"Is Realism Helpful?"

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 39 No. 8, August 2019

By Amy Lewis

Rapidly dwindling opportunities to act in time to end the Sixth Extinction and address the climate crisis leave many of us, myself included, torn between what we think is likely about the future and what we think is possible. A global gathering for the protection of life (wild11.org), convening in India next March, promises to help bridge the gulf between realism and ambition by mobilising leaders and communities around the world to help take the unprecedented step of protecting half of Earth’s land and seas to significantly reduce the dual threats of climate change and extinction. The best part? You are invited.

Of the many curious and consequential artifacts collected in my workplace, my favourite by far is a single-page email tucked away on a dingy shelf in the stairwell. It is not the aesthetic appeal of a white page sandwiched between two plates of cheap plastic that pleases me. What sends shivers of delight down my spine when I pass it in the morning on my way for a cup of coffee is the defiant spirit that placed it there. Humming with the energy of a 60s’ rock concert, a protest anthem manifested in memo format.

As poor rainfall and subsequent water scarcity cripple the landlocked African country of Mali, elephants are increasingly visiting watering holes near human settlements. The Mali Elephant Project, launched in 2007 by the WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada, is building systems that motivate local communities to protect forests while improving their own livelihoods. Photo Courtesy: WILD Foundation

When in the history of things has a lustreless styrene frame so proudly showcased the trophy of a fomenting rebellion?

It was composed nearly 10 years ago by a prominent international conservation official, who aimed to deflate the “unrealistically ambitious” intention of the WILD Foundation (the NGO for which I work) to persuade the world to protect half of Earth’s land and seas in time to end the Sixth Extinction and address the climate crisis.

“You will be laughed at,” he warns.

Taking a highlighter to those very words before framing it, WILD’s President baptised it with a marker’s stroke and converted it into a fluorescent yellow badge of honour.

The Neelakurinji flower, once found all across the southern region of the Western Ghats is now only found in Munnar, Kerala as tea plantations and human settlements have encroached much of its habitat. The flower blooms no more than once in 12 years, draping vast landscapes with its purplish blue hue. The shrinking habitat of this floral wonder is one of many examples that reiterate the need to strengthen biodiversity protection. Photo: Babu Thomas

Nature Needs Half

The specific circumstance surrounding this email was WILD’s dreadfully audacious decision in 2009 to launch the Nature Needs Half movement (natureneedshalf.org) at the ninth World Wilderness Congress (WILD9) in Mexico. WILD’s leaders (including representatives from traditional, Indigenous Peoples) recognised the growing need to holistically and globally protect the interlinked parts of Earth’s ancient life-giving engine – wilderness. They deemed that any cost their “unrealistic ambition” might incur to their reputations was miniscule compared to the urgent needs of nature and the eight million species, including our own, dependent on its continuation.

The years immediately following the Nature Needs Half launch were challenging. As with most historic movements, the Nature Needs Half vision preceded, by necessity, widespread understanding and acceptance. In the words of another critic (whose email we also framed), WILD was “getting too big for its britches.”

Monkeys overlooking the concrete jungle that is Jaipur, Rajasthan. Wildlife and human lives overlap in myriad ways every day. In the middle of the city is the miraculous Jhalana Reserve, where over 20 leopards – cats that generally prefer a large territory – have learnt to live in a 24 sq. km. area. Photo: Jeetu Jam

However, things change. In the last few years, a growing cadre of conservation leaders has publicly declared their support for protecting at least 50 per cent of Earth’s land and seas, sooner, rather than later. Their leadership fills terrain pioneered by a handful of presumptuous, gutsy and, yes, unrealistically ambitious visionaries, and a serious global conversation about how much wild nature humans need to survive has been possible.

What would we ever do without the leadership of those who outgrow the restrictive britches that bind us?

In the annals of information, these emails belong inside the archive of true, but useless things. True, people laughed at us. However, the greater need is to save our biosphere before it is too late. These emails are Exhibit A in the case I am about to make, the case for useful fictions. Because, the idea that we can head off the worst of the climate and extinction crises is, at present, very likely fiction. Nevertheless, fiction, not fact, drives historic change.

If we remain forever moored in undiluted realism, how can we ever travel the currents of imagination to a place that shows us that one day, things might be different, and we can be the agents that take us there?

