The Nature Conservancy’s Jennifer Morris is an ‘impatient optimist’ – Mongabay.com

the-nature-conservancy’s-jennifer-morris-is-an-‘impatient-optimist’-–-mongabay.com

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  • Jennifer Morris started her storied career in conservation working with communities in rural Namibia, before going on to eventually helm some of the leading international conservation NGOs.
  • In that time, Morris, now the CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), has seen things change — though “not fast enough” — in terms of achieving equity and diversity in the conservation space.
  • “For decades, protecting nature has come at the expense of the original stewards of land and waters — or prioritized over addressing environmental impacts that disproportionately hurt underserved communities,” she says.
  • In an interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Morris talks about the conservation sector’s long-overdue reckoning, the way the pandemic has shifted thinking about humanity’s relationship with the environment, and being an “impatient optimist.”

Like many sectors, conservation has increasingly been reckoning with issues around inclusivity, representation, justice, and equity. Many of these stem from the sector’s origins in the West, where conservation has tended to be the domain of the well-off. Conservation goals were thus often pursued at the expense of peoples who were traditionally the most dependent on wild places for their day-to-day survival.

Growing recognition of injustices against Indigenous peoples and local communities, social movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and the realization that current approaches won’t be sufficient to stave off catastrophic climate change and mass extinction have accelerated the push for change in the conservation sector.

TNC logo

As the largest environmental nonprofit in the United States with annual revenue exceeding $1 billion, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been among the groups grappling with these issues. In 2019, several senior executives left the organization after an internal investigation into sexual harassment.

Last year, Jennifer Morris took the helm of TNC as CEO, joining the organization right as COVID-19 lockdowns began across the United States. Morris thus found herself navigating a new role at the top of a large organization trying to recover from an internal crisis at a time when the entire world seemed to be spiraling out of control.

The pandemic has since stabilized, but Morris is still faced with the tall order of steering the 70-year-old institution through a turbulent period of change that affects not only the environmental sector, but society as a whole. Morris, however, is no newcomer to leadership: She had previously served in executive positions at Conservation International (CI) over a 20-year period, culminating in her being named CI’s president in 2017.

“I didn’t always imagine starting my journey as CEO in the middle of a global pandemic — I’ve spent much more time on Zoom than on preserves or meeting my teams in person,” Morris told Mongabay in a recent interview. “My priorities have been to create an inclusive and equitable culture while supporting our teams working through the challenges of the pandemic — and to focus our 2030 goals, ensuring that TNC can create a carbon-neutral, nature-positive, and equitable world in this critical decade ahead for our planet.”

Jennifer Morris in February 2021.
Jennifer Morris in February 2021.

While Morris has been at the world’s largest and most influential conservation groups since the late 1990s, she got her start at the other end of the spectrum, working with the Ovambo people in a village in northern Namibia. That experience, she says, introduced her to the severe impacts environmental degradation can have on local communities.

“Twenty-eight years ago, I was teaching English in a small village in northern Namibia. Outside of class, I helped the local women collect firewood and dig boreholes to access freshwater from the aquifer. I began to realize the damaging effects of deforestation on their community — and how these consequences fell largely on women. This experience helped me understand on a deeper level the connection between human health and planetary health. From that moment on, I dedicated my career to protecting and restoring nature to better the lives of all who depend on it.”

That start, plus her experiences working at various levels within big conservation organizations, has informed and shaped her views on the issues the sector is now wrestling with, she said.

“The conservation sector is facing a long-overdue reckoning with equity, particularly around racial equity, Indigenous land rights, and climate justice. For decades, protecting nature has come at the expense of the original stewards of land and waters — or prioritized over addressing environmental impacts that disproportionately hurt underserved communities,” she said. “With their deep knowledge of natural systems, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are consistently the best stewards of landscapes and natural resources. It’s crucial that they have a strong voice and choice in the decisions and actions that impact their lands, waters, livelihoods and culture.

Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

“I would also say that gender representation in conservation has changed significantly, but not fast enough. As I grew into new leadership positions and gained access to higher levels of decision-making in my career, I was struck by how frequently women had been absent from the table,” she continued. “Today there are more women in leadership roles, more women philanthropists, and a broader adoption of gender equity as a core conservation strategy. Women leaders, from Indigenous communities, local and global governments, science, agriculture and beyond are charting a course for a brighter future. This perspective is crucial, as women play an important role in managing natural resources; they bear heavier burdens from climate impacts; and they face increased risk of violence during crises, including natural disasters and the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

Morris said the pandemic itself has “underscored our broken connection with nature,” though government responses have been mixed to date as far as the environment is concerned.

“Many governments have included green measures in their recovery packages, for example through grants, loans or tax reliefs for green transport, circular economy and clean energy development. But so far, the balance is largely net-negative for investment in environmental outcomes.”

Morris rang the closing bell at NASDAQ in honor of Earth Day 2021.
Morris rang the closing bell at NASDAQ in honor of Earth Day 2021.

But despite this, as well as the daunting environmental challenges we currently face, Morris says she considers herself an “impatient optimist.”

“I understand the severity of the threats facing our planet, but I believe that the global community can come together and enact the right policies, shift industries toward a more sustainable path, and empower local communities to protect the resources that sustain them.”

Morris spoke of these issues, environmental priorities for the Biden administration, engaging the private sector in sustainability, and more during an April 2021 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: What inspired your interest in conservation and the environment? How does your role as CEO of The Nature Conservancy differ from your role as President at CI?

Jennifer Morris: Twenty-eight years ago, I was teaching English in a small village in Northern Namibia. Outside of class, I helped the local women collect firewood and dig boreholes to access freshwater from the aquifer. I began to realize the damaging effects of deforestation on their community—and how these consequences fell largely on women. This experience helped me understand on a deeper level the connection between human health and planetary health. From that moment on, I dedicated my career to protecting and restoring nature to better the lives of all who depend on it.

The Kuiseb River on the border of the Hardap and Erongo regions in Namibia in 2014. Courtesy of NASA.
The Kuiseb River on the border of the Hardap and Erongo regions in Namibia in 2014. Courtesy of NASA.

Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy are both at the forefront of addressing the climate emergency and biodiversity loss while supporting communities in building resilience. After working at CI for 23 years, which operates primarily outside the U.S., I was excited to have the opportunity to step into the Chief Executive Officer role at TNC, an organization I long admired, and have the chance to contribute to conservation in my home country as well.  The Nature Conservancy’s 70-year history, world-class science, and collaborative approach makes it a powerful partner to other NGOs, government leaders, and global businesses who are trying to create a brighter future. TNC also has an extensive network of volunteer leadership—more than 1,400 trustees—who help advocate for smart policies, protect lands and waters, and represent TNC in their communities.

Mongabay: You’ve now been at the helm of TNC for just under a year. What are some of your top priorities going forward?

Jennifer Morris: I didn’t always imagine starting my journey as CEO in the middle of a global pandemic—I’ve spent much more time on Zoom than on preserves or meeting my teams in person. My priorities have been to create an inclusive and equitable culture while supporting our teams working through the challenges of the pandemic—and to focus our 2030 goals, ensuring that TNC can create a carbon-neutral, nature-positive, and equitable world in this critical decade ahead for our planet.

Coral reefs, like this one pictured off the island of Komodo, are an important source of local livelihoods. Photo by Rhett A Butler.
Coral reefs, like this one pictured off the island of Komodo where TNC has implemented projects, are an important source of local livelihoods. Photo by Rhett A Butler.

A crucial part of our work is realizing the power of nature to address the climate crisis, protect biodiversity, and deliver important benefits for people, like clean air and water. For example, when it comes to climate, we know that emissions reductions alone, while critically important, will not limit warming to 1.5°C. We need to direct greater investment in protecting, restoring and improving management of forests, farms, and wetlands that can sequester carbon—and in parallel, push for a rapid clean energy transition.

