouragement from a few of the expert resources Sonoma County has in abundance.

Our planet, they say, can never return to what it was before the onset of the industrial era and the change it unleashed worldwide. But there is reason to hold onto hope and take heart as we confront the challenges ahead - reshaping our perspectives, banding together in collective action that conserves resources and restores the environment, and making individual choices that lesson our impact and uphold our responsibility for its health.

“If we think somehow this is going to happen without sacrifice, that's not accurate,” said Tessa Hill, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. “There are fundamental things about the way we live today that are not sustainable.”

Dr. Tessa Hill, 40 Sebastopol

Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory; studies climate change impacts on marine ecosystems, focusing on ocean acidification and hypoxia

Hill has two children, evidence, she says, that she still has faith in a bright future for the human race, provided people are ready to commit to change.

For two decades, she has specialized in the study of climate change and its frightening ramifications for marine life. But Hill is hopeful, especially after seeing how Sonoma County residents drew together during and after the October wildfires - a lesson “relevant to how we confront climate change and environmental change.”

Still, she cautions that the future will look different from our present and past - that we should not be confused about the capacity of the planet to recover from harm. “What we imagine resiliency to mean is that things can bounce back and go back the way they were,” she said.

But already the earth and its climate are changing measurably year by year, moving farther away from what has been considered “normal” with each turn around the sun, Hill said. People have to adapt instead to taking action that allows them to “thrive in the world that we have today,” she said.

The good news is there are myriad choices anyone can make in daily life to minimize his or her impact on the environment - from driving low-emission vehicles to installing solar panels, eschewing single-use plastics to eating foods with a lower toll on natural resources. “What we want is to connect those choices with outcome,” she said.

The pace of innovation needs to be sped up to make more environmentally friendly options possible and spur the adoption of cleaner alternatives, Hill said. After a long period when the concept of “global warming” was still abstract - something off in the future - it's clear that is no longer the case, she said.

“There's urgency now,” she said.

For choices that can't be made individually - because they cross with broader policy or regulation - she called on citizens to support and elect leaders “who are going to back us up,” whether at the local, regional, state or federal level.

She draws hope from greater public engagement in environmental issues, as well as growing empowerment of young people raised on environmental education and their unwillingness to let their elders' destructive behavior pass.

“There is a huge scientific community that studies (the environment) and tries so hard to communicate what we know out to the people,” Hill said. “We have not turned our back on this problem. We have not seen people give up. There is a tremendous amount of energy and urgency and passion in that scientific community.”

“If it was totally hopeless, those are the people who would know first,” she said.

Brock Dolman, 53 Occidental

Co-founder and program director at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center; teaches watershed restoration, permaculture design and ecological regeneration at OAEC and abroad

Humans made the mistake long ago of thinking they could separate themselves from natural cycles that govern the planet, Brock Dolman says, choosing to live not in concert with nature but apart from it, ignoring that we're part of the same system.

Our economy is based on consumption and disposal - churning out products and generating waste, on an individual and global scale -with the flawed belief that it somehow goes away, Dolman said. But mostly, he claims, we've been “fouling the nest.”

He draws up in “the resiliency and regenerative capacity of this living planet, if we just give it a chance and stop beating it up and just work with it, instead of against it.”

As an example, he pointed to the 1995 reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park after a 60-year absence. Scientists studying the park say it contributed to renewed balance in the food chain that improved watershed health and plant life.

A parallel example might be a stronger commitment on the part of residents in the Russian River watershed to do whatever was necessary to restore the region's once bountiful salmon runs, Dolman said. That goal that would take in hundreds of thousands of people in the North Bay, while requiring economic concessions, regulatory changes and creative use of “a whole suite of solutions” like water conservation, compost toilets, even working to restore beaver populations, he noted.

“If we could manage our waterways to support salmon, so much else would fall into place,” he said.

He said anything we do now to try to restore balance has to be ambitious and aligned with a greater recognition of natural limits - a pivot away from the boundless approach that has driven human development in most of the modern age.

