April 23, 2012
An interview with Dr. Sarah Bexell.
The vanishing giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is just one victim of the global environmental crisis. Photo by: Sarah Bexell.
It seems that before the environment is completely obliterated people who love life will conspire to preserve and restore biodiversity. They will do everything in their power to fight for whatever is left of the natural world, regardless of the difficult and disturbing nature of the challenges they face. I recently had the opportunity to discuss environmental collapse with one such unrelenting conservation scientist and educator.
Dr. Sarah Bexell received a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Environmental Studies at Augustana College, a master’s degree in Physical Anthropology from Northern Illinois University, a master’s in science education as well as a doctoral degree in Early Childhood Education and Conservation Science from Georgia State University.
Dr. Bexell has conducted conservation field studies, animal behavior, and environmental education programs in the United States as well as internationally. She is currently serving as a Research Scholar in Residence in the Human-Animal Connection Institute at the University of Denver and functions as the Director of Conservation Education and Communications at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. I recently sat down with Dr. Bexell for a cup of coffee and discussion regarding her thoughts on conservation, the collapse of industrial civilization and the future of biodiversity.
INTERVIEW WITH SARAH BEXELL
Sarah Bexell. Photo courtesy of: Sarah Bexell.
Mongabay: You have an impressive variety of experience and education. Could you describe some of the highlights of your past research in environmental conservation and education?
Sarah Bexell: I think the highlights have been working with and researching the feelings and knowledge of children. I believe in the humanity and compassion of young children and they have never failed me as so many adults do. I joke with one of my friends and we say “What if children ran the world….?” The world sure would be a kinder, healthier and happier place. Children do not want to cause harm and think often about the ramifications of their behavior. If they learn their behavior will cause harm to animals, nature or other humans, they often try to refrain. Of course they have outbursts but in general they try.
The city of Chengdu blanketed in smog. Photo by: Sarah Bexell.
Mongabay: Do you feel that a substantial shift in outreach and environmental education is transpiring as the world grapples with the global environmental crisis? In your opinion, what are some of the most progressive trends?
Sarah Bexell: I think that perhaps environmental education is taking on a whole new meaning; honestly it needs to be seen as one mechanism for survival of humanity. We are not there yet because most of humanity (especially the rich and powerful) is in a severe state of maladaptive denial. However, I have had some really promising discussions lately with folks who have more influence in global issues and the importance of environmental education is being discussed, and not just by the environmental educators, as has only been the case in the past. If you peruse websites sponsored by the UN and UN agencies, you can see they are following the sciences of global environmental change and human population issues, tracking the impact on humanity and wildlife and global ecological stability and they are gravely concerned. Admitting and facing the problems is the first step. Now the global human populace needs to join forces, hearts and minds and decide if we are going to allow Mother Earth to continue to provide for us. I had hoped we would do it for the other animals as well, and it is so painful to watch us cause them harm and suffering and snuff them out. Now it really is Earth's children who are at stake as well, but so many people don’t really know that. We have to use education and compassion to create a global social movement for compassionate and wise living. I still have hope that education will be our most powerful tool. This is the arena in which we are not progressive enough, as esteemed environmental educator, David Orr states, "We still educate our children as if there is no planetary emergency" I think that quote is from about 2004, we need to get off our butts and reform global education! No time to waste!
Mongabay: Could you briefly describe your current interests and work with panda conservation?
Sarah Bexell: My current work and interests with pandas (giant and red) are in habitat conservation. The future is immensely grim for them. We tried hard and invested huge amounts of money and time and intellectual inputs in captive breeding (of many endangered species) on good faith that humans would save space for others. And we failed, and were very misguided psychologically in our thinking. I started my career with faith in humanity, faith that we would see our cruel and destructive ways and either people still don’t know, or they are more horrific than I can bear. Of course I love giant pandas and red pandas and have spent 12 years of work and emotions trying to help them, starting by getting to know them personally. The push of humanity is so strong, everything we do in our daily lives inhibits prospects for their survival. This is not just the problem for pandas but for all animals and at the end will be for us human animals as well. My interest is in helping humans see this, see them in their peril. They are among the most recognized, as well as adorable and peaceful species, and we are killing them with our stupidity and greed. Our window is really closing, it feels as if we are speaking...screaming...into a deadly, heartless vacuum.
Mongabay: What is your impression of the overall situation for biodiversity in China?
Conserving and restoring panda habitat is key to their survival. Photo by: Sarah Bexell.
