Prof. Deborah Lawrence on De-Fragmentation

Jared on this interview -- “It’s so beautiful to hear you describe interconnectedness scientifically. It’s very validating. We’re coming at the same teaching from different angles.”

Professor Deborah Lawrence is a pioneer in tropical forest ecology, but also in integrating a broad variety of academics and real world experiences to better understand environmental problems and solutions. In this episode we talk from the theme of "de-fragmentation" as a fundamental solution for people, socially and environmentally. We divide the interview into three sections. In part 1 Dr. Lawrence shares an overview of her scientific work distinguishing tropical forests as having greater influence over global climate than other ecosystems. In part 2 she talks about her “awakening” to animals and rainforests and the Indigenous people in them, during college, which led to roughly six years of research in remote Borneo. That experience had a tragic end, but 15 years later a beautiful resolution. She shares about that journey and its value today. In the third segment, Dr. Lawrence talks about her vision for an optimal future for everyone.

About Deborah Lawrence
Deborah Lawrence, Ph.D., is Director of the Environmental Thought & Practice program and Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Her extensive research focuses on nutrient cycling, Indigenous peoples, the links between tropical deforestation and climate change, and the impacts of forest conversion on our climate around the globe. She is an adviser to the US Forest Service and US AID. She has spent more than twenty-five years doing field-based research in Indonesia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Cameroon. She and her students work with partners in hydrology, atmospheric science, economics, anthropology, ethics, engineering, law, and more, to understand the drivers and consequences of issues related to ecosystem destruction. Dr. Lawrence has earned numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Academy of Sciences fellowship, and a Fulbright Scholarship. She earned her undergrad at Harvard, her Ph.D. at Duke, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard. Learn more about Dr. Lawrence's work here and here.

Notes -- This episode explores its topics under the theme of De-Fragmentation.
  • Section 1: Tropical Forest “Teleconnections”. We begin by discussing Dr. Lawrence’s breakthrough 2014 study on Tropical Forest teleconnections: AKA, tropical forests' influence on global moisture cycles. Tropical rainforests are better at stabilizing global climate than any other land-based ecosystem. Dr. Lawrence shares: 
    • Definition of tropical forest teleconnections
    • Her biggest takeaways from that study, today 
    • How trees' leaves serve the whole planet. “Leaves are tiny pumps.” (Chris)
    • Whether or not tropical re-forestation can reduce heat and drought around the world
    • The power of thoughtful reforestation and deforestation
    • Two recommendations for how to protect tropical rainforests. 
  • Section 2: Lessons learned in Borneo. Dr. Lawrence tells us how she ended up living and working in a remote village in Borneo for roughly six years until “getting kicked out.” She shares general as well as very profound, personal lessons learned from that time. Check "Quotes" below for some takeaways. 
  • Section 3: Envisioning an Optimal Future. Professor Lawrence expands on her earlier statements from this interview: that we need to work to be connected to each other and the planet, know all we can about how to protect the rainforests, change our economy, recognize the environment as our life-support system, feel the miraculousness of photosynthesis, conserve more, and help more because we care more. See Quotes for takeaways. 

Quotes
“Tree cover stabilizes climate."

"There are certain scale effects of deforestation. Scale matters. If you can think through the local climate and the local atmospheric dynamics you can figure out how to manage rainfall through deforestation."

"The atmosphere is all connected. Forests move a lot of moisture through their leaves... That sets up a bunch of dynamics in the atmosphere that come out of the Tropics and ultimately have ripple effects across the globe... We need to protect large, large patches of forest."

"Know all you can about the products you consume. Address climate through the political system. We need to act."

"Work together. Try to be connected."

"The first thing that struck me from almost the get go, is that people are the same everywhere. They wanted to eat, a decent house, schooling for their kids, care for their family when they were sick, and enough money to throw a great wedding for their kids. That was it! I’m pretty sure that’s what I want, as a parent, I mean, it’s pretty much the same thing. So, stunning to me. I mean, maybe not stunning — of course, we’re all the same. Maybe you just don’t get that if you don’t actually go somewhere else and discover they just want the same things.”

“Water keepers are everywhere. The water is a big thing everywhere.

“Working together is how you do it when things are hard. You pull together for planting, for healing, for parties… We can work together and we can find a path.

“When making big decisions, it’s important to be thoughtful and move a bit slowly, especially when those decisions have to do with the land. . . You cannot walk back decisions to deforest the planet. The better thing to do is just to not do it in the first place. . . Our planet depends on leaving these forests alone. . . It is simple, hard and utterly important.”

“And I thought, “Oh my goodness, it wasn’t all me…” I had spent 15 years blaming myself, and I knew in fact I was to blame, I had plenty of blame, but to know that I was forgiven, and that these people were sorry, and that it wasn’t all lost… Aside from my kids — the other best thing that’s ever happened to me was to get this back, to feel like it wasn’t lost; I wasn’t lost to them and they weren’t lost to me.”

“I hope we ALL have a chance in less than 15 years to go back to whoever we hurt or whoever we failed and to get some clarity or some forgiveness. I think a really important message is that you shouldn’t give up on people, and that people make mistakes, big ones. We’re all human. These sound like cliches, but it’s the truth. We do make mistakes. It’s important to try hard to stay connected. Try hard to stay connected and if you get disconnected try even harder to get reconnected. When I think about my deepest failure, it was a failure to listen and a failure to maybe ask for more… I think the best thing you can do is actually discuss your feelings, and for me now, the message now, is that this extends to the way i feel about our planet and our future… and the fact that we have to work together, and if we don’t we stand to lose a lot. We stand to lose not only our connection to the planet, which sustains us, but our connection to each other… So I think trying to be connected is the way we get through this.”

“We should be skeptical of our own stories because we don’t actually know it all.”

“This fragmented world that we live in is something we have got to come to grips with... Our country was built on slavery... Our country was inhabited before we got here, and we took that land... The other acknowledgment that we need is that we are living in this lifeboat called, “the planet Earth,” and it is our life-support system, it’s the only one we have, and we depend on it utterly... I hope it becomes another one of those acknowledgements, that the Earth is sustaining us, and we need to remember that everyday.”

"My vision for the future is that we are fundamentally not so divided from each other."

"
I want us to be a people who are together with each other and together with the planet."

"My ideal future: we nailed it and we addressed climate change and when climate catastrophes hit we help because we want to help each other out... A cleaner world, full of energy, from people and for people." 


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Music
Thanks so much to Alice Spencer for her song, "I Wanna Be a Buddhist," our theme. Enjoy Alice's full performance of the song here
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