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Margaret Southern: small efforts can add up to big impact

Margaret Southern writes about international conservation strategies and projects for The Nature Conservancy’s editorial strategy team. She also writes about green living for TNC’s Cool Green Science blog and recently started TNC’s newest campaign, All Hands On Earth, which informs the public about the little things anyone can do to make a positive impact on the planet. Southern’s latest project is Picnic for the Planet, an Earth Day celebration, which begins next month.

Morgan Erickson-Davis: How did you get your start as a writer?

Margaret Southern: I was a voracious reader as a child, and writing was just the natural next step. I loved creative writing. I would write poems , short stories, anything that came to mind. One of my favorite memories from childhood is the time I got a standing ovation from my classmates for a scary Halloween story I wrote and read aloud in fourth grade. I would give anything to be able to remember what that story was about!

The older I got the more interested I became in writing about real topics. Then I majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina and learned firsthand that reporting takes a lot of work and a lot of drive. I also studied copy editing, which is something that I think every writer should be required to do.

Morgan Erickson-Davis: What conservation issues most interest you?

Margaret Southern and coworkers in the Brazilian Amazon
Margaret Southern and coworkers in the Brazilian Amazon

Margaret Southern: It’s really hard to choose! Well, on the Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog I’ve written about a number of different “green living” topics. I think it’s interesting to explore how people feel about making lifestyle changes in the name of the environment. It can be really personal, especially when it comes to changing your dietary habits. Food is more than just nourishment for most people – it evokes connections to family, culture and cherished memories.

People often also feel paralyzed by the enormity of the challenges we face and that their actions don’t matter. We just launched a new campaign called All Hands on Earth that promotes the idea that together, all of our small actions can add up to make a big difference.

I’m also a serious animal person. I grew up in a pretty hardcore bird-watching family, and waking up at 5 a.m. on our vacations in birding hotspots was the norm. As I imagine is the case for many people, most of the awe-inspiring moments I’ve experienced in nature have involved seeing a particular animal up close.

Morgan Erickson-Davis: All Hands on Earth’s a great site! How did it come about?

Margaret Southern snorkeling in Papua New Guinea
Margaret Southern snorkeling in Papua New Guinea

Margaret Southern: Many people think of The Nature Conservancy as the organization that protects land from people. But the truth is, we’re protecting the planet for people. Our watersheds provide clean water, our oceans provide the main source of protein for 1 billion people and our forests help protect us from the effects of climate change. All Hands on Earth is a way to reconnect people to all those things that nature does, and provides opportunities for us all to protect it and enjoy it. It’s all about making conservation actions part of our daily lives.

I’m really excited about our Earth Day celebration — Picnic for the Planet. We’re asking people to celebrate the Earth and the food it provides for us by doing something so fun and easy — have a picnic!

Morgan Erickson-Davis: Do you still bird-watch? What are your favorite spots and species?

Margaret Southern: It’s sad to say that I was a much more proficient birder when I was 10 years old than I am today (sorry, mom and dad!). I’ve become a very opportunistic birder — mostly just breaking out the binoculars when I’m traveling and could see some exotic species.

My favorite sightings from the past few years: Scarlet Macaws and Hoatzin in Brazil; Keel-Billed Toucans and Pale-Billed Woodpeckers in Costa Rica; and four species of Bird of Paradise in Papua New Guinea. On the birding bucket list: a Shoebill (native to East Africa) and a Quetzal (Central America).

Morgan Erickson-Davis: What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned about environmental writing?

Margaret Southern: It’s really all about the people. It’s human nature to connect and empathize with other people. A story about destruction of a watershed is not nearly as powerful as a story about the woman downstream who now has a hard time accessing clean water.

Morgan Erickson-Davis: I’ve been hearing a lot about the human side of conservation recently. What are some of the most striking examples you have observed?

Margaret Southern birdwatching in Papua New Guinea
Margaret Southern birdwatching in Papua New Guinea

Margaret Southern: I had the great pleasure of visiting some of the communities the Conservancy works with in Papua New Guinea. In the Adelbert Mountain region, the Conservancy worked with a community that wanted to conserve their natural resources for the long-term rather than sell logging concessions for a short-term profit. The Conservancy worked with villagers to develop land use management plans that set aside large swaths of land for conservation, along with designated shared areas for farming, hunting and gathering building materials. In exchange, the Conservancy would help the villagers get what they really needed: access to health care, improved education and other health and human services.

When I visited in 2008, four villages had just received massive rainwater collection tanks through a grant the Conservancy helped to secure. These tanks would ensure that everyone had access to drinking water through the dry season, and kept women from having to walk long distances for water year-round. It was just a really striking example for me of how conservation can be a win-win for people and nature: The communities were able to keep their forests and natural resources intact for themselves and future generations, and they were able to improve their quality of life.

Morgan Erickson-Davis: Any advice for aspiring environmental writers?

Margaret Southern: A background in science is obviously a plus for almost every topic in the environmental world. But being able to explain the science involved to a layperson in as few words as possible is where the magic happens.

Read more about Margaret Southern and her pursuits by checking out her twitter, All Hands on Earth’s twitter, and The Nature Conservancy’s Facebook page and twitter

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