On the cutting edge

This month’s Earth Optimism Summit offers a new model for the Smithsonian to show leadership at the intersection of science, the arts and the humanities.


Planet earth with sunrise seen from space with Earth Optimism logo superimposed

We hope and expect that our Earth Optimism Summit, created to showcase and share news of scientific achievements with a positive impact on our environment, will be a new model for future Smithsonian events and raise the profile of our outstanding research. By convening a meeting of our own and other thought-leaders and conservation experts, we hope to spread the word about cutting-edge initiatives benefitting our world.

Optimism about the future of our planet, the theme of the summit, may seem out of sync with prevailing concerns about the environment and natural world. But by highlighting successes from different parts of the world, many of which are led by local communities, we hope to inspire others to engage in efforts toward positive change for the planet.

The event is the first major initiative of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Commons, a program created to unite the efforts of several hundred Smithsonian scientists, graduate students, and post-doctoral scholars working directly on science that contributes to achieving positive conservation outcomes.

Scheduled to coincide with Earth Day weekend from April 21-23, the summit will consist of thematic sessions, exploring breakthroughs in fields such as species or ecosystem conservation, agriculture and food, energy and efficiency and the benefits of a sustainable planet. All of the sessions will feature multiple contributors. From artists to researchers, from elected officials to entrepreneurs, participants will reflect the Smithsonian’s unique perspective at the intersection of science, the arts and humanities.

Among the 200 presenters will be many internationally known activists: lion “guardian” Leela Hazzah; astrobiologist David Greenspoon; environmental artist Maya Lin; rap artist Jayo; media representatives Ali Velshi, Robert Kunzig, Laura Helmuth, and Bill Kurtis; philanthropist and Chair of Smithsonian Board of Regents David Rubenstein; Simran Sethi, journalist and author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate;  Phyllis Stiles, founder of Bee City; the orangutan robot Birute; Namibian conservationist John Kasona; Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network; and many others. Representatives of the Zoo, Natural History, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute will participate in or moderate sessions. Summit co-chairs are Nancy Knowlton, Sant Ocean Chair at Natural History and Steve Monfort, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of SCBI.

While the summit itself will take place at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, several Smithsonian units, including NMNH, NMAI, the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Associates, Smithsonian Enterprises, the Zoo, and Smithsonian Gardens are offering public events or initiatives. In addition, the Summit is partnering with “sister” events in other cities, including Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Miami; New Haven, Conn.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Bellingham, Wash. Sister events will also occur in other countries, including the UK, Venezuela, Finland, Hong Kong, Panama and New Zealand.

Gathering thought leaders to share multiple perspectives in order to address complex problems affecting our country and world is not new to the Smithsonian. Prior to its opening, for example, the African American History and Culture Museum convened a gathering to discuss the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., and the social unrest that followed.  We believe the Earth Optimism Summit will represent a new model for the Smithsonian. By shining a light on our scholarship, inviting experts to share ideas, and enabling people to exchange views, we hope to advance our mission in a new and even more effective way.


Posted: 7 April 2017
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.