The Smithsonian Conservation Commons’ Earth Optimism Summit 2017

by Kate Christen (Smithsonian Institution)

Dr. Leah Barclay, Australian sound artist, composer, and researcher, President of the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology, presenting in the Science, Conservation, Inspiration session of the 2017 Earth Optimism Summit. Photo Credit: Ronda Ann Gregorio

During Earth Day weekend, 21-23 April 2017, the Smithsonian Institution convened the first “Earth Optimism Summit” in Washington, D.C. This three-day event focused on highlighting, explicating, and celebrating approaches, methods, and philosophies that are working for conservation of nature, natural resources, and nature-respecting human systems around the globe. Equally important, the Summit presenters’ many narratives also focused on exploring how to replicate or scale up these successes.

The Summit featured TED-style talks by some 200 speakers, representing a wide mix of professions and vocations, including many academics from the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Alongside these were civic and business leaders, philanthropists, conservation field practitioners, and former and present representatives of government entities and non-governmental organizations. Naturally, many of the speakers fit more—sometimes several more—than one of these professional categories.

“One of the greatest strengths of the Smithsonian is the unique position we occupy at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and sciences,” said Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton just ahead of the Summit. “Earth Optimism is an example of how we can leverage this position.” As a world-known crosspoint for all sectors of disciplinary knowledge, research, and display, the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism “leveraging” drew together a range of thinkers and doers from around the globe to illustrate ecologically and environmentally sound approaches to some of the most pressing issues facing the world today. The cumulative effect of all these concise, engaging narratives of journey, transition, and success was indeed both optimism and a new “how-to” awareness among Summit-goers. As Smithsonian marine scientist and Summit co-chair Nancy Knowlton puts it, “The best way to encourage conservation is to share our success stories, not to write ever-more-refined obituaries for the planet.”

With no single venue at the Smithsonian ample enough to house its plenaries and multiple simultaneous “deep dive” sessions, the core Summit activities took place at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center. Steps away from the Federal Triangle Metro Station, the site is also a short distance from the Smithsonian’s many history, science, and art museums and research centers on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. Nearly 1,500 onsite ticketed Summit participants attended these Reagan Center talks. Thousands of additional viewers tuned in via live web stream. With all of the Summit’s speaker presentation events available online at the Summit’s web portal, these “virtual attendee” numbers continue to grow.

More than 400 students participated in the ticketed Summit events, including undergraduate and graduate students from 59 institutions of higher learning. Thirty-two high school students from 13 schools also attended with their mentors. High school and university students engaged in several activities designed specifically for and by them: Youth Conservation Salons in a lightning-talk format, capacity-building workshops such as how to make compelling videos or launch Kickstarter campaigns, and an Earth Optimism video competition.

Public access to Summit activities was an intentional component from the outset of planning. In addition to live-streaming and archiving the talks, this also translated to providing a host of onsite activities in the Reagan Center’s large entrance forum, a publicly accessible area that welcomed more than 1000 non-ticketed visitors over the weekend. Saturday saw many damp drop-ins from the March for Science and Saturday’s transit between Summit and March went both ways: numerous summit speakers and ticketed attendees, including Dennis Hayes, national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, were also marchers, pre-March rally speakers, or even March organizers. Like many, my teenage son split his time that day between Summit and March, somehow even finding himself an opportunity to high-five Bill Nye as the March got underway.

Marchers who stopped into the Summit found plenty to experience onsite, including an exhibit, curated by Smithsonian Institutional Historians Pamela Henson and Lisa Fthenakis, of captioned historic images of Smithsonian environmental monitoring and conservation programs, ranging from weather observing networks in the 1850s, to bison conservation at the National Zoo, to a present-day project digitizing 19th-century field notebooks. Drop-ins could also partake in twenty interactive exhibits showcasing innovative conservation tools, products, and programs associated with groups such as Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Conservation International, National Geographic, and many others.

The Summit also extended across the Smithsonian itself. In addition to the action at the Reagan Center, two dozen public events were held in 14 Smithsonian museums and galleries in Washington, New York, and Panama. These events included film screenings, a teen-only program at the National Museum of Natural History, and an exhibit on the history of Earth Day at the National Museum of American History. Arts and culture were well represented by events at the National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of the American Indian, and at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Optimism also spread throughout the world that weekend: from Colombia to New Zealand, a variety of museums, nonprofits, and academic institutions hosted 26 sister events celebrating conservation successes and inspiring positive change.

