The Power of One

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The greatest danger to our future is apathy. We cannot expect those living in poverty and ignorance to worry about saving the world. For those of us able to read this magazine, it is different. We can do something to preserve our planet.

You may be overcome, however, by feelings of helplessness. You are just one person in a world of 6 billion. How can your actions make a difference? Best, you say, to leave it to decision makers. And so you do nothing.

Can we overcome apathy? Yes, but only if we have hope. One reason for hope lies in the extraordinary nature of human intellectual accomplishment. A hundred years ago, the idea of a 747, of a man on the moon, of the Internet remained in the realm of science fiction. Yet we have seen those things and much, much more. So, now that we have finally faced up to the terrible damage we have inflicted on our environment, our ingenuity is working overtime to find technological solutions. But technology alone is not enough. We must engage with our hearts also. And it's happening around the world.

Even companies once known only for profits and pollution are having a change of heart. Conoco, the energy company, worked with the Jane Goodall Institute (J.G.I.) in Congo to build a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees. I formed this partnership when I realized that Conoco, during its exploration, used state-of-the-art practices designed to have the least possible impact on the environment. Many other companies are working on clean forms of energy, organic farming methods, less wasteful irrigation and so on.

Another reason for hope is the resilience of nature--if it is given a helping hand. Fifteen years ago, the forests outside Gombe National Park in Tanzania had been virtually eliminated. More people lived there than the land could support. J.G.I. initiated the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education Project (TACARE), a program active in 33 villages around the park. Today people improve their lives through environmentally sustainable projects, such as tree nurseries and wood lots. We provide health care, family-planning and education programs, especially for women. As their education increases, their family size tends to drop.

While pollution still plagues much of the world, progress is being made. This May in Sudbury, Ont., I saw new forests that were recolonizing hills destroyed by 100 years of nickel mining. The community raised the money and worked for months spreading lime and planting vegetation on the blackened rock. I released the first brook trout into a once poisoned creek there.

Animal species on the brink of extinction can be given a second chance through protection and captive breeding--even if preserving a habitat conflicts with economic interests. A company in Taiwan planned to build a rapid-transit line right through the only major remaining breeding ground of the rare pheasant-tailed jacana. There was an outcry, but it was the only economically viable route. Environmentalists worked with the company to come up with a solution--moving the breeding ground. Water was diverted back into nearby wetlands that had been drained by farmers, and suitable vegetation was replanted. In 2000 five birds hatched in their new home, and when I visited there the next year, even more birds had moved to the site.

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