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Doing good and staying sane amidst the global environmental crisis

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.
The vanishing giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is just one victim of the global environmental crisis. Photo by: Sarah Bexell.

Several years ago while teaching a course in environmental science a student raised her hand during our discussion of the circumstances of modern ecological collapse and posed the question, “what happens when there is no more environment?” At the time I had no response and stumbled to formulate some sort of reply based on the typical aseptic, apathetic logic with which we are programmed through education in the scientific tradition: that there will always be some sort of environment, that life has prospered through the five previous mass extinctions and that something will survive. While this may be the case, the time has come for more of us to consider the broader spectrum of what global humanity is facing as the planet’s ecology is decimated.

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.


Sarah Bexell. Photo courtesy of: 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.
The city of Chengdu blanketed in smog. Photo by: Sarah Bexell.

When I started working for animals I was (and still am!) interested in their behavior and feelings. I had always loved and watched animals and had many pets. I thought I would be a veterinarian, but it was their behavior that intrigued me and drew me to them. I felt everything they did and I wanted to understand them better. I enrolled in degree programs that would help me study them but found they were all endangered (this was the early 1990s before public society was really aware of the biodiversity crisis) and I was really upset—so angry and sad that we as a species were doing this to all the others that I loved. I moved into education because I wanted our harms to stop. Maybe I have been naïve, but the root of almost all of the education and conservation programs I have helped to develop have been on helping people learn about animals’ minds—their emotions and behaviors and family structures—to foster empathy in hopes they will want to protect all animal others. The biggest emotional surge I have in my career is when I see people in our programs bond with animals, see them for who they are, and then think about their personal behaviors and what they can do to stop the harms they incur, and develop more personal behaviors to help. Recently, with global issues becoming so severe and harming so many other humans, I have started incorporating knowledge about how we harm humans with our (especially American) daily behaviors.

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.
Conserving and restoring panda habitat is key to their survival. Photo by: Sarah Bexell.

Sarah Bexell: It is gone, one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse bodies of land, freshwater and oceans, and it is gone. Chinese citizens did not accomplish this devastating destruction alone. The world has wanted cheap and noxious goods from China for a long time. Most humans on Earth have had a hand in this, me included, of course I have items made in China. Time to talk about making goods locally and appreciating everything we have the privilege of having, and stop this ridiculous talk about promoting the economy—that seems to be the death wish of humanity.

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.
Bexell with dogs Darwin, Weiba, and Dahei. Photo courtesy of: Sarah Bexell.

Back to being effective, one thing is of course is to cause the least harm in our daily lives and that is the easiest to do – our diets, purchasing patterns, leisure time activities and more can be less harmful. Do it and model it, it feels good. We can choose careers and jobs in the helping fields, “green jobs” etc. We need to talk; the bad guys are always flapping their jaws and poisoning people with their cruelty and greed and arrogance; their skills in manipulation are astonishing. Why are the good guys silent? I know because they attack us, but we have to be stronger and we have to work on being wiser than they are. And we have to coalesce together. Everywhere I turn people are pleading with me for direction and guidance into a better and kinder human presence on Earth. I personally am tired of having so little to tell them to do. I must work harder on this. With so much burgeoning desire to be a better species, we must join together and be a force, like the amazing humans that abolished legal slavery and accomplished so much in striving for gender equality and rights, ending apartheid and more, we need to gather our strength, hearts and minds and envision a healthy and compassionate future, let go of our ridiculous boundaries, define what we need to do and all the while be doing it! We have no time to waste.

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.

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