Noted conservationist urges broad environmental action

Peter Raven. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Peter Raven. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Abigail Higgins - August 17, 2006

The meeting room at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury was full as Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) in St. Louis and Engelmann Professor of Botany at Washington University, gave the ninth annual David Smith Memorial Lecture for the Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA) last Wednesday night.

Through his work with the Center for Plant Conservation, whose headquarters are at the MBG, Mr. Raven has become one of the world's foremost plant conservators. Some might even call him "the Jane Goodall of plants." Two hundred new plant species are conserved there every year.

Tim Boland, director of PHA, introduced Mr. Raven and reminded the audience of the importance of Polly Hill's work, the foresight of Dr. David Smith in institutionalizing it, and the continuing support of it by his widow, Joan Smith, before enumerating some of Mr. Raven's distinctions.

Gardeners, horticulturalists, and conservationists packed the meeting room at the Agricultural Hall to hear Peter H. Raven's lecture. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Gardeners, horticulturalists, and conservationists packed the meeting room at the Agricultural Hall to hear Peter H. Raven's lecture.

For someone working professionally with the effects of global ills on plant ecology and diversity Peter Raven is a remarkably upbeat person. In fact, at the beginning of his talk he announced, "I know I am preaching to the choir here," and abandoned the previously announced topic of "How Many Plants Will Survive the 21st Century?" The rest of his talk was no doom and gloom recitation, though he did detail at length world ecological problems, but with a reminder of progress made, work yet to be done, and ways to achieve it. He asked of the audience "Think about it! What right do we have to drive to extinction the only organisms that accompany us in the solar system?"

Mr. Raven took us back to the World War II era of his childhood, not so long ago, when scant attention was paid to our environment. He then contrasted present day awareness and the corresponding changes that have occurred. Challenges in plant and animal conservation remain, obviously, and the real point of Mr. Raven's talk was to identify them, and what to do about them. "What does each of us do about the challenges and corresponding responsibilities?" is the rhetorical question he posed before detailing them.

According to Mr. Raven issues to be addressed include (but are not limited to): our food - just 100 plants supply most of the world's caloric needs; medicines - two thirds of the world gets medicine from plants (e.g., all steroids are plant-based); topsoil conservation; birds; green organisms; economically important pollinators such as honeybees; and freshwater supplies. "We ought to know how dependent we are upon world stability," was Mr. Raven's comment on the direction in which American foreign policy and the global economy have taken us.

As problem areas that need greater awareness and continuing work, Mr. Raven - who, aside from his academic experience, comes by his global awareness honestly, having been born and raised in Shanghai - cited habitat destruction; alien invasive plant species; invasive animals; hunting/gathering done selectively (models show habitats competing for space); and, of course, global warming. He got a laugh from the audience with this one. "What is the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? A developer is a person who wants to build you a house in the woods. An environmentalist is a person who has a house in the woods." But he is optimistic that greater application of the lessons of Island biogeography and the mechanics of population technology will lead us to a win/win ecology where we will practice a synthesis of conservation biology and landscape ecology to the greater good of the planet.

As responsibilities and solutions Mr. Raven posited a list that includes: invention (i.e., green technologies); working on levels of consumption (conservation) both individually and as matters of policy; developing a viewpoint of internationalism that is presently missing in the United States; recognizing the importance of continuity of habitat; and working to make social changes in our children's upbringing that will result in their greater exposure to nature.

Mr. Raven emphatically underscored the importance of the latter, while dismissing that of ethanol. "Ridiculous! Takes practically more petroleum to produce than the ethanol fuel it yields!" At this point, Pat Raven, sitting in the front row of the audience, leaned forward with a sotto voce "Peter! Fluorescent light bulbs!" Laughingly, Mr. Raven conceded his wife's point and urged his audience to replace their conventional light bulbs with fluorescent if they were serious about energy conservation.

Mr. Raven left Martha's Vineyard with a final benediction. "The Island community does a good job with continuity of habitat. Get your children outside in the natural world. It is key to learn and act both personally and politically, especially with an international slant. Building and supporting the institutions you have here, like the Polly Hill Arboretum, creates a rallying point. Martha's Vineyard is a model."

Good points to remember.