“Profiles in Courage,” the 1957 book by John F. Kennedy and Ted Sorenson, hit Larry Nielsen at just the right time. He’s a Baby Boomer, he explains, and when he read it as a teenager, he was inspired by its bullet biographies of senators who stood up for their principles – even when it went against the party line.
It stuck with him, and decades later he wanted to do the same for conservationists. He even nearly called the resulting book “Profiles in Conservation,” but the name wasn’t an exact enough fit. Nielsen instead settled on what he felt was a more meaningful title: “Nature’s Allies.”
“I thought specifically about students studying natural resources and it would be good for them to learn a little bit more about the giants upon whose shoulders they stood,” he says.
Nielsen is a professor of natural resources at N.C. State University (where he was provost for a time), and in “Nature’s Allies: Eight Conservationists Who Changed Our World” (Island Press, $28), he presents bite-sized bios of conservationists from diverse backgrounds. A few of these eight – coincidentally, he laughs, the same number as in Kennedy’s book – are the usual suspects: “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson, say, or archetypal naturalist John Muir. Nielsen was also sure to include conservationists without the same household name recognition, such as Native American fishing rights activist Billy Frank Jr. or Kenyan Green Belt Movement founder Wangari Maathai.
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“The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure that the book covered a diversity of people from a diversity of backgrounds and different places in the world in order to reinforce the idea that anyone and everyone is important in sustaining our earth,” he explains. “It’s not just professionals, it’s not just college-educated people, it’s not just Americans.”
As the book took shape, he realized these conservationists had three traits in common. One was a passion, or something they believed in. The second was persistence, often lasting a lifetime. The third was cooperation. Each person made an important change to the world, but none did it alone.
“Sometimes these ideas are more popular and sometimes they’re less popular,” Nielsen says. Being one of nature’s allies isn’t always fun, and the conservationists in his book faced scrutiny – or worse. Frank was arrested 50 times, while Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes was assassinated.
Yet Nielsen is an optimist. The world is a better place today than it was yesterday, he believes, and will be a better place tomorrow than it is today. And if there’s anyone in “Nature’s Allies” with whom he identifies, it would be Frank.
“He never got bitter, he never got angry, he never walked away,” Nielsen says. “It’s my own personality to try to get along and try to work within the system to make things better rather than be a rebel, so I really identify with Billy Frank Jr. as the kind of person that can overcome all sorts of obstacles and do something great.”
How to be nature’s ally
Nielsen maintains that anyone can be a conservationist, so we asked him for some tips on how to be one of nature’s allies.
1. Follow your heart. “It doesn’t matter if you like trees or you like animals or you like earthworms. To get involved in some way, to follow your personal interests and work in that direction. As we think about the sustainability of our earth in the future, we’re going to have to work on all fronts. I think that dozens, hundreds, millions of people – what they feel strongly about is really the best base for us to try to make a sustainable world for the future.”
2. It’s about habitat. “You look at the people that I profile in the book, most of them were about trying to put some protection around land so that it remained in good shape for the future. They were essentially concerned and interested in protecting lands so that they remained productive into the future. Those of us who work in wildlife, for example, fully understand that without habitat, that without places for these animals to live and these plants to live, they’re not going to be there.”
3. Find some people like you and join with them in their pursuits. “There are many organizations out there that are committed to sustainability in one way or another, and I like to use sustainability as a general term for being interested in wildlife, being interested in endangered species, whatever the case may be. That’s what it’s about – how do we live today so that future generations may live as they wish?
“Being an effective partner means that sometimes you take the lead, sometimes you join in with the ideas that others have. Supporting organizations that you feel good about is an important way to do things.”
4. Stick with it. “It’s great to do something one time and be involved, but it’s even better to keep at it for a lifetime. I think that one of the strong lessons from these conservationists is you don’t change the world in a day, but if you stick with it, you have chance to change the world in big ways. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman in the book, started planting trees. I don’t think when she started her first group to plant some trees that she had the idea that over her lifetime she was going to lead the effort that resulted in planting 50 million trees, but that’s the way it happened.”
5. Think about the chronic issues. “Acute problems tend to get the attention. We just passed the seventh anniversary of the BP oil spill, and that was such a dramatic event that had everyone so concerned and such, but often the real problems are the chronic problems that drip, drip, drip into life on a daily basis.
“The huge problem in terms of oil pollution is not a big mistake like that that happens every once in awhile, but it’s the chronic pollution that comes from oil leaking into the environment from all sorts of places.”