Amazon is burning every year, reminds Nat Geo Society’s Chief Scientist Jonathan Baillie

A fire burns a tract of the Amazon jungle in Agua Boa, Mato Grosso state, Brazil   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Jonathan Baillie was 12 when he got his first National Geographic magazine. He opened it to see pictures of the English primatologist Jane Goodall with her customary company — chimpanzees. Till then, Jonathan never knew one could actually have a career by studying the natural world, especially chimpanzees. “I saw that there was a whole new world out there. And at that moment, I realised that was the type of career I wanted.”

A few days later, when Jonathan’s parents took him to one of Goodall’s lectures, he handed her his pocket money — two dollars, to support her conservation efforts.

“I ended up studying gorillas for years after I finished my PhD and followed the footsteps of my childhood idol.” Last November, when he got a chance to interview her, he “was more nervous than usual.”

Chief Scientist of National Geographic Jonathan Baillie interacting with The Hindu in Bengaluru

Chief Scientist of National Geographic Jonathan Baillie interacting with The Hindu in Bengaluru   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain


Jonathan is now the Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist of National Geographic Society. He is an important part of the environmental organisation he used to follow as a child.

Metroplus caught up with him during his visit to Bengaluru as part of the annual TN Khoshoo Memorial Lecture, organised by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. Excerpts:

When it comes to sustainability, are we fighting a losing battle?

There is no doubt that there are great challenges. When National Geographic started in 1888, there were 1.5 billion people on the planet and now we are at about 7.7 billion and in 2050, we will be about 9 or 10 billion. The big challenge is to figure out how we can effectively use the resources and create what is called a circular economy, wherein we do not create things that we can not destroy (like plastic). But with breakthroughs in technology, I am relatively optimistic for the future.

How are people across the world reacting to grim warnings about the world?

I feel particularly sorry for the next generation because, I have young children myself. And, having to explain to them what we are leaving them does not feel very good. I think there is a lot of pressure on the next generation. But I also think they raise up and address these challenges, and basically hold us a little accountable for not doing it properly. We saw Greta Thunberg talking about climate-related issues. So, they are not going to put up with us making a whole bunch of promises and not doing anything.

When I travel around the world, it is clear that everyone sees that we are facing the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. Now, we need some exceptional leadership globally to think of new ways of doing things so that we can provide for humanity and other forms of life.

But if we continue to be the way we are, what are the adverse effects we would be facing in another 50 years?

We have currently converted about half the planet. So about half is in a semi-natural state. In 2050, if our current projections are followed, we will only have about 10% of the wild space left. And that is devastating because the earth’s ecosystems, like forests, are absorbing human created Carbon dioxide. If they are not absorbing the carbon, then the planet will get warmer faster and that will be extremely challenging. We need to basically maintain what we have left, which is about half the planet in a natural state, and then we govern and manage the rest more sustainably.

How did you react to the Amazon rainforest wildfires this year?

Amazon has been burning every year. It was just that more attention was raised this year. That is because I think there is a greater understanding of the imperilled state of biodiversity and our major ecosystems. Amazon also works as a water pump. If you did not have a large forest coverage, you would not have the local climate to grow the food you want… they are all linked. It made me realise that we have these large life-support systems on the planet that we do not understand very well. So next year, we are planning a major expedition going into tropical rainforests to understand what they do for biodiversity and for humanity in terms of impacting local and global climate.

It does not seem like we have collectively realised the global peril that we are facing. Do you think it should be communicated more effectively?

For a long time, people were talking about climate change. Many just thought this is not really happening. But we are starting to see the impacts of climate change with more fires. People are dealing with the implications of this change, seeing hotter seasons and crops being devastated because of it. I think we are still moving too slowly. We have the Convention of Biological Diversity happening in October 2020 in China, which is an opportunity to set a whole range of new targets that can actually be measured.

Can a developing economy like India, with millions of impoverished people, afford to adopt sustainable measures — using renewable energy, for instance?

I find India, in particular, has a cultural appreciation for the natural world. It is stronger than many other parts of the world, which gives me hope that the people here will make the right decisions. When you go to international conventions, it is the developing countries that are leading the environmental movements. We are seeing plastic bans in many developing countries. So, I personally see leadership coming primarily from these countries.

At the household level, what can a person do to help the planet?

The reality is that each individual has an impact on the planet. If we live our lives slightly differently, we can have a much lower negative impact. It has to do with how you vote, what you eat, schools you send your children to, where you buy things from. For example, you could be a vegetarian; and reduce, reuse and recycle. These are things that are within our power.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 5:24:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/amazon-is-burning-every-year-reminds-nat-geo-societys-chief-scientist-jonathan-baillie/article30104286.ece

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