Oracle Joins National Geographic Society to Celebrate Earth Day

National Geographic's Dr. John Francis shares his thoughts on environmental threats, personal responsibility, and fish aggregating devices

Earth Day was founded in the United States nearly forty years ago, but has grown into a truly global event. Around the world, governments, corporations, educators, and private citizens join volunteer projects, classes, and celebrations that call attention to the threats facing our ecosystems and recognize the progress we've made towards protecting the natural world.

For more than 100 years, the National Geographic Society has been operating as if every day is Earth Day. Through media, research, and exploration the Society has inspired innumerable people to care about the planet. National Geographic also funds more than 9,000 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects, and supports an education program to combat geographic illiteracy.

In 2009, National Geographic received a US$1 million Oracle Commitment Grant to assist with these efforts. Specifically, the grant funds the National Geographic Oceans Initiative—a five-year global action project to help reverse the current trajectory of ocean degradation and inspire sustainable choices. Dr. John Francis, vice president for research, conservation, and exploration at the Society, is an advisor on the project and has seen both the threats and the progress that Earth Day commemorates. He shared his unique perspective on the celebration as Oracle and the National Geographic Society begin a new two-year partnership for the environment.

Oracle: What is National Geographic's role as an advocate for protecting threatened environments?

Dr. Francis: I'm trained as a biologist, and in fact became a communicator and now administrator at National Geographic because I felt people weren't getting enough information about the challenges we face.

Our vision is to inspire people to care about the planet. Inspiration is one thing, and enabling people to act is another. I think increasingly an important role we play is as an intermediary in the conservation dialogue. Through our publications we can cover a topic with high journalistic integrity. And then, if people want to dive in either through those publications or on ancillary websites, they can learn more, and hopefully will become better global citizens.

Oracle: How are National Geographic's expeditions and research helping address threats to the environment?

Dr. Francis: Right now for example we're hosting, and Oracle's supporting, an expedition out to the Southern Line Islands. We're getting reports back on a blog from Enric Sala, who's our fellow. He's going to these remote islands that humans don't often, if ever, visit.

At Malden Island he found what's called a fish aggregation device, this kind of floating object that fishermen will put out that causes fish to congregate, and then they can fish around these devices. These devices are floating around the world ocean, and they're landing or coming close to fish populations in places that people never go. In another site he found a very limited number of sharks, when he expected it to be very shark-rich in these pristine locations. And the absence of sharks suggested that perhaps somebody had been through and fished them.

These kinds of reports come back all the time, whether it's habitat degradation or effects of climate change, or disappearance of cultures and languages.

Oracle: Given everything that you work on, what do you see as the value of having something like Earth Day on the calendar?

Dr. Francis: I think that one of the key messages for Earth Day should be the role of an individual on the planet, and what is your own personal geography. If you ask people the important spaces for them, they might identify their friends' and families' homes, their own house, obviously, where they work, where they shop perhaps. But more and more, especially as climate change has come on the radar, people are recognizing that their geography is really the planet, that just by driving your car, you're affecting CO²; where you choose to buy your food, whether local or from afar, what you do with water on your lawn, and what fertilizers you use, and what kind of fish you buy has impacts that are really quite far-reaching.

It's kind of like that fish-aggregating device I was telling you about; there's not much on the ocean's surface to attract fish, but if you put something out there that's floating, little fish and then bigger fish and bigger fish come, and suddenly you have a big school under this aggregation device. Who would've thought that just floating a box out in the ocean would've done it? Providing a reference point ends up being an important service. And then if it becomes well known, as is April 22nd, you get this large, holistic, and unified dialogue.

So that nowadays, partly because of the distributed information network, as well as just more information that we have, we can see ourselves as global actors, and I think that's a really interesting evolution that's occurred fairly recently, and makes the concept of Earth Day even more potent as people see the globe, the whole earth as the domain they affect.

Oracle: As people continue to awaken to this reality, what kind of actions could a private citizen take that would have the biggest impact on protecting Earth and threatened environments?

Dr. Francis: I think one thing that's come to the fore, especially with the economic downturn, is our patterns of consumption, especially in the United States. What is the downstream and upstream effect of what you take from the Earth?

And as a consequence you have to consider how much you need, and what the impact is of those material goods. So, the degree to which people consume goods, and what the impact of that consumption is, I think are key focal point for our society.

Can you buy local? Do you have to travel as much as you think you do? How long a shower do you need? Do you have to have a lawn in your front yard, or could you have something that doesn't require as much water or doesn't require fertilizers? Do you grow your own food, and thus do you get closer to the land and travel less to get your food? How much energy do you consume in your house, and how large does it have to be, and how warm do you have to keep it to be comfortable?

Those kinds of questions are all related to the chain of effects an individual has on the planet. I think people are more and more able to look at where their actions might have greater impact than they need to, especially the damaging effects of CO² production, which we're all focused on nowadays.

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