Renowned marine biologist, explorer, author, and lecturer Sylvia Earle, Ph.D. was recently named Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine.
“Even as her 80th birthday approaches, Earle, who is National Geographic‘s explorer-in-residence, continues to spend three months a year on ocean expeditions. ‘You can still go 500 feet deep almost anywhere in the world,’ she says, ‘and see things no one has ever seen before.'”
We were fortunate enough to have her pen the foreword for Organizational Survival last year — read on for her inspiring words.
On Midway Island, halfway across the Pacific Ocean, I recently contemplated a nesting Laysan albatross sheltering her single egg. Observers who have documented her return to this place since the 1950s call her Wisdom. A serene gray and white bird, Wisdom began a lifetime of flying over the surface of the ocean at about the same time I launched myself into decades of exploring the depths below. Over the years, we have both witnessed the appearance of masses of drifting plastics, slicks of oil, and an increasing abundance of ships—as well as a steady decrease in the number of squid and fish necessary for Wisdom’s survival, and that of her future hatchlings. Both Wisdom and I have experienced an era of unprecedented changes, but she cannot understand the causes, nor could she know what to do to about them even if she did understand. But humans can.
Owing to the advances of technology in the past century, humanity has learned more about the nature of the world and the universe beyond than during all the preceding time. By some accounts, at the same time, more has been lost. Since the middle of the twentieth century, half of the planet’s coral reefs have disappeared or are in a state of sharp decline. Populations of many fish and other ocean species have decreased by 90 percent. Only five percent of North America’s old growth forests remain from their former expanse across the continent. Globally, mangrove forests, coastal marshes, kelp forests, and sea-grass meadows have declined by as much 60 percent. Oxygen-generating, food-producing phytoplankton populations are changing, with hundreds of dead zones in some coastal regions and reduced levels of production in others. Measurements of ice decline in polar regions are coincident with increasing temperature, sea level rise, and ocean acidification—all closely coupled with the swiftly increasing emissions of carbon dioxide generated by burning vast reservoirs of fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas—that were millions of years in the making.
Astronauts in training learn everything they can about the systems that keep them alive during journeys in the hostile environment beyond Earth’s atmosphere. While flying through space, they take care of their air, water, food, and temperature control as if their lives depend on it, because they so clearly do. Less obvious to most people is that we are all aboard a great, blue spacecraft hurtling through an otherwise inhospitable universe. Until recently, we could take for granted the processes that generate oxygen, maintain favorable temperatures, yield water, furnish building materials, provide food, and much more. But complacency is no longer an option. Now we know: the world is not too big to fail.
From the smallest microbe to the largest whale, all living things impact the world around them, but never before has a single creature—humankind—so swiftly and so comprehensively altered the nature of the entire planet, with consequences that put much more at risk than profits on a balance sheet. Increasingly, there is evidence that our actions are eroding the underpinnings of the natural systems that keep us alive.
What about “Tomorrow’s Child?” That is the message I heard from Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface Inc., a highly successful carpet company, at a conference early in the twenty-first century. In a voice resonating with soft, drawn-out vowels, Anderson said he personally had come to recognize that what is taken from nature, or alters, contaminates, or destroys land, air, water, and wild plants and animals must be recognized as costs that we deal with or they will become debts passed along to our children. Leaders in business and industry not only have the power, he suggested, but also the responsibility to reverse the disastrous trends currently in motion. He challenged his colleagues to find ways to be successful in business using approaches that not only did not degrade the integrity of the natural world, but also helped restore what already has been lost.
In this work, authors Greg Balestrero and Nathalie Udo provide provocative examples and thoughtful strategies on how companies can embark on a path to sustainability based on understanding the need to find an enduring place for ourselves within the natural systems that sustain us. They share stories of companies like Interface Inc. that have transformed in order to excel in a sustainable future—not just for the organization’s survival, but also for the future of humankind. And they provide insights about how you can achieve similar goals. At a time when many despair about the near and distant future, here you will find engaging stories, practical solutions, inspiring examples—and plenty of reasons for hope.
Sylvia A. Earle
National Geographic Explorer in Residence
September 3, 2013
For more from Organizational Survival, download a free excerpt here.