“We have private property rights, and we have water rights, and everybody's always asserting their right to something,” Dolman said. “But what's your birth responsibility?”

Angst and despair are prevalent, Dolman said, but “in the midst of it all is the beauty and resilience of life, found nowhere else in the known universe.” “So we can choose to partner with that regenerative healing force or not,” Dolman said. “I'll choose life!”

Michael Ellis, 66 Santa Rosa

Biologist, naturalist, columnist and LandPaths board member; operates Footloose Forays and is a local and international eco-tour guide

The heart-stirring wonder in Michael Ellis' voice is discernible when he describes gazing across the Serengeti at “30,000 wildebeests as far as you can see, from horizon to horizon.”

But it's not necessary to travel all the way to Tanzania or to any place so exotic to be awed by Earth.

Opportunities abound in Northern California to immerse oneself in the beauty of nature, to find a moment of silence and to experience the enduring strength of a planet that is bound to outlive us, Ellis said. It's there in continental granite of Bodega Head, for instance, in the vastness of the ocean.

There is comfort in the globe's timelessness, compared to our own, he said, and healing in the restorative power of nature that can inspire the work needed to combat “the toxicity of what's going on politically, culturally and environmentally.”

After you emerge, do something, he said.

Support causes, organizations, movements - donating your money or your time.

“If you're not already, figure out what kinds of things you can do from a political point of view so that you can take action,” Ellis said. “Because part of the frustration you feel is you feel like none of it makes any difference. You need to do something that feels like you can make a difference.”

From his travels to Africa, Asia and Latin America, Ellis said he believes curbing human population growth is imperative to extending our time on the planet.

“And the way you do that is to give women power. … Empowering women and girls to get education, get control of their finances, to control their bodies,” he said, “and everything else will flow from that.”

“You can choose how you look at the world,” Ellis said. “You can decide that it's half-empty and it's going to hell, or you can decide, ‘Wow, it's still a beautiful world.'”

Dr. Lisa Micheli, 53 Sonoma

President and CEO of the Pepperwood Foundation and Dwight Center for Conservation Science; co-chairwoman of Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative

With two master's degrees and a doctorate, Micheli's pursuit of knowledge has led her to the halls of Harvard, Cambridge University and UC Berkeley.

But she calls out the indigenous wisdom imparted by ancient cultures, striking in both its simplicity and impact: When you take something from the planet, give thanks, and give something back.

It's a principle easily applied in one's backyard, she said. Plant for pollinator species - or scaled up - invest in a forest carbon bank.

“As stewards and residents of nature, there's always a reciprocal exchange,” she said.

Seeing indigenous people take increasingly visible stands on the global stage in support of conservation is positive and inspiring, she said.

Micheli, a mother of two teenagers, finds hope, as well, in young people with a keener understanding of the planet's fragile ecology. They have grown up aware of concepts like zero waste and carbon offsets, and have the benefit of environmental education that will shape their choices and advocacy,

“This new generation of humans is more sophisticated in understanding of the relationships and connectivity,” Micheli said.

But there will be difficult choices ahead, including dramatic changes in lifestyle, she said, and reason to mourn.

“My entire life is committed to protecting biodiversity to the extent we can, but I guess we have to accept that we are going to lose more species before we turn this pattern around,” she said. “So I grieve for that. I grieve for any additional losses. But I can't help but be hopeful.”

The resilience visible at Pepperwood Preserve serves as a reminder of nature's ability to heal. Much of the protected area was burned when the Tubbs fire swept through the Mayacamas Mountains last fall.

She echoed, also, an adage voiced by the proponents of the American environmental movement a half-century ago.

Environmental degradation results from the “incremental actions by a lot of different people,” she said, and she believes the reverse can be true, “if incrementally, many people took positive action.”

“Certainly if we stay on the trajectory we're on, it's a pretty dismal picture,” she said. “But between the planetary resources to respond, and then our youth, that's what really give us the most hope about our future.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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