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The Critical Step Is Choice

When enough people choose to help, large problems can be solved

The ecology of the planet is experiencing a time of rapid change and ­uncertainty. But we all have one very positive decision we can make: to try to make a difference anyway. In other words, to give a damn; it is a choice.
    It is a lot like the story of the old man walking on the beach covered with hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore. A young girl sees him tossing starfish back into the sea. At first glance it seems a useless endeavor, even if it does make a difference to the ones that get thrown back.
    But if the girl contacts all her friends on her smartphone to tell them what is happening and what they can do … If they in turn contact everyone they know, which causes the whole solution to go viral on social media … Then the odds change.
    Quickly, when enough individuals choose to join in and help, large problems can be solved. The critical step is choosing to do something.
    Many environmental concerns can be turned around by the actions of separate but coordinating individuals. The citizen scientist movement brings great hope for the future of the environmental movement and conservation stewardship in general.

Here’s How …
    Consider this early example. Forty years ago, no one knew where monarch butterflies went every fall. When Dr. Fred Urquhart of the University of Toronto came up with the idea of engaging hundreds of children, teenagers and a few interested adults in helping him study the monarch’s movement by raising and tagging the butterflies, the concept of the citizen scientist was born. In a few short years — and thousands of tagged monarchs later — the overwintering ground of the monarch butterfly was found. The bulk of the work was done for free by citizen scientists. All it took was many diverse individuals with a passion for wonder and discovery.
    Another example is happening right now. Throughout North America, many gardeners are waking up to the reality that the diversity of life on our properties is not what it used to be. From the many types of bumblebees to the variety of nesting birds, things are changing rapidly and not for the better. The good news is that amateur conservationists and professional scientists are working together to recreate the diversity once common throughout North America.
    The native plant movement has engaged a wide citizenship into action. From elementary school students to inner city grandmothers, many diverse groups and people are embracing the value of native plants. Garden clubs and wildlife centers are leading the way in showing how to reestablish native plant communities. From landscapers to writers at the New York Times, the discussions on the topic of backyard conservation couldn’t be more engaging.
    Native plant communities are the building blocks of the various native ecosystems that include all kinds of living creatures historically native to a region. It may not be possible or advisable for the government to buy up all the land needed to restore declining habitats. But citizen scientists, one back yard at a time, can bring the starfish story to the suburban jungle.
    Restoring native plant communities will provide food for endangered species and at the same time will begin a process to permanently remove invasive plant communities by replacing them with even more resilient native plant communities.
    As we humans stress the water supply, regions such as the Southwest could use native plants to drastically reduce water requirements. Native plants are much more tolerant of drought than a lawn, which is the largest consumer of limited suburban water there.
    The concept of citizen scientist can adapt itself to the issue at hand and the resources and people available. It allows for the true creative and productive spirit of people working with nature to blossom. The movement teaches the young to think and the old to dream again. It captures the very nature of the creative and interdependent spirit of the living world around us.


A retired resource conservationist for USDA, as a teen Elmer M. Dengler helped track the monarch migration by breeding and tagging the butterflies. He will show in upcoming reports many ways we can still make a difference.