Forward Thinkers

People to Watch in 2007

Illustration by ©Michael Gibbs

Conservation is a social act. Yes, it deals with the vast spheres of biology and geology outside the human realm, but people are its driving force, with a long roster of notable names from Leopold to Carson to Soulé. The following pages feature several people who stand to influence conservation, in large part by working in a social context. Two architects stand to bring conservation to urban design. An entomologist finds new ways to track insects, possibly with the help of NASA—one of the farthest-reaching scientific enterprises in human history. This year, a new leader steps to the helm of the world’s largest conservation network. And an irreverent former ecologist is using film to help the scientific community adapt to the art of modern storytelling and mass communication. It’s a brave new world that has such people in it. We’re glad to introduce them to you.

Matthew Berman & Andrew Kotchen

Award-winning ecological architects
By Charles Alexander

Think back for a moment to some of the most devastating images you’ve ever seen: those televised scenes from the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now look at the drawing above, a vision of an urban oasis, where homes nestle amid greenery and residents visit one another on cool, shaded pathways. Could this be the future of the Lower Ninth Ward? Absolutely, say Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen. Both only 34 years old, these two architects represent the future of sustainable design. This year they are creating a new kind of New Orleans neighborhood, where people will save energy, recycle resources, and live in tune with nature rather than apart from it. “It’s a tremendously exciting project,” says Kotchen. “We are doing something in a place that is in desperate need.”

 

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Matthew Berman (left) and Andrew Kotchen

The development is the brainchild of actor Brad Pitt and Matt Petersen, president of the environmental activist group Global Green USA, the American affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross International. Last year Pitt and Global Green cosponsored a competition to design and build a sustainable neighborhood in New Orleans. In August, after reviewing proposals from more than 160 designers and getting input from local residents, a panel of expert judges picked the GREEN.O.LA plan from Berman and Kotchen, partners in Workshop/apd, the New York City design firm they cofounded in 1999. One year after Katrina, there was a blueprint for not only rebuilding a New Orleans neighborhood but for making it better than before.

Located in the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward, the GREEN.O.LA project will consist of one 12-unit multifamily dwelling, six single-family homes, a day-care center, and a community center with small-business services. Global Green and Pitt are now raising US$5 million to US$7 million in hopes that construction can begin this summer and be completed within a year. Ecofriendly features will include rooftop vegetation and solar panels to generate electricity, solar water heaters, a rainwater-collection system, and a centralized geothermal system to circulate water and moderate temperatures in all the houses. Together, the residents will use a community garden and compost heap, a farmers’ market, and a recycling center. One of the most innovative ideas is that the housing will be built in a variety of designs from modular units that are prefabricated offsite with the most sustainable materials available. “I love that it can be replicated,” says Pitt, “and not in a cookie-cutter style.”

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But not everyone in New Orleans will have Brad Pitt as a benefactor and chief fund-
raiser. With all the solar panels and such, won’t this housing be rather pricey for the predominantly low-income residents of the inner city? Not in the long run. Berman and Kotchen have calculated that a typical family of four will save more than $2500 a year on such expenses as energy and water bills. They concede, though, that upfront costs will be higher than for standard construction. Until sustainable design becomes mainstream, people will need tax credits and other subsidies. “But as more and more people use this technology, the costs will drop,” says Berman.

Before Katrina, ironically, Berman and Kotchen had designed mostly luxury housing for well-heeled Manhattan clients such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “We didn’t know much about sustainability,” admits Berman. “But as soon as we got into the competition, we realized how important sustainability was and how much we had to learn.” He and Kotchen acknowledge that ecoconscious construction is happening around the country and that they are relative newcomers to the field. Their goal is to help make sustainability more popular by making it aesthetically more pleasing. Solar panels and geothermal cooling are great, but what really sells a project is how it looks and feels. “We spent a lot of time,” says Berman, “considering what it would be like to walk through the community—being on a bridge, being in a garden, standing on your green roof looking down into the communal space.” And the two idealistic young architects hope that modular construction can keep the price down and someday make this kind of housing available to anyone. “Our goal,” says Kotchen, “is to create something sustainable, modular, affordable—and well designed.”