Mongabay: You’ve been working in conservation since the 1990s. How has conservation changed since you got your start?

Jennifer Morris: The conservation sector is facing a long-overdue reckoning with equity, particularly around racial equity, Indigenous land rights, and climate justice. For decades, protecting nature has come at the expense of the original stewards of land and waters—or prioritized over addressing environmental impacts that disproportionately hurt underserved communities. With their deep knowledge of natural systems, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are consistently the best stewards of landscapes and natural resources. It’s crucial that they have a strong voice and choice in the decisions and actions that impact their lands, waters, livelihoods and culture.

Sunset near Brian Head, Utah. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Sunset near Brian Head, Utah. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

I would also say that gender representation in conservation has changed significantly, but not fast enough. As I grew into new leadership positions and gained access to higher levels of decision-making in my career, I was struck by how frequently women had been absent from the table. Today there are more women in leadership roles, more women philanthropists, and a broader adoption of gender equity as a core conservation strategy. Women leaders, from Indigenous communities, local and global governments, science, agriculture and beyond are charting a course for a brighter future. This perspective is crucial, as women play an important role in managing natural resources; they bear heavier burdens from climate impacts; and they face increased risk of violence during crises, including natural disasters and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, the role of the private sector has really changed for the better. Companies are stepping up like never before, not just because of shareholder pressure, but also because younger people entering the workforce want to work for companies that are values driven. More frequently, those values must align with creating a better future for our planet and equitable impacts for our communities. Companies need to be seen as active agents of change in order to attract and retain the brightest talent.

Mongabay: Historically, conservation has been a bipartisan issue, but today it sometimes seems politically divisive. How can the constituency around conservation be restored?

Jennifer Morris: Conservation is a nonpartisan issue. Communities and businesses around the world are feeling the effects of the climate crisis – whether that’s longer and more intense wildfire seasons, more extreme weather events, or poor air quality. We know that nature has a role to play in addressing some of our biggest challenges, and we’re seeing this understanding reflected across party lines. Beyond traditional bipartisan support for parks and open space conservation, we see broad support for the role of reefs and wetlands in helping protect coasts from extreme storms, of urban trees in reducing heat in cities, or of wetlands purifying water. This “natural infrastructure” is often cost-effective and provides economic benefits.

Pittsfield State Forest in Massachusetts. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Pittsfield State Forest in Massachusetts. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

Even on the climate crisis, we see emergent opportunities for bipartisan support for some solutions, including investments in forest health and reforestation, renewable energy, and farming practices that protect soil and help store carbon. We saw this support in December when the U.S. Congress passed a spending bill with the most extensive climate and energy legislation in over a decade.

We also know there is broad global support for action on the nature and climate emergencies. Recently, the UNDP released the largest ever survey on climate change, and more than two thirds of the 1.2 million respondents across 50 countries said they believe we are in a state of climate emergency. It’s time to tap into that collective energy and bring people together to act.

Mongabay: The environmental challenges we face are daunting. What do you see as the biggest opportunities to scale up efforts to combat biodiversity loss, degradation of ecosystems, and climate change?

Jennifer Morris: With so many crucial events postponed last year, 2021 is the new super year for nature, with pivotal UN and other global conferences coming up that will set the ambition and direction for the next ten years. In the lead-up to these meetings, and perhaps because of the delays, we’re seeing increased momentum and urgency around the goal to protect 30% of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030.

We have a big opportunity here to help mainstream biodiversity into decision-making. TNC recently worked with the Paulson Institute and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to quantify the nature funding gap, $700 billion USD/year, and identify mechanisms to unlock funds. Our research shows that sectors like agriculture, infrastructure and finance are some of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss—but they can also become major drivers for scaling up conservation.

