In the antepenultimate chapter of The Nature of Nature, conservationist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala shares the story of how, in 2012, he and some colleagues sought to persuade Gabonese President Bongo Ondimba of the importance of protecting the country’s marine life. The president listened politely to Sala’s presentation, but when his interest began to wane, the team offered to let Ondimba pilot a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that would allow the leader to observe the life beneath the water in real time. After some tense minutes of seeing nothing but sand, the ocean life suddenly revealed itself, treating the observers to a vision of brittle stars, scorpion fish, brightly colored anthias, and several huge, dogtooth groupers. Sala writes, “I looked at the president, and I could feel that he had just fallen in love with the underwater world of his own country–a natural wonderland that he did not really know.” President Ondimba went on to establish a network of 20 marine protected areas that cover 46,000 square kilometers, or 28 percent, of Gabon’s marine waters.
Sala goes on to explain that when Pristine Seas, a project of National Geographic, approaches world leaders, “We never start with the head. We go straight to the heart, and taking a leader to the field is the best recipe for doing so.” Sala has embraced the oft-quoted truth from Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
I’m sharing that anecdote from Sala’s book because it encapsulates the author’s approach to winning over his audience. Too often, conservation writers are so focused on doom and gloom that even the hardiest of us lack the perseverance to see the subject through to potential solutions. Or, the content is directed at those of us already sympathetic to the author’s viewpoint, giving the reader a simultaneous sense of smugness and despair. The Nature of Nature is ideally suited to reach readers who enjoy nature but may not fully understand the extent of the earth’s current crises, or realize that it’s up to us to do something about it. Sala not only describes the challenges our natural world is currently facing, but offers evidence that protecting wildlife is both a moral choice and an economically beneficial one. (If you have friends who are sympathetic toward nature but think we “can’t afford” to protect it, send them directly to chapter 13.)
Appropriate for readers of all backgrounds, this book is, in Sala’s own words, a crash course in ecology. He starts with the basics of “what is an ecosystem,” and explains terms like keystone species and trophic cascades so that, when he traces a decline in kelp in coastal regions back to mid-20th century whaling in the North Pacific, the new ecology convert can follow along with him. (And yeah, maybe your friends don’t care much about kelp or sea urchins, but I bet the care about sea otters, right? Who doesn’t love sea otters?)
This book is filled with eye-opening observations; for example, that animal farming takes up 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land but delivers only 18 percent of our calories; that every mountain gorilla in Rwanda contributes more economic wealth to the country that the average businessperson; that humans deplete marine species at disproportionately higher rates than any of their other predators; that creating marine reserves increases the numbers and variety of fish in areas adjacent to the protected habitat, thereby benefitting the fishing industry overall.
Before I get censured by a Texas school board for making humans feel bad about themselves, I will say that this is one of the kindest books on conservation I have read. The author is solutions-focused, striving to win people over to love nature the way the Pristine Seas team won over the President of Gabon with an ROV. The format of the book is simple: teach the basics, help people understand the connections, propose solutions. I recommend this book for anyone looking for talking points to address concerns of friends and family members who say things like, “Sure, I care about the ocean, but what about the fisherman trying to make a living?” A key point this book makes again and again is it’s not people OR nature; it’s people AND nature. Interconnected, as always.
If only Sala had included some photos of sea otters.