Global in both its intellectual reach and its associated events, the Summit was also rather audacious in its planning: Earth Optimism was committed to, and scheduled, scarcely a year before Earth Day 2017, one output of a series of key meetings of the newly minted Smithsonian-wide “Conservation Commons” initiative. The Commons itself is a pan-Institutional collaborative endeavor dedicated to bringing together Smithsonian units, Smithsonian researchers, and their worldwide collaborators to tackle complex conservation problems in dimensions up to and including on the global scale. By late 2015, the Commons had advanced four foundational focal areas. By mid-2016, Earth Optimism had become the chosen vehicle for forward movement on the Changing Human Attitudes focal area. By design, the Summit also served as the inaugural event for publicly “launching” the Commons. Also by intention, the three other focal areas, Biodiversity Friendly Food, Working Land and Seascapes, and Movement of Life, were featured significantly among the topic matter of the Summit’s three days of plenaries, deep-dive sessions, and workshops.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (right), former President of Iceland (1996-2016), who now serves as the Chair of the Arctic Circle Assembly, in an onstage conversation at the 2017 Earth Optimism Summit, with Summit Co-Chair, Steven Monfort, Director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Photo credit: Ronda Ann Gregorio

Historians of science who care to view the large portfolio of Summit video offerings will find some excellent background and content material for a range of university and secondary-school courses, and potentially for their own research, as well. An example: a consortium of colleagues at four Virginia universities are developing an undergraduate/graduate “Virginia Food Systems Leadership Institute” course. We’re offering this two-week course in June 2018, at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Virginia, followed up by two-week, onsite-practicum projects at each of the four partner universities. As of July, these Earth Optimism talks and panels (produced by Nalu Creative Productions) were all up on the web.

Reviewing these, already my colleagues and I have identified about 25 local, regional, and international narratives we may draw upon for either background information or curriculum content. Interactions among science, sustainability, biodiversity, and human systems are apparent in all the stories these talks tell. From our vantage, the “local” category includes a presentation at the New Foods session by Sperryville, Virginia farmer Rachel Bynum, focused on rebuilding soil health at Waterpenny Farm, a twenty-acre vegetable farm she and her husband, Eric Plaksin, operate on leased land. It’s a 40-year leasehold that they carefully worked out with an enthusiastic landlord over a 2-year period in the mid-1990s. That innovative, and now locally replicated, secure land tenure arrangement allowed Rachel and Eric to start farming, and start a family, twenty years ago in a county whose land values (though evidently not its actual soil value) rendered it otherwise unapproachable for interested young farmers like them. Today they are reaping not only 28 varieties of heirloom and heirloom-hybrid tomatoes, but also beautiful soil unimagined by most in the county twenty years ago.

Regional: Young kelp farmer Sarah Redmond’s presentation in the Green Farming, Blue Fishing panel was especially memorable to me. That’s not only because I’m a longtime seaweed eater, but also because Sarah’s narrative offered such cogent reflections about capacity development and knowledge adaptation and transfer. When Sarah couldn’t find the training she sought, to learn to grow and harvest seaweed, she took the academic training that she could find—in fish aquaculture and marine botany—worked it through again at NOAA’s Maine Sea Grant program, as a farmer, researcher, educator, and research specialist from 2012-2016, and transformed it into the founding and management of Sorrento Seaweed, a cutting-edge (at least for the United States) seaweed farming enterprise in Maine. Her work, as the Earth Optimism website declares, has “inspired a domestic seaweed revival.”

International: among the speakers at Friday’s USAID-sponsored deep dive, The Wild Table: Fish, Forests, and Food Security, was Terry Sunderland, Principal Scientist at CIFOR, the Centre for International Forestry Research. Based at CIFOR since 2006, he has led the development of a program of work on forests and food security, today fully integrated into CIFOR’s strategy under the research theme, “Sustainable Landscapes and Food Systems,” and chairs an expert panel in the UN system’s Committee on World Food Security. Sunderland’s talk focused on the critical role that wild fish and forests play in contributing to food security and resilience. Sunderland and fellow panelists, Nygiel Armada, Chief of Party of the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (ECOFISH) Project, Kelsey Evezich, Conservation Technology Project Lead at Duke University, and journalist Simran Sethi, addressed what they each knew, and found encouraging, about innovative approaches and successes in integrating biodiversity conservation and food security…and “about how we can save foods by savoring them.”

Similarly, a host of other “change makers and innovators” shared, in their presentations and in follow-on discussions, story after story in their chosen fields and topics of study, mapping Earth-Optimistic paths and way-stations. These are variously focused on—to name only a few more of what you’ll find in the recordings—saving and reintroducing wildlife and wild plant species; creating and enacting the conditions requisite for biodiverse and sustainable cities, from initial design to massive human-waste recuperation; tracking animal migrations and other movements of life around our planet; implementing state-of-art DNA-based tools for combatting poaching and curtailing disruptive invasive species; restoring big-city harbor oyster reefs; or pioneering coral cryopreservation.
Collectively, these stories allow us to reflect on the power of innovation, and the value of keeping that quality relative in its power. Engaging “radical innovation” in addressing environmental challenges, though appealing to many would-be world-savers, may not always be the best approach. Cumulatively, these narratives indicate that, most often, synthesizing “novel” elements with tried and tested approaches and mechanisms will likely best allow for replicability, scalability, and affordability of more success stories and Optimism for Planet Earth.

Further Resources: