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Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, author, educator, and film producer. He is Distinguished University Professor and the Andrew and Mary Balo and NIcholas and Susan Simon Chair of[…]

“If given a chance, nature can rebound, and nature can rebound dramatically.” Biologist Sean B. Carroll discusses the resilience of nature and how humans can help it thrive.

Humans litter, start wars, hunt, and poach, but history has also shown we are capable of undoing our damage. Carroll highlights Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where a brutal civil war decimated 98% of the large animal population. Yet, through dedicated conservation efforts, the park has seen a remarkable recovery – and this is not the only example. 

This video explores the power of awareness and action—no matter how small. While humans have caused significant damage to wildlife, we also possess the ability to restore and protect our planet’s biodiversity. Carroll shares insights on how we can coexist with nature, ensuring a healthy and happy future for both humans and other creatures on Earth.

SEAN B. CARROLL: Gauging the human impact on life on the planet, that's a pretty touchy subject because on the one hand, humans are a pretty remarkable species. Heck, we're the only species that's left the planet.

At the same time, supporting an eight billion human population is a big burden on the planet. And so, for a lot of biodiversity on the planet, that's been bad news. But biodiversity is really important to our existence because we rely upon fresh air, fresh water, healthy land, and healthy oceans for our own existence. And that's largely the work of creatures on this planet, from earthworms and fungi in our soil to plants and trees that generate the oxygen.

While the loss of biodiversity is extremely concerning, the silver lining here, you might just say the ray of hope that is not talked about nearly enough, is nature's resilience. If given a chance, nature can rebound, and nature can rebound dramatically.

Let me talk a little bit about the resilience of nature. In the 1960s, the crisis was things like bald eagles and peregrine falcons disappearing. We were down to fewer than 500 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. That's the national symbol of the United States. It was discovered that this was because of the use of the DDT pesticide. This DDT was making their eggs very fragile, and the reproduction of these birds collapsed. When DDT was removed from the environment, these populations rebounded. Today, there are more than 70,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles.

Turn of the last century, the fur trade loved otter fur. We almost drove otters along the Pacific Rim to extinction, perhaps down to as few as 1,000 animals. When that trade was banned in the early 20th century, otters came roaring back, and now otter populations are back up to 100,000+. The same thing has been seen with whales, manatees, and grizzly bears. Take the pressure off, and their numbers come back.

But what about systems? In the 1960s, there was a park in the geographical center of Mozambique called 'Gorongosa.' It was an incredible concentration of wildlife. Elephants, buffalo, hippos, lions, and all that. But Mozambique in the mid-70s, after its independence from Portugal, had a horrific civil war. A million people were killed, five million were displaced. Gorongosa was the geographic center of that conflict. Wildlife were killed for meat, poached for things like ivory to be sold on the black market. By the mid-1990s, probably 98% of the large animals in Gorongosa had been decimated.

That might be the case today if not for an American philanthropist named Greg Carr and the Mozambique government, who formed a partnership in the early 2000s to try to restore Gorongosa National Park. Gorongosa is now home to probably 50 times as many large animals as existed there 20 years ago. The herds of elephants are thriving, hippo numbers are growing, and lions have rebounded from virtually gone to about 180 individuals. It's a remarkable comeback story because Gorongosa was given up for dead. It illustrates the principle that given some seed stock and a little bit of introduction, nature is resilient. Nature can come back in a time period right under our own eyes.

We have a stake in the ecological health of the planet. That's just a scientific fact. Take one aspect of something we know we need: fresh water. Polluted water, silty water, and algal-choked water don't do us much good. All those things result from not managing the systems around water sensibly. In nature, when you see a nice clean stream running off a mountain, the mountain, the soil, and the trees are doing a lot of the work to make that water clear. When we denude a mountain, cut down the whole forest, and all the dirt runs into the water, we get silty water, affecting the land's ability to hold the water and release it slowly over the seasons.

We've learned, sometimes the hard way, that we need fresh water, provided by keeping the ecosystem intact. Co-existence could be intentional or a by-product of managing ecosystems more sensibly for our benefit. The important fact about biodiversity loss is that it's generally due to local factors. The silver lining is that local action can restore it.

With climate change, we need global action, treaties, and countries acting in concert. That can seem overwhelming to an individual. But there's a lot of room for initiative, joining small groups. Learning to coexist doesn't necessarily mean inconveniencing ourselves too much. It could mean thinking about the plants you plant in your garden, what you use on your lawn, cleaning up a pond, or a lake. It's not pollyannish. There's time to change the road we're on because nature can rebound quickly.

During COVID, we heard anecdotes of animals appearing on our doorsteps, on coastlines. That's a glimpse of how nature would be if we weren't in the way. If I said, "In a hundred years things might be better," you might think, "Well, gee." But if I tell you that in 5 or 10 years, you'll see an impact from accommodating this ecosystem or species, and in 20 years you might see full recovery, that should be motivating. It goes to a philosophical question: 'What are we doing with our time on the planet?' Do we want to sit in our armchairs and forecast doom, or do we want to get off our asses and do something?