Lava flows off the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Lava flows off the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

We know that there is no high-growth scenario for the economy that is also high-carbon or nature-degrading. So we are encouraging governments, businesses, and communities to pivot to a carbon-neutral, nature-positive, resilient future by emphasizing the economic, health and job opportunities associated with nature-based solutions.

Mongabay: COVID has devastated society. What opportunities do you see arising out of the post-pandemic recovery?

Jennifer Morris: The COVID-19 pandemic has really underscored our broken connection with nature. Scientists agree that healthy lands and waters can help reduce the risk of future zoonotic outbreaks, which are partly driven by habitat loss and the climate crisis. In fact, the World Health Organization’s number one recommendation for a healthy and just recovery from the pandemic is protect and preserve nature. As countries restart their economies, we have an enormous opportunity to ensure that global recovery efforts include support for protecting the lands and waters that provide us with clean air, fresh water, healthy food, and so much more.

Many governments have included green measures in their recovery packages – for example through grants, loans or tax reliefs for green transport, circular economy and clean energy development. But so far, the balance is largely net-negative for investment in environmental outcomes.

Redwood forest in California. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Redwood forest in California. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

We see a big opportunity to partner with countries who want to invest more in nature conservation, but who carry large debt burdens, exacerbated by economic impacts of COVID-19. Through “debt for nature swaps” we can help relieve a portion of foreign debt in exchange for commitments to invest in conservation and ceasing activities that harm nature and contribute to the climate crisis. The Nature Conservancy has done 10 of these debt swaps globally, most notably in the Republic of Seychelles, which designated 30% of its territorial waters as marine protected areas, 10 years ahead of international targets

Mongabay: Joe Biden has indicated that action on climate change will be at the center of his administration’s policies. Are there certain approaches or actions you’d like the new administration to take on climate?

Jennifer Morris: The Biden Administration has quickly signaled that addressing the climate crisis is one of its highest priorities, having re-joined the Paris Agreement, directed all federal agencies to assess how they can advance climate solutions, and set in motion plans for setting US goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

TNC is joining others in pressing the Administration to leverage its global influence to ensure an international response that is urgent, at-scale, and advances natural climate solutions. We need to see greater investments in research and development and partnerships with the private sector to develop new technologies that can accelerate the green energy transition.  TNC is also hoping to see the Administration focus on smart siting for renewable energy. We have enormous potential to site energy development on already-degraded lands, such as brownfields and reclaimed mine lands.

We believe there will be a big opportunity for the Administration to push for nature-based solutions that can both sequester carbon and enhance resilience of communities against extreme weather events and other effects of the climate crisis.

Canoers in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Canoers in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

It’s also encouraging to see the U.S. commitment to protecting 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. There’s a big climate opportunity here, if we focus investments in areas at the intersection of biodiversity and precious carbon stocks.

Mongabay: Do you have any advice for someone aspiring to follow in your footsteps?

Jennifer Morris: My advice for someone seeking a leadership role in conservation is to practice humility and transparency. When you are curious, open, and committed to listening, you can learn more—and learn faster. Humble and transparent leadership helps to generate buy-in, support creative thinking, and promote radical collaboration.  Also – a good sense of humor and thick skin can go a long way.

Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?

Jennifer Morris: I would tell them that there is room for optimism—if we act now. I consider myself an “impatient optimist.”  I understand the severity of the threats facing our planet, but I believe that the global community can come together and enact the right policies, shift industries toward a more sustainable path, and empower local communities to protect the resources that sustain them.

Young people have a crucial role to play, and it doesn’t necessarily require pursuing a career path in conservation. Whether they’re voting, pushing their employers for more sustainable practices, reaching out to government representatives, or talking to friends and family about the climate crisis—they have powerful voices. And I hope they will use them to speak up for nature.

Header image: Redwood trees in California. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

climate policy, Conservation, Conservation Solutions, Corporate Role In Conservation, COVID-19, Featured, Gender and Conservation, Global Warming Mitigation, Indigenous Peoples, Interviews, Interviews with conservation players, Pandemics, transforming conservation

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