Ecological Systems in the Anthropocene: "Hope and Despair: Communicating an Uncertain Future"

November 29, 2017 - "Hope and Despair: Communicating an Uncertain Future" with Nikhil Advani, Lead Specialist, Climate, Communities and Biodiversity, World Wildlife Fund; Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science, Smithsonian Institution; David Wallace-Wells, Author of "The Unhabitable Earth," New York Magazine; Cam Webb, Research Affiliate, University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and moderated by Elizabeth Wolkovich, Assistant Professor, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

In an era of rising greenhouse gases, rising seas, and increasing numbers of species facing extinction, how do we inspire action? Two different answers to this question are prominent today. One is that we should better communicate the potential losses: depauperate faunas, massive human migration due to sea level rise, and heat waves and droughts that will reshape habitable regions of the Earth. The other is Earth optimism: communicating success stories and focusing on the potential for further improvements.

This panel brings together views from across this spectrum to ask how best to understand and communicate our environment's uncertain future. If humans are unlikely to take action without hope, should scientists be providing more hope in their research and communication? If we are not sure how likely the best- or worst-case scenario is, which do we focus on, and how do we communicate uncertainty?

Our panelists bring together a range of opinions and viewpoints. Nikhil Advani of the World Wildlife Fund has worked on projects across the globe that have led to both rural community and biodiversity success. Nancy Knowlton has worked closely on the ocean and earth optimism movements and herself has moved from lectures of 'doom and gloom' to stories of hope. In contrast, David Wallace-Wells penned a bleaker outlook in his article this summer, "The Uninhabitable Earth" in New York Magazine. Cam Webb penned "Engineering Hope" in Conservation Biology over 10 years ago. The article's questions of how we do acknowledge and respect what we have lost while providing hope for the future remain, and are the focus of this panel.