As our CREW community continues to grow, we want to remind ourselves of why we’re here in the first place: to connect climate-conscious folks with one another, fostering dialogue that promotes a collective shift towards regenerative living.
To help foster that dialogue, I met with CREW member Dr. Mary Pearl. A lifelong environmentalist, trailblazer in the field of conservation medicine, and highly accomplished educator, Mary’s resume is as expansive as her field of interest. But what stands out most about Mary is her unrelenting commitment to best serve our planet and all living creatures on it. Learn how she’s followed through on this commitment below.
Why did you become an environmentalist? What was that moment for you?
I always loved animals from an early age, and I’ve always loved being out in nature, so that was a driving force. Then, when I went to graduate school, my fascination with animals turned into an interest in evolutionary biology. I went to do some research, and I studied Himalayan rhesus monkeys in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was there that I saw needless, wanton destruction of forests. The forest was supposedly protected, but it was under a corrupt management system wherein forest guards had to buy their positions, and they were mortgaged against timber sales that they would conduct in this forest. It was where the origin of one of the great rivers of Asia began and this watershed was being stripped of the trees whose roots would hold the soil. So soil was washing away, ruining the future prospects of local farmers. The government could have taken action, but they didn’t. And I just thought, I can’t continue to study the social behavior of the monkeys here when their habitats are being destroyed.
When I returned, I finished my dissertation and talked my way into a job at World Wildlife Fund, which at the time had only twelve employees. They weren’t so excited about hiring scientists; I was the third scientist they hired and I got the job because I said I’d raise money from corporations—that was the only opening they had. It turned out to be very adaptive because I had to talk to people who felt they owed nothing. There was no greenwashing back then, they just said, “why do you think we should care about the environment?” And I would say, “well, I know your first priority has to be return on investment to your shareholders.” That’s when they would realize that I wasn’t crazy, and they would start to listen. I learned at that job that you always start where people are, and to talk in terms of self-interest, whether it’s individual or communal.
What encouraged you to make that shift from the world of academic science to then fundraising for the World Wildlife Fund?
In good conscience, how could I study something that was in dire need of protection? It would be like an art historian writing a paper about Rembrandt while watching someone throw paint at his artwork. You would just stop what you’re doing and you’d save it.
But I only stayed at WWF for maybe a year and a half. I raised a good sum of money, then went to the New York Zoological Society, now the Wildlife Conservation Society, and I was able to return to my science roots. I became the administrator of the field research program, and that was another educational experience because I administered the field research grants. I would read over grant proposals for field research of all kinds from all over the world, and discovered a cadre of wonderful scientists from developing nations who had often gotten their degrees in Europe or the USA, but had not broken out into the international arena of people who have a voice.
After my tenure at Wildlife Conservation Society, I was invited to head up my own organization, now called the Eco Health Alliance. We built the careers of scientists from developing countries around the world. The professional career development was supportive of scientists in all kinds of situations, and we would all work together. That was many years ago, but we’re all still in touch as scientists. We have an article coming out in the journal Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution, and we recently wrote a letter for the New York Times about the importance of thinking about the wildlife consequences of limited nuclear warfare in Ukraine. As people discuss weapons and warfare they must realize the cost to our lives as human beings and as mammals, along with our fellow wildlife, is too great. It’s critical that we not release radioactive material into the environment because it has repercussions all over the world. Our letter was signed by colleagues I have from many years ago, from eight different nations in the case of this letter. So we’re still active as advocates for the environment as scientists.
You work in that bridge between environmental, human, and animal health, and within the social aspects of these fields as well. Along with your positions as a scientist and a fundraiser, you were CEO of the Garrison Institute. It’s evident that you’ve worked so heavily within the interconnectivity between various fields. Can you talk a little bit about that interconnectivity and the ways in which our well-being is intertwined with the planet’s?
Well, it’s a matter of faith. The Garrison Institute is a place for people who have a contemplative practice of all kinds; mostly Buddhism, but also Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It’s important in life to nurture your spiritual health, along with your physical and mental health. And I think people often neglect that. Especially scientists, who often think that it’s childish or naive. But if you claim you don’t have a belief system, you still believe in something. The default in our society is materialism. You have to be conscious of where your values lie. And when you know where your values lie, if you have an almost spiritual wealth, then you have a spiritual connection to nature and begin to see us all as one. I think that encourages me to have a very broad view of any intellectual endeavor. I’ve been influenced by reading other scientists from other parts of the world. An American biologist will tend to stay strictly in that sector, and not feel free to cite a philosopher or someone from a completely different field. Whereas, say, an Argentinian biologist would feel no such restriction.