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai is one of the largest Protected Areas in any megacity worldwide and leopard-human conflict has been prevalent here since the 1980s. Photo: Nikit Surve

The more things change…

Just last week I received another email, sharing a CNN article that could double for the signature of a coroner on nature’s death certificate. Detailing the undeniably real, unprecedented, and disturbing threats confronting our world, its author contends, “humanity is incapable of reckoning with changes this massive and this slow-moving” before concluding on this heart-achingly poetic and fatalistic note:

To write about this now, in 2019, feels like screaming into a storm. It's still possible for us to hear – barely. But the noise is almost deafening.

How tender these defeatists are!

I wonder about the specifics of this statement. Who is screaming? Where is the storm? To what noise specifically does he refer? Finally, who is being deafened? Me? Him? The faceless masses? If option c, how is he so sure that is what they are experiencing? I doubt he surveyed them.

Sometimes, we like to indulge pessimism and allow it to parade as realism. I myself have done so on countless occasions. I can utterly relate to the author if his motives were more or less the same.

Renowned South African artist Andries Botha created these large elephant sculptures at Wild9, the Ninth Wilderness Congress held by the WILD Foundation in 2009 in Merida, Mexico. The Congress hosted over 1,800 delegates from 50 countries and an additional 12,000 online participants. Photo Courtesy: WILD Foundation

However, if his actual intention was to mobilise people to do something to avert the oncoming planetary catastrophe, then I fear he has undermined his own objective.

What’s more, few conservationists would describe their work as “screaming into a storm.” I know I do not. 

Yes, the pace of change can be frustratingly slow, and in the next 10 years, it must accelerateRapidly. Screaming into a storm usually does not yield the results we have achieved in the last 10 years. Conservation has taken, after all, the goal of protecting half of Earth from being a laughing stock to the central topic of the next United Nations Convention on Biodiversity to be held at the end of 2020. Results like that are not typically born from the wailing and gnashing of teeth in inclement weather.

Yes, if we are being purely realistic, things are not looking good. Despite the need to reduce global carbon emissions by half before 2030 to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, emissions continue to increase around the world. Moreover, wild nature is not faring much better. The current President of Brazil has all but declared war on the rainforest and the Indigenous Peoples therein. Meanwhile, China moves forward with the Belt Road Initiative, the world’s biggest infrastructure project that, if carried out as planned, will lay waste some of Earth’s most needed wild landscapes.

Then, there is the small matter of Trump.

How much is life on Earth worth to you?

How delusional would you have to be to think that humans will actually pull themselves out of this mess?

When you find yourself asking that question, do me a favour: picture my workplace, an unusually homey office building at the tranquil feet of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Imagine that you have come for a visit and that I am steering you to the stairwell so that we can go have a cup of coffee. You pass by an inconspicuous frame and notice five words highlighted in yellow. You briefly stop to read them.

Now ask yourself the question: how much is life on Earth worth to you?

One way or another, I believe that we will put a stop to the Sixth Extinction and solve the climate crisis to the extent that it is now possible – this is an article of faith for me. I will not let the naysayers, regardless of the poetry and fatalism they invoke, persuade me otherwise. 

It is not going to be easy. It will require completely novel approaches to organising ourselves on a global scale. Nevertheless, if you really think about it, that is nothing new. Of the handful of characterisations about humans that hold true across space and time, few are more absolute than the indisputably precedent nature of the unprecedented. Our imaginations are things of power. When we believe in them, we change the world. 

India's road network is the second largest in the world after the U.S., estimated at 5.6 million km. in 2016. A large range of species, including sloth bears like this one are massacred on roads daily – few studies have been able to estimate the exact number. Many that manage to stumble into the vegetation, are scavenged, or removed off the road remain unrecorded. Photo: Rahul Kuchankar
That is no reason to relax at this critical juncture in human history, but it is more than sufficient encouragement to take a break from unhelpful facts that are more likely to discourage action than manifest it.

A Voice for Tomorrow

By Heeta Lakhani
Executive Director, WILD11

June 2019 at the international climate change negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany: The room was tense. Discussions were heated. Countries were trying to decide how the 1.50C Special Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would be incorporated in the Paris Agreement Work Programme. Some countries pointed out the gaps in the report. Observers watched intently, wishing fervently for an outcome.

The meeting ended and the only decision taken was to have another one the next day and continue discussions. The youth delegates present in the room looked at one another in dismay. Later that day, during an evening debrief meeting, the events of the session were discussed. A plan of action was thought over. We, the youth, needed to understand the position of the countries and try and talk to them about the importance of substantive conclusions in the Paris Agreement Work Programme. One country after another, met them formally or had informal conversations in the cafeteria. The bottom line remained the same, push countries to come up with a robust inclusion of the IPCC 1.50C Special Report because the future of young people depended on it.