Mongabay: You recently presented an important and inspiring talk through the Occupy Denver movement regarding global change and the biodiversity crisis. In the speech you mentioned that the transition to a stable future should be characterized less as making lifestyle "sacrifices" and more as giving back to society and the environment. What do you feel are some of the examples of this that you expect to become more prominent in the near future?
Sarah Bexell: My dream is that humans can become a family, that we will look out for each other and care and love and be good creatures. I know I often sound naïve and ignorant but if we don’t dream for better things we surely never will get there. We just have to back up our dreams with action. It feels so good to help, to show love, to care for others. This also creates a feedback loop of returning care and love and support. Today, humans go buy stuff to make us feel good and it lasts seconds and the majority of goods we buy (especially in Western countries) cause unspeakable harms. What if we as a species became a giving and sharing species? One that thought about our actions with wisdom, foresight and compassion? What if those who caused harms were ostracized instead of revered and emulated? But to get there we have to teach our children well and start using our minds and hearts, not snuffing out our big brains and hearts with destructive media, not escaping into video games, movies, false realities, addictions and more deleterious obstructions. We also have to get back to valuing life—human and non-human and taking responsibility for bringing children into the world humanely and responsibly and enabling all humans to have dignity, good work (money not being the key here, but rewarding work that provides enough, and self-respect) and have essential needs met.
Mongabay: Additionally, during your speech you discussed the economic impacts of mass species die-offs on the agricultural industry. Other than the bats and the bees, what are some of the lesser known, ongoing mass deaths in crucial species?
Sarah Bexell: Amphibians are another group experiencing mass die offs, but honestly, we are within the sixth great extinction event on Earth, this one caused by human behavior. Every species is crucial other than ours; every species plays a role in healthy ecosystems, ours does not and we only leave toxins and non-biodegradables in our wake—this should foster grave responsibility in us. No species seems immune from us other than the few who actually thrive on our activity such as rats, roaches, etc (all of whom I also have immense respect for!). Perhaps we think we are immune but we are not and we need to have respect for our carrying capacity on Earth, we have overstepped our bounds and many, many humans on Earth are already suffering and in decline. We should not turn our backs on people who are suffering and in need.
Mongabay: In your Occupy talk you also observed that environmentalists are suffering tremendous psychological pressure as we witness the destruction of much of the planet’s former biodiversity and the after effects of environmental catastrophes. What is your outlook on the environmental psychology of the 21st century?
Sarah Bexell: Bleak, very, very bleak, I recently read an article in The Independent or The Guardian (forgot for sure) entitled "We have no idea the damage we have done" (something to that effect) and I also know our psychology is even further behind.
Mongabay: How can those of us affected strongly by the trauma of the ecological collapse remain effective and positive?
Sarah Bexell: Remaining effective perhaps is easier. Remaining positive, sadly for me, is by almost forcefully pushing myself into moments of denial that so many humans are so terrible, or just shutting down. And we must let ourselves cry and grieve often; this could become unhealthy so we have to be so careful, but those who are dying and being harmed by us, human and non-human animals and of course the desecration of our beautiful Earth, deserve this most emotional and deeply felt respect and sadness of their pain and loss, and for us as fighters we need to grieve to be healthy.
Bexell with dogs Darwin, Weiba, and Dahei. Photo courtesy of: Sarah Bexell.
Mongabay: In February 2012, The National Wildlife Federation published a report titled The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on the United States: and why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is not Adequately Prepared. The report states, "As our world begins to unravel and our role is undeniable, all eyes will be on us." Both you and I (and many, many others) are experiencing extraordinarily disturbing psychological effects of coming to terms with this "unraveling of the world" and the very real possibility of living through massive ecological collapse and mass human die-off. The work of paleo-psychologists suggests that the mental effects of coping with massive social upheaval during previous times of transition lead to novel social organizational paradigms. Might the feelings we have be another step in the evolution of collective consciousness and human social biology? Do you think our anxiety, sadness, frustration, and compassion for nature is justified or are we crazy? Do you believe future humans can afford to disregard their empathy for the natural world?
Sarah Bexell: We are not crazy. I honestly believe we are the only sane ones. If we watched any other organism do this we would 100 percent agree that they were either the dumbest or most insane organism ever and just wait for them to self-destruct. If some humans make it through, I believe that only empathy and living in tune and as one with the natural world is all that would allow for our species to persist. Empathy is our deepest form of wisdom and provides the knowledge on which we can build harmony and balance. If we can’t evolve socially and intellectually we will just be a blip on the evolutionary tree, a mere blunder in evolution, and Earth and all her creatures will be much better off without us.
For Earth Day, 17 celebrated scientists on how to make a better world
(04/22/2012) Seventeen top scientists and four acclaimed conservation organizations have called for radical action to create a better world for this and future generations. Compiled by 21 past winners of the prestigious Blue Planet Prize, a new paper recommends solutions for some of the world's most pressing problems including climate change, poverty, and mass extinction. The paper, entitled Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act, was recently presented at the UN Environment Program governing council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.
Researchers recreate bee collapse with pesticide-laced corn syrup
(04/05/2012) Scientists with the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) have re-created the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder in several honeybee hives simply by giving them small doses of a popular pesticide, imidacloprid. Bee populations have been dying mysteriously throughout North America and Europe since 2006, but the cause behind the decline, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, has eluded scientists. However, coming on the heels of two studies published last week in Science that linked bee declines to neonicotinoid pesticides, of which imidacloprid is one, the new study adds more evidence that the major player behind Colony Collapse Disorder is not disease, or mites, but pesticides that began to be widely used in the 1990s.
Arctic warms to highest level yet as researchers fear tipping points
(02/13/2012) Last year the Arctic, which is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth due to global climate change, experienced its warmest twelve months yet. According to recent data by NASA, average Arctic temperatures in 2011 were 2.28 degrees Celsius (4.1 degrees Fahrenheit) above those recorded from 1951-1980. As the Arctic warms, imperiling its biodiversity and indigenous people, researchers are increasingly concerned that the region will hit climatic tipping points that could severely impact the rest of the world. A recent commentary in Nature Climate Change highlighted a number of tipping points that keep scientists awake at night.
Over 5,000 vital biodiversity sites remain unprotected
(03/22/2012) A recent study has found that half of the world's Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) sites remain unprotected, leaving many endangered species, some on the verge of extinction, gravely vulnerable to habitat loss. Published in the open access journal PLoS ONE, the study urges governments to focus on expanding protected areas to cover the species that need it most.
Birders beware: climate change could push 600 tropical birds into extinction
(02/21/2012) There may be less birds for birders to see in the world as the planet warms. Climate change, in combination with deforestation, could send between 100 and 2,500 tropical birds to extinction before the end of century, according to new research published in Biological Conservation. The wide range depends on the extent of climate and how much habitat is lost, but researchers say the most likely range of extinctions is between 600 and 900 species, meaning about 10-14 percent of tropical birds, excluding migratory species.
Civilization shifting: a new leaderless era
(11/15/2011) For well over a decade global change scientists have ushered calls for urgent alteration in what they refer to as the “Business-as-Usual (BAU) paradigm” to cope with the interlinking social, economic, and environmental issues of the 21st Century. In 2001, one of the world’s largest Earth Science collaborative organizations, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), published their "A Planet Under Pressure" summary report for policy makers.
Unanimous agreement among scientists: Earth to suffer major loss in species
(11/09/2011) The thylacine, the dodo, the great auk, the passenger pigeon, the golden toad: these species have become symbols of extinction. But they are only the tip of the recent extinction crisis, and according to a survey of 583 conservation scientists, they are only the beginning. In a new survey in Conservation Biology, 99.5 percent of conservation scientists said a serious loss in biodiversity was either 'likely', 'very likely', or 'virtually certain'. The prediction of a significant loss of species is not surprising—scientists have been warning for decades that if global society continues with business as usual the world will suffer from mass extinction—what is perhaps surprising is the practically unanimous expectation that a global biodiversity decline will occur.
Five ways to feed billions without trashing the planet
(10/13/2011) At the end of this month the UN predicts global population will hit 7 billion people, having doubled from 3.5 billion in less than 50 years. Yet even as the Earth hits this new milestone, one billion people do not have enough food; meanwhile the rapid expansion of agriculture is one of the leading causes of global environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of forests, marine pollution, mass extinction, water scarcity, and soil degradation. So, how do we feed the human population—which continues to rise and is expected to hit nine billion by 2050—while preserving the multitude of ecosystem services that support global food production? A new study in Nature proposes a five-point plan to this dilemma.
Nobel laureates: 'we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years'
(05/23/2011) Last week the 3rd Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability concluded with participants—including 17 past Nobel Prize winners and 40 other experts—crafting and signing the Stockholm Memorandum. The document calls for emergency actions to tackle human pressures on the Earth's environment while ensuring a more equitable and just world.