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Julia Marton-Lefèvre

The new leader of the world’s largest conservation network
By Frances Cairncross

As in so many walks of life, the people at the top of the world’s environmental institutions are mainly men. But as of January 1, 2007, the head of the biggest conservation union in the world will be a woman—and a shrewd, innovative, and elegant one at that.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the new Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has not run a purely environmental body before. What’s more, she does not look like the environmentalist of popular imagination. No sandals, no homespun or dirndl. Tall and blonde, with a passion for lovely clothes and gorgeous pashminas, she is used to making an entrance and an impact.

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The IUCN is the world’s largest conservation network. Founded in 1948, it is the only international institution to combine nongovernmental groups, governments, and scientists as members. Based in Switzerland, it runs an impressive research program and campaigns to save threatened species and ecosystems. It has been very rare that any such powerful international environmental coalition has been run by a woman.

Marton-Lefèvre came to environmental issues by a circuitous route. But hindsight reveals how her early life fitted her well for the variety of tasks that the role requires. In particular, it made her very much an international figure, a citizen of the world, with strong links to every continent and a strong belief in the importance of education as a tool for spreading environmental awareness.

She was born in Hungary to parents who were well educated intellectuals with passionate liberal ideals. Her father had a doctorate in economics, her mother a doctorate in history. Unusually for people of their social standing, both were journalists, working for the Associated Press and United Press International news agencies. Both went to prison for their ideals under the communist regime in the early 1950s.

At the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Marton-Lefèvre was 10 years old. The revolution broke out October 23; the Soviet troops returned November 4. “Much of the story the world got during those 10 days came from my parents’ telex machine,” she recalls. During that turbulent period, her father took into their house one of his former interrogators—to rescue him from the wrath of rebelling students. His generosity brought rewards: when the troops returned, he was tipped off in time to escape across Budapest’s famous chain bridge to the security of the American embassy compound. There, her family joined Cardinal Mindszenty, the head of Hungary’s Catholic Church, who had just been liberated from prison by the revolutionaries.

In time, the family escaped to the U.S. Her father went to work for AP, her mother became a high-school teacher. But Marton-Lefèvre never felt fully American. She split her undergraduate years between the U.S. and France, studying biology and history. But “what changed my life was the Peace Corps,” she recalls. She went to Thailand and learned Thai, which she still speaks fluently. The experience opened her eyes to a culture that was neither American nor European.

It also introduced her to environmentalism: she read The Limits to Growth and saw the impact development could have on a fragile country. When she came back to the U.S., she decided to pursue environmental studies, a degree that hardly existed in the mid-1970s. She designed her own course—and then found a job working with Bill Stapp, a professor at the University of Michigan who set up the first program in environmental education at UNESCO in Paris.

The politicking and bureaucracy of UNESCO soon drove Stapp back to Michigan. Marton-Lefèvre stuck it out for four miserable years. By then, she had acquired a French husband and a child. She left to become deputy executive secretary of the International Council for Science, which was also based in Paris. Sir John Kendrew, the British Nobel laureate who was the Secretary General of the International Council, hired her even though she told him that she was planning to have a second child. It was a good decision: she helped him to create a whole succession of interdisciplinary environmental programs. “My job was to get the physicists to work with the chemists and the biologists. I loved that.” She stayed for 18 years—which is what one does when one is a woman with children—building a vast network of contacts among nongovernmental organizations.

Her two sons are now both leading the sort of life their mother might once have chosen: one heading a UN office in a town in Afghanistan, the other embarking on a doctorate in renewable energy. When they were heading off to university, she was headhunted by the Rockefeller Foundation to head Leadership for Environment and Development (known as LEAD International), a program to train midlevel leaders in developing countries. Part of the purpose was to give these budding leaders a global network; but of course, a byproduct was to strengthen Marton-Lefèvre’s own web of connections around the world.

After eight years in the job, Marton-Lefèvre was headhunted again: this time, to become rector of the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Intrigued by the idea of building an international community of students, she began to learn Spanish. One of her regrets is that she spent less than two years in this job.

As she settles into Geneva, Marton-Lefèvre brings the IUCN some powerful tools. She has been part of the environmental debate in many different ways, including being involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change right from the start. Her flair for sorting out muddled management was demonstrated especially in her early years at LEAD. She understands the importance of education. And her past experience of building cross-disciplinary programs should help particularly at the IUCN.