I am just another young person worried about the future of my generation, as well as the generations after me. Having grown up in Mumbai, I have seen natural ecosystems being compromised for the sake of development. I was 13 when I was coming home from school one afternoon and I saw trees on Marine Drive being uprooted for the beautification project. Tall coconut palms being taken down. And I couldn’t understand how anyone could see beauty by taking the trees out of the picture! I couldn’t contain myself and started crying! I still remember the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to do anything in this situation!

As I grew up, my love for nature remained unwavering. I pursued a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies and Resource Management from TERI University. I gradually got introduced to the international climate change processes. I met young people from across the world who wanted to ensure that the voices of millions of young people are represented when international decisions are taken. This was my stepping stone into the world of negotiations hosted by the UNFCCC. And as I got more interested in the processes and procedures, I realised how isolated this world is from our lives back home. While at the same time, the decisions taken here influence all lives across the globe! The gaps are real and they are huge! I had to let the youth of Mumbai know about these international procedures, about the science of climate change and just how serious the situation is!

That was how project Green Warriors was born. It started organically, with a friend supporting me and was soon formalised into a programme for school kids on climate change education and action. We explained the science of climate change, the reasons behind why it is a crisis and ended with a call to action, all interspersed with songs and storytelling. I want to reassure other young people that we have hope. That each and every one of us play a part in deciding the future of our common home, and in turn that of humanity itself.

Volunteers at Wild10, the 10th Congress held by the WILD Foundation in Salamanca, Spain in October 2013. Thousands of delegates, including conservationists, scientists, indigenous leaders and artists from 65 countries, with an additional 25,000 online participants, attended the Congress. Photo: leopoldo Garcia/wild 10

I am delighted to be a part of the Sanctuary family. I grew up reading Sanctuary Cub, making pen pals on the way. And it feels like the circle is finally complete. At the 11th World Wilderness Congress to be held in March 2020, we will be connecting the dots between wilderness, economics and climate change. We cannot talk about one without affecting the other, and human induced climate change is a spoiler for both wilderness and economics. We need to have everyone on board, from the most marginalised communities to policy makers together in order to have meaningful outcomes. And young people have to run with this baton of outcomes in order to ensure that it is implemented. Wild 11 aims at a global collaboration between multiple stakeholders towards protecting the foundation of life on Earth - Wilderness.


Now, more than ever is our time to cherish and commit to powerful fictions about what the world can be. That is why I invite you to the Eleventh World Wilderness Congress (WILD11) in Jaipur, India, March 19-26, 2020. Here you will have the opportunity of joining me and others like us, and show the world what believing in something better can do.

It is also your opportunity to help continue what started back in Mexico at WILD9, the protection of half our planet’s land and seas.

WILD11 is the global leadership and community organising an answer to the dual existential threats of extinction and climate breakdown. We are rapidly approaching a planetary collapse of the processes that make life on Earth, especially human life, possible. To address this crisis at its global scale, we must mobilise leaders from around the world and all sectors of society to protect and expand the source of all life and nature-based solutions: wilderness.

A Nilgiri tahr in Valparai. Grasslands that provides vital shelter and nutrition to them have been dwindling rapidly over the years. Moreover, roads cutting through their habitats and corridors, coupled with tourists that harass them have further adversely affected their population. Photo: Sajeesh Radhakrishnan

It starts with commitment to a belief.

Recognising that no one person, organisation, or government can do this alone, WILD11 brings leaders together from all walks of life – business, tradition, science, the arts, government, and activism – to forge policy, create practical actions, and strengthen grassroots, national, and intergenerational leadership in all sectors. We advance the most urgent agenda of our time, one that can manifest a new relationship with nature that allows people to live in harmony with wildlife and wild places, for the benefit of all life on Earth. 

If we fail to so, it will be because we deluded ourselves into believing solely the facts to be true instead of what our imaginations told us was possible.

Nevertheless, we will not fail.

Join me at WILD11 to stimulate our imagination and our potency, embracing only the facts and fictions that serve our historic cause. 

Greta Thunberg, the powerful Swedish climate activist is fond of saying that she does not want our hope. Well, I do not want your despair, either.

Come, join me in committing to positive, world-changing action, this upcoming March in Jaipur.


Author : Amy Lewis

join the conversation