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December 2011 Archives

Behind the Words

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If you meet someone at a cocktail party and ask them the inevitable question: "So what do you do?" and they respond, "Oh, I'm in development," what do you think they do? 

How you answer that probably depends a lot on what YOU do, or even in what part of the world you live. If you are a techie, work in a technology company, or live in Silicon Valley, you would think they are in research and development, designing a new product. If you work in a non-profit or university, you would think they work in fund-raising and developing donors. If you work in international relations, economics or public policy, either in a university or government, or if you live in a developing country, you would think they work in developing and supporting developing countries.

Because people in all these different situations may work on, or at least care about, environmental issues, this is a simple example of the challenges in creating effective dialogue.

It's more than misunderstanding a word; eventually you will learn the other vocabulary. Rather, the challenge is that behind the words lies a fundamentally different way of viewing the world. If you are trying to collaborate to develop a solution to a problem, you can't be successful unless you know what game each person is playing.

How can you work in such multi-language situations and achieve real results? You have to understand the context behind the language, and you must be inquisitive, humble and ethical. You must understand the incentive of the speaker. What do they want? What's their mission? What is the environment they live and work in?

You can see this by looking at work at the Base of the Pyramid, in developing countries.

•    Large multinational companies see a large potential market, but it's very fractured, and it takes a long time to develop trust. They may not have the patience to take that time, or products just may not scale enough to make it profitable.

•    NGOs.  Many are driven by their local passion for the community, so they can't always think beyond the community, how to scale a solution, or how to make it sustain financially.

•    Academics see an interesting problem, they want to study it, understand solutions that work (and why).

These are three pretty different views. How can they work together? And don't forget the customers - in this case, the people who actually live in the area. The language of each can help. The academic can give you "what works," the NGO can give you "this is how people live," and companies can tell you what can work financially. You need to find the bridge builder in each organization. It's often not the leader of the team. The leader tends to be a person who is really focused on the mission.  But a bridge builder is the translator, the one who can understand the words and their context (the syntax and semantics) of the other group. Getting that person on each team is critical.

And you have to remember that in the end, regardless of who we are, or where we live, we all want fundamentally the same thing, peace and prosperity for our family. Years ago, when I was working in India, I drove by a slum every day on the way to the office. This slum was a collection of one-room buildings and tarpaulin tents inhabited by migrant construction workers and their families. One morning amidst the bustle in the slum, I saw a mother in front of her tent, kneeling in front of her daughter, combing her hair and straightening her blouse, getting india-girls.jpgher ready for school and making sure she looked nice. Just like millions of other mothers around the world that morning.

Anne Frank said it well: "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same."

Fred Rose is co-founder and director of Acara, an academic partnership that gives emerging entrepreneurs a chance to envision and launch successful social businesses. Photo of children in Mumbai courtesy of the author.

Announcing: Momentum 2012

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mom_2012logo_bubble_small.jpgAre you already thinking ahead to spring? We are! The Institute on the Environment is thrilled to announce the lineup for Momentum 2012, coming to the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis this April and May.

The Momentum event series brings top environmental visionaries to the Twin Cities for three evenings filled with engaging ideas and entertainment. Presenters will open your eyes and enrich your mind as they move the conversation forward from global problems to game-changing solutions. Blending science, the arts, social entrepreneurship and more, the Momentum series inspires new ways of looking at the world and our place in it.
Kicking the series off April 5 will be Paul Nicklen, National Geographic photographer. Nicklen's gripping photos of wildlife in the Arctic, Antarctica and British Columbia capture the story of climate change from the perspective of those acutely feeling its effects. Told with wit and heartfelt sincerity, Nicklen's tales will leave audiences educated and inspired.

On May 10, Momentum is proud to host M. Sanjayan as its second featured speaker. Sanjayan is the lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and focuses his work around human well-being, Africa, wildlife ecology, media outreach and engaging the public about conservation issues. Named sanjayan.jpgone of Men's Journal's "Heroes of 2007," Sanjayan is a highly sought-after public speaker who uses creative ways to engage listeners about environmental issues.
Our final speaker May 23 will be Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation based in Bath, England. Palmer's long career with ARC has brought him all around the world, helping major religious institutions develop environmental programs that reflect core teachings, beliefs and best practices. His insights on faith, the environment, and the critical need for collaboration are a powerful voice for the care and compassion of the natural world.

Entering its second year, the Momentum series is rapidly becoming the Midwest's central gathering place for ideas and dialogue on the environment. Watch out videos of last season's talks by Majora Carter, Hans Rosling and Sylvia Earle here - then check back in January for tickets sales for the new season, along with updates on event hosts and exciting entertainment pairings.

Secret Lives of the Serengeti

running.jpgBY ALI SWANSON

At this very moment in Serengeti National Park, 200 cameras are flashing. They are flashing night and day, in corners of the park where tourists never go. These are camera traps - remote, automatic cameras - and they are documenting the secret lives of Serengeti's most elusive animals.

