The argument for environmental optimism

Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton explains why “Earth Optimism” is more than a slogan—it is a rallying cry for people of conscience.


Is it foolish to be optimistic about our environment and its future prospects? Every day, we hear dire warnings about the health of the planet and its inhabitants. More than 5 million people around the world die every year because of air pollution. The damage done by invasive species costs the U.S. economy an estimated $120 billion per year. Ever-hotter temperatures continue to melt sea ice, increase the likelihood that human health will be threatened by vector-borne disease, and exacerbate droughts, floods, and wildfires.

Meanwhile, as a society, we continue to disagree about many issues related to the health of the planet and, therefore, miss the chance to make collective progress. Advances in science continue at an impressive pace. And yet, concerted efforts are made to question the current overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening and largely human-driven.

Horse and colt at Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia

Once extinct in the wild, the Przewalski’s horse is a great example of a conservation success story and reason for earth optimism. Through captive breeding programs, including at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the species’ population has grown enough that some have been reintroduced to their native habitat in China and Mongolia. (Photo by Jessie Cohen)

It would be easy to become cynical about our chances to overcome these challenges, but I am convinced that we should be optimistic—not Pollyannaish, not blind to the very real difficulties we face, but genuinely hopeful about our future. That is because innovative researchers, dedicated organizations, and concerned citizens continue to successfully address the world’s seemingly intractable challenges.

On Earth Day weekend, the Smithsonian convened many organizations for the Earth Optimism Summit, a first-of-its-kind symposium to talk exclusively about solutions to environmental challenges that have already been implemented and proven to work.

A host of researchers around the world are looking tirelessly for solutions. Successes include bringing species such as the California condor and the green sea turtle back from the brink of extinction, making Caribbean reefs more resilient, and making fisheries in the Philippines more sustainable.

Everyday people and their quality of life are positively affected by environmental solutions. Take endangered coral reefs. Around the globe, more than 1 billion people rely on them for food, medicine, and their livelihoods. Scientists are creating a large repository of frozen coral tissue that may one day be used to restore our coral reefs.

Close up of wild purple and white orchid

The showy orchid, Galearis spectabilis, is common in Maryland. Smithsonian researchers, such as botanist Dennis Whigham at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, are working to conserve the 200-plus native orchid species in North America. (Melissa McCormick/Smithsonian)

Pandemic disease is another area in which researchers are making great strides, testing animals and training health professionals in countries like Myanmar and Kenya as part of USAID’s worldwide effort to characterize and identify viruses. Ultimately, they hope to prevent and prepare for pandemic disease outbreaks like Ebola.

Other scientists are working on multiple fronts to solve the problem of invasive marine species, which pose urgent international biosecurity and economic risks.

Environmental action is not limited to the scientific community. State and local governments are finding ways to increase efficiency through building codes and infrastructure development. Companies are incorporating environmental thinking into their products from design to shipping to post-life use. Citizen scientists are collecting local information about everything from birds to plankton, providing a wealth of critical geographic and biological data for researchers. Artists are inspiring awareness and change through their visions of a sustainable planet.

Aerial view of second growth forest with bare spots

Nearly 50 percent of the world’s tropical forests are secondary forests that have regrown after clearing, agriculture or cattle grazing. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud Project in the Panama Canal Watershed makes it possible for Smithsonian scientists to quantify carbon storage, runoff and biodiversity for land uses including teak and native tree species plantations. (Photo by Christian Ziegler)

Author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken summed up humanity’s shared condition in his 2009 University of Portland commencement address when he noted, “If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

Around the world, that message is sinking in. People are increasingly refusing to wait for the gloomy forecasts to come true and are taking it upon themselves to protect the environment, preserve biodiversity, and live more sustainably. They realize that if we want to leave Earth habitable for future generations, now is not the time to shirk our responsibilities, but to act.

“Earth Optimism” should be more than a slogan; it should be a rallying cry for people of conscience to work together year-round in order to safeguard this beautiful planet we call home.

If you missed the Earth Optimism summit, you can still watch the archived live streams of the sessions here


Posted: 26 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.