I have a wonderful colleague, Alonso Aguirre, who is now the dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. He’s a member of our network of scientists and he’s worked on the interface between human health, wildlife health, and the environment for a long time. He insists that we think “transdisciplinary.” Interdisciplinary is when you grudgingly acknowledge that someone from another field has something to contribute to what you’re doing, whereas transdisciplinary is when new ways of thinking and seeing emerge from engaging at a profound level with the intellectual inquiry. I believe that conservation science is a transdiscipline. All its facets are continually emerging and it’s intellectually more exciting, and it’s also a way to come to solutions.
When I was at Macaulay Honors College we created a required introduction to science called Science Forward. The curriculum is centered around solving grand challenges in our society, like feeding the world. But then there were components of biodiversity loss and ecosystem function, and science ethics was also considered broadly. We designed it to be as compelling to science majors as English majors, because so many of the science students did not take a course in ethics. I wanted all the students to have this course as a common experience. No matter what career they went into, they would have this course as a foundation.
The course also required attendance at a BioBlitz, which is the survey of all the plants and animals in an area over a twenty-four hour period. We’ve gone around to all the parks, rivers, and river edges of the city of New York, whether it was Central Park, or the Freshkills on Staten Island, or even along the East River. Students became aware that New York City isn’t just filled with rats and pigeons and dogs. In Central Park alone, they came up with over 800 species of plants and animals in a 24 hour period. It blew them away. And of course, there’s no scientist more enthusiastic than a field biologist introducing people for the first time to moss and lichen. I thought it was important to provide students with that enthusiasm for science as an area of inquiry, rather than a required set of drudgeries for getting into medical school.
How can non-academics try to become more conscious of their interconnectivity with the natural world? How do they become more conscious and respectful of this relationship between ourselves, animals, planet, everything?
I think everyone innately loves nature. Beautiful images of nature appear everywhere, like in a doctor’s waiting room or on your television’s screen saver. The important step for people to take is to realize that they’re part of nature. It’s not something foreign to them; we all are one with nature.
We can interpret some of the more popular religions as setting humans as special and apart from nature, and distinct from the grand array of wildlife. But visit the American Museum of Natural History and look at the wall of biodiversity.To me, this exhibit shows the altar of God’s great plan. Nature in the true array of all that has flowered and transpired over evolutionary time is a wonder, and it’s something beautiful to be a part of. Sometimes I wonder how people become so disassociated from nature. Frankly, I don’t know what brings them back, except for maybe having conversations with people like you and me who find life so enhanced and beautiful because we’re part of nature.
And you don’t have to embrace nature, you don’t have to love to hike, you don’t have to ever go into a sleeping bag. But you can still do a lot to save nature, because it saves us. Having functioning ecosystems is the basis of all prosperity. When people understand that, they understand how important it is to maintain protected areas and to support connectivity. People everywhere can support measures that will protect species that form the ecosystems that are so giving to us in terms of pest control, temperature moderation, and flood mitigation. All the things that we need can be provided by nature if we give it room.
How do you think CREW fits into this web of solutions surrounding the climate crisis?
I think it’s a brilliant notion. I read a book that impacted me called Social Change 2.0, and I was enlightened to read that people change their minds not by being told through direct mail or through the preachings of a celebrity or scientist. Talking to your neighbors is really one of the the only ways that people open up, regardless of political affiliation, and talk about solutions to problems.
So when I heard about CREW, I said, “Sign me up!” I loved the idea of gathering people to talk about life and the importance of doing something about the weird weather we’re having. Climate change is real, so what are we going to do to stop contributing to it? I’ve devoted my life to wildlife conservation, and I’d like to think that I’m pretty savvy. I took the Overshoot Day quiz at the beginning and, to my real chagrin, I learned that it would take six Earths to support my lifestyle if everyone on the planet had the same lifestyle I have.
My big culprit is air travel. I actually was invited to a conference in Ghana in December, and I analyzed the cost-benefit and decided that it wasn’t worth all the carbon expenditure of travel. I love visiting the country, so if I hadn’t been with my CREWmates at the time I would have made