My hope is that these cameras will reveal how Africa's top carnivores coexist. As a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, I am working with Dr. Craig Packer and the Serengeti Lion Project to put lion research into a multi-species context. Across Africa, lions overwhelm and suppress leopards, cheetahs and wild dogs. In contrast, hyenas thrive among lions, even though lions steal more food from hyenas than the other way around. So how do lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs manage to co-exist in so many parts of Africa - even though they will kill each other if they get theanimals.jpg chance?

Because the Lion Project monitors more than 300 lions in the heart of Serengeti, using radio-collars to track each pride, we have a very detailed picture of how the lions are using the landscape. But no such monitoring exists for the other carnivore species.

That's where the camera traps come in. The cameras cover 1,000 square kilometers of the Lion Project's long-term study area. They snap pictures day and night, documenting how the other species are using the habitat with respect to the lions. By combining the data from the camera traps with the up-close-and-personal observations of Serengeti lions, I can create a complete picture of the interactions between top predators - revealing how behavior and environment coincide to drive their coexistence.

What started off as a "mere" Ph.D. project has grown far beyond anyone's initial expectations. The 200 cameras capture more than a million pictures each year - and the data from the cameras will be used to address endless questions about the larger Serengeti ecosystem. With simultaneous coverage of such a vast area, researchers will be able to assess large-scale patterns of movement between predators and prey, as well as study the dynamics among prey species themselves. Furthermore, this is the first time in the history of Serengeti research that we will have information on what the 1.5 million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle do at night!  

Our "problem" is that we're drowning in an ocean of data. Currently, the images have to wait for months on end until Dr. Packer and I can hand-carry the external hard drives back to Minnesota, where they can be posted online. We've recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for satellite Internet so images can be posted online in minutes, not months, essentially bringing the Serengeti "Live! to a computer near you." Crowdfunding is a method of raising funds through lots of small, private donations. We've teamed up with 48 other research groups as part of the #SciFund Challenge to see if crowdfunding can offer a viable alternative to the traditional methods of scientific funding. 

In addition to raising money, the crowdfunding campaign also raises awareness of our research and makes it easier to connect with a broad audience. With a million images coming in each year, it takes time - a lot of time - to process the data. So we're turning to the general public not just for help raising funds, but for help with the actual scientific process. By going to www.SerengetiLive.com, people from all over the world can sign up to identify the wildlife zebras.jpgspecies caught on our candid cameras. We currently have a team of more than 60 dedicated volunteers who have identified hundreds and thousands of images, and our team is growing every day. 

Our project helps to identify the conditions that permit coexistence of top predators and how these relationships might be affected by impending environmental change. These insights will guide strategies for species reintroduction, conservation, and ecosystem management.

Ali Swanson is a doctoral student and National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. Photos courtesy Ali Swanson.

Thoughts on the Climate Conversation

questions.jpgScott Denning is not your average atmospheric scientist. He's one that likes to talk about climate change with hostile audiences filled with deniers. In fact, he's given two invited presentations at Heartland Institute conferences on the topic.

Speaking at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this week, Denning, a professor at Colorado State University, provided a few words of wisdom to fellow scientists and communicators on what works and what doesn't when engaging climate change contrarians.

What doesn't work:

  • Ignoring climate change deniers. They don't go away.
  • Data deluge. Don't pull out the hockey stick graph - or any other one, for that matter. They've already been around that block, and they're not going to change their mind by going around it again.
  • Arguing from authority. If you try to position yourself as a scientist, contrarians are likely to simply peg you as part of the conspiracy.
  • Messages of fear or alarm. People tend to dismiss arguments that feel threatening.
  • A point-by-point refutation of their arguments. This will just lead you down a path of nuances that distracts and detracts from the simple key message.
What does work? Denning's advice:

  • Common sense. Denning starts out his conversations by asking, "Did you ever wonder why it's warm during the day and cool at night? Warm in the summer and cool in the winter? Warm in Miami and cool in Minneapolis?" Then he leads his listeners from there to an intuitive understanding of what the greenhouse effect is all about.
  • Recognize that denial is ideological, not factual. You can argue with facts, but you can't (successfully) argue with another person's beliefs.
  • Be yourself. Tell stories about your own experiences and how they have helped you understand climate change and its implications.
  • Stick to your message. Don't get "lost in the weeds" of the many dimensions of climate change. Keep it simple, direct and to the point.
"Respectful engagement on a human level is much more effective than appeals from authority, scientific consensus or numerical models," Denning noted in a summary of his talk. "Starting from a base of agreement on basic facts helps establish a basis of trust. ... Although a hard core of hostile individuals may not be swayed by such an approach, my experience was that this type of engagement can be very effective with ordinary people. I strongly encourage more climate scientists to work with public audiences and the media."

And maybe - with the right approach and attitude - even enjoy it.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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This page is an archive of entries from December 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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