Earthrise © NASA

Whenever I visited my granddad I would stare at a picture on the wall in his office.  He was a geographer who worked in remote sensing and geographic information systems when they were in their infancy, so he often used images taken from high flying aircraft and spacecraft.  The picture that captured my attention was taken in December 1968, the year I was born, when the Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon.  It was an image of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon.  The Apollo 8 astronauts, essentially, discovered the Earth.

For the first time we were able to see Earth from space.  Ironically, for the first three orbits the astronauts had their backs to Earth each time it rose over the moon’s horizon  On the fourth orbit they turned around and said, “Oh my God!  Look…over there!” and snapped a photo.  It was then, in 1968, that a new perspective and appreciation of the Earth was born.  Shortly thereafter, thanks in part to heightened awareness from that Earthrise photo, the Clean Water, Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts were passed, the Endangered Species Act was passed unanimously by the Senate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and the first Earth Day took place.

At the time the photo was taken the Earth’s population was 3.5 billion people. Today the global population has doubled to close to 7 billion. It is projected that there will be 9 billion people by 2050, and a new U.N. report suggests it could reach 10 billion by 2100.  Increases in demand for food, water and energy have accelerated our impact on the Earth’s natural systems, and the resulting effects of climate change are broad, pervasive and unpredictable.

We know that enduring prosperity for people depends on the health of the natural world and conservation is vital to sustaining progress.  The scale of our solutions must match the complexity of the challenges we face.  This is one of the things that makes me most proud to work for The Nature Conservancy — we are tackling our planet’s challenges in the right places, in the right ways, and at the right scale.

We have come to appreciate the fact that wildlife habitat, wildlands and open space in remote locations and right here in New York City are essential to our well-being, including our economic growth.  Nature provides us with our clean drinking water.  Our clean air. It offers the chance to adapt in a world with changing climate. And it is the foundation for what are here in New York multi-billion dollar industries — tourism, recreation, farming, forestry, hunting and fishing.

In Long Island’s Great South Bay, our restoration of sea grasses and hard clams will not only bring back decimated wildlife, but also help restore a way of life and economic livelihoods that disappeared with the decline of an ecosystem.  Our conservation of Adirondack forests provides the opportunity for the sustainable harvest of timber and recreational opportunities while protecting the lands, waters and wildlife of the region.  And our efforts to conserve the watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of New Yorkers around the state helps stave off the need to build multi-billion dollar water treatment plants where nature already provides the necessary filtration.  These are big projects at scales that make a difference.

In 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts wouldn’t have been able to see any of The Nature Conservancy’s projects from their spacecraft.  Forty acres can’t be seen from thousands of miles away.  But our projects today can be seen from space.  Lake Ontario is the size of New Jersey, the Adirondack Park is bigger than Massachusetts, and Great South Bay is unmistakable.  Overseas the Yangtze River in China, the indigenous lands in the Amazon and the Northern Rangelands of Kenya can all be seen from the heavens.

These places give us hope.  They are what sustain us.  Perhaps in my lifetime people will travel into space and marvel at these conservation successes, just as the Apollo 8 crew marveled at the Earth. They will exclaim, “Oh my God!  Look over there!”  And they will name a protected landscape, a healthy river, a conserved lake or even an entire continent that they can see from space, and they will say, “We did that.  We conserved that for our and future generations.”


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