Above all, she is a first-rate networker, able to pick up the phone or drop an email to almost anyone who matters in the environmental world—or indeed in the hierarchies of many developing countries. She is an admirable communicator, a skill enhanced by the number of languages she speaks fluently—not just Hungarian and English but also French, Thai, some German, a smattering of Arabic, and now Spanish. “Learning languages opens a huge number of other doors,” she says.

And will her gender be a hindrance? On the contrary: Marton-Lefèvre is a woman who knows how to use her charm and confidence to formidable effect. “I have no sense that I haven’t done things because I am a woman,” she reflects. “I never feel, when I walk into a room full of men, Oh God, I’m the only woman. I owe that self-confidence to my parents.” The IUCN is in for quite a surprise.

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Randy Olson

An evolutionary biologist in Hollywood
By Eric Sorensen

Randy Olson means it in the best possible sense when he says scientists are for the most part boring, condescending, long-winded, all-mind-and-no-heart, risk-averse, humorless, predictable, passionless, and blind to the power of the screen as a communicator of science. Oh, and they spend too much time trying to be right.

But trust him, he’s here to help. Olson is an evolutionary biologist-turned-filmmaker. He started out with a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University, where he specialized in marine larvae and did his best to be a Stephen Jay Gould groupie. He then held a tenured position at the University of New Hampshire. But the power of storytelling and moving images pulled him away from the relative safety of academia, and he moved west to study film at the University of Southern California. And now he’s on a mission to help scientists communicate effectively.

 

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Photo: Tyrone Biggums Carlisle

“The world has changed,” says Olson. “We live in a new media environment, and changed environments bring about new selective forces. Academic scientists are being challenged as never before… And they must now consider whether they need to adapt or run the risk of going the way of the dodo.”

Inarticulate scientists, outgunned and out-maneuvered by the crack troops of public relations, play a prominent role in “Flock of Dodos,” Olson’s film on science and intelligent design. The film premiered last May at the Tribeca Film Festival and received favorable notices from Variety and The New York Times. Now it is booked to open in more than 30 museums and science centers on or about February 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday.

Olson encourages scientists to go beyond the dry insistence on detail that they’re used to and even to abandon the scripted sound bytes and message boxes taught in media training workshops. He wants scientists to lighten up, for crying out loud. Show some spontaneity. If you make a mistake, fix it later. And would it kill you to smile?

“Likeability in this day and age of information overload is a very important element in trying to reach a broad audience,” he says. In some ways, it’s more important to be likeable than right. “There’s a value to making a few mistakes and coming off like a human being,” he says, “instead of being 100 percent certain and coming off like a robot.”

With Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Olson launched the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project and a web site, shiftingbaselines.org, where videos, articles, and a blog tackle serious ocean issues with a sense of humor.

To be sure, weighty matters like the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone and declining ocean stocks are in play. But that hasn’t kept Olson from getting Cedric Yarbrough of Comedy Central’s “RENO 911″ to do a “tiny fish” public service announcement. A PSA with Henry Winkler and Jack Black in a deranged “ocean symphony” scored US$10 million in free air time. Now it’s on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=tC5P7mBu_XY) where it has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

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Martin Wikelski

Insect tracker
By John Nielsen

For decades now, ecologists have been attaching radio transmitters to the bodies of large animals: whales, bears, elephants, condors, and eagles for starters. What these scientists haven’t done is stick the same devices onto animals like songbirds and big insects, those migratory flying things that sometimes mow down crops and spread diseases.

Martin Wikelski, an ecologist at Princeton University, says it’s time to fill what he describes as a dangerous research gap.

“It’s important for our understanding of conservation, and for understanding diseases like the avian flu,” Wikelski says. “When it comes to understanding how small migrants move around, we’re just about as ignorant as Aristotle was 2,000 years ago.”

Aristotle was the first to marvel at the wonders of migration. But that’s not the same as collecting the data points that tell you migration works.

For eight years now, Wikelski’s been the leader of a group of scientists who do collect those data points with the help of radio transmitters no bigger than a baby’s thumbnail. These scientists are known as “microtrackers,” and for now they’re few and far between.

