Thomas Friedman Stresses Connection Between Nature + Security

Bestselling author Thomas Friedman speaks at Women's Conservation Forum event at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington D.C. (Photo: © Conservation International)

As someone whose job it is to pay close attention to global issues and events in the news, I consume a lot of media: television talk shows, news radio, the blogosphere, the twitterverse. But it’s not often that I have the opportunity to hear about important global challenges directly from the minds and mouths of today’s greatest visionaries. So it was an illuminating experience to be a member of the audience this week, at a CI-sponsored event in Washington that featured bestselling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Gathering under the ornate ballroom ceiling in the Indonesian Embassy in D.C., I joined about a hundred lucky audience members for this season’s meeting of the Women’s Conservation Forum (WCF). Under the leadership of CI Board Member, educator and conservationist Ann Friedman, the Women’s Conservation Forum was founded four years ago as a lecture series which brings together a community of intelligent and passionate women in the D.C. area who strive to learn more about the perils facing our planet and practical steps they can take to bring about meaningful change. Each year, the WCF highlights a different theme and invites CI staff and other speakers to teach the audience how they are using their expertise within their field to make a difference. It’s an inspiring group of women.

Last night’s event focused on the challenges of globalization in a rapidly developing world, and was highlighted by a reading and discussion of Tom’s new book “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”. Whether you agree, disagree or don’t follow his views, I’d argue that Tom is one of the strongest minds and voices of our generation. He also happens to be Ann’s husband.

Original founders of CI's Women's Conservation Forum. From left to right: Carolyn Brody, Ann Friedman, Jill Udall, Sydney Ferguson. (Photo: © Conservation International)

Redefining Economic Success

Before Ann or Tom spoke, our generous host, the Indonesian ambassador to the United States, Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, and his beautiful wife Rosa Rai Djalal, welcomed us to their home. Dr. Djalal spoke passionately about his country’s vision for its future, its growing partnership with CI, and its willingness to confront the challenges of a growing middle class supported by sustainable development.

“In many ways, my father’s generation was driven by fear. My generation is driven by opportunity,” said Dr. Djalal, with a nod to his smiling father in the audience. “Courage today means, do you have the boldness to think and act differently? Courage today asks to leave our comfort zone.”

There’s no question that courage will be needed as we collectively face the complex challenges of our changing planet. Indonesia is demonstrating its courage in part by helping CI invest in sustainable landscape partnerships, seascape conservation at a massive scale, and REDD+ readiness in its country — showing the world what responsible, successful stewardship of nature can look like.

“It’s not just about values anymore, it’s about our mindset. What we are experiencing is a revolution in identity, and what success means to a nation, and to a community.” He added, “Indonesia doesn’t want to be America. We want to be Indonesia. And we can define progress our own way.”

That’s good news for the environment as Indonesia, a nation responsible for a large proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation, seeks to invest in long-term conservation of its globally important natural resources and shift its development paradigm from one of unabated economic growth, to a more healthy sustainable economy that values the free services nature provides people.

Coping with Unprecedented Challenges

“Indonesia is among our highest priorities,” said Peter Seligmann, our CEO and chairman, who thanked the ambassador for his country’s friendship, commitment and partnership. “As CI has defined its mission to restore and maintain the healthy ecosystems that give security to people, we see Indonesia as a place which can be a shining example for the world.”

Describing the daunting challenges before us — a middle class on course to increase by two billion people in the next 40 years, a 30 percent growth in population, and a doubled demand for the Earth’s supply of food, usable water and energy — Peter underscored the realities as he introduced the night’s featured speaker.

CI CEO and Chairman Peter Seligmann poses with Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, Indonesian ambassador to the United States. (Photo: © Conservation International)

“We’re not in the process of stopping climate change. We’re in the adaptation phase, which means we’ve got to take care of nature to have the resilience we’ll need to adapt. Tom sees this. He’s a clear voice for where the world is going. The issues he writes about are issues that really shape conservation. And we’re honored to have him as a friend who speaks the truth.”

Does it have a happy ending? That’s the most common question Tom said he gets asked about his new book.

“It does, but it’s to be determined if that ending will be fiction or nonfiction,” he said. “America faces a great challenge: how we manage to power the aspirations of people who want their versions of the American dream.”

Describing himself as a “frustrated optimist,” Tom warned that while America may not be the singular power it was in the twentieth century, it is still a critical tent pole in the world.

“If that tent pole sways or buckles, it will not only affect our kids here, but the entire world. Right now, we’re driving around with no bumper and no spare time. If we don’t get our act together right now, our future will be all used up. This is going to require an act of collective will that is on the scale of World War II or the Cold War.”

Seeing the Direct Connection

If you see something, say something. It’s an oft-used phrase to inspire individual responsibility for protecting homeland security. But with climate change and population shifts, challenges to that security are evolving and Mother Nature may just pose the greatest threats, Tom stressed. Each one of us — every business, every university, every nation — needs to get serious. We need to say something and start doing something about the challenges, together. This is just what CI’s message about the direct connection between nature and jobs and security is about.

“We have it within us, within our society, the power and talents to figure out answers to these problems. This is a really serious time, so we’ve got to focus,” Tom concluded.

I hope we can focus together. Tom’s book is definitely on my reading list, and I encourage you to add it to yours.

Kim McCabe is CI’s media director. Learn more about CI’s work in Indonesia, or the efforts of the Women’s Conservation Forum.

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