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Photo: John Nielsen © National Public Radio

But Wikelski’s work is changing that by forcing ornithologists to change the way they think about migration. His first microtracking studies started nearly a decade ago, when Wikelski captured groups of midwestern thrush and glued extremely sophisticated radio transmitters to the bellies of these birds.

“The transmitters recorded heartbeat, breathing, wing beats, and location,” he said. “Once every second, they sent all this information out in concentrated bursts.”

Wikelski tracked those bursts by following the birds inside a boat-sized, beat-up Oldsmobile that had what looked like a great big TV antenna sticking through the roof. Inside the car, the microtracker twisted at the base of the antenna until the beep-beeping bursts of information came in loud and clear. That information told him where the birds were going and how quickly they were moving.

At the time, ecologists assumed that migratory birds such as thrush used huge amounts of energy when they flew south for the winter. They also assumed that, when these birds were not busy migrating, they would either be resting or sleeping so that they could build up energy for the next big migration.

Wikelski’s studies punched some giant holes in those ideas, in part by showing that these birds did not do lots of resting. Instead, for reasons no one understands, they strayed far and wide from their migratory pathways, and at least one thrush seemed get a kick out of flying into thunderstorms.

“That bird came down in Chicago late at night,” Wikelski said while taking me for a drive in what his students call the “Batmobile.”

“When we went in to recover [the bird], we ended up in a dark alley. When I got out of the car, a bunch of guys I hadn’t seen came up and asked me who I was. I said I was an ornithologist. They said, ‘Get out of here. Get out of here fast.'”

Wikelski reported his early findings in the journal Nature. He reported on further bird travels in the journal Science. Ever since, proposals to track other kinds of migratory birds have popped up like so many mushrooms.

But Wikelski has moved on, refocusing his work on flying insects. With the help of prominent entomologists such as Mike May of Rutgers University, he’s been attaching even smaller transmitters to the backs and bellies of insects captured in a grassy meadow near Princeton, New Jersey.

“Insects migrate around the world in incredible numbers,” says migration expert David Wilcove, also of Princeton.

“For example, look at the locust in the Serengeti,” he says. “When you add up all the weight or mass involved, it’s equal to the weight of all the wildebeests. There’s an incredible amount of living tissue on the move out there, and we know virtually nothing about it.”

Wilcove helped Wikelski with a recent study of migrating dragonflies—one that started when transmitters were glued to the insects captured in this field. When they were set free, Wikelski followed the dragonflies for weeks on end in a small airplane, drawing up elaborate maps of where they went from day to day.

In a recent issue of Science, he reported that these dragonflies often covered 100 miles a day, and they appeared to migrate up and down the East Coast. Wikelski also noted what he called some “striking similarities” between the flight paths of dragonflies and thrush, suggesting that there might just be a universal set of migratory rules.

Wikelski took me out into this field to track another of these dragonflies, but then something unexpected happened—a colleague captured a very large tiger swallowtail butterfly.

No one’s ever tried to glue a transmitter to a butterfly before—they’re supposed to be too light to carry much of anything. On the other hand, this is exactly how new fields of study are created, and so Wikelski and his colleague decided to give it a try.

Slowly and carefully, they glued a tiny transmitter to the back of the butterfly. When Wikelski threw it up into the wind, the insect flapped its wings and flew. Wikelski and his colleagues jumped and cheered like kids. But only for a few seconds, at which point the butterfly appeared to give up and fall from the sky.

The scientists ran out into the meadow toward the place where the butterfly had fallen.
After flying several hundred meters, it apparently had crashed into a plant which had knocked the beeper off its back and onto the ground. By the time we reached the spot, the swallowtail had flown away, apparently unharmed. Wikelski found the beeper and returned it to its case. Nobody looked discouraged.
© 2006, National Public Radio

Literature Cited

1. Scientific Bases for the Preservation of the Hawaiian Crow. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.1992. Committee on the Scientific Bases for the Preservation of the Hawaiian Crow, National Research Council.

About the Author

Fred Pearce is a freelance writer based in London, U.K. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine as well as a regular contributor to the Boston Globe and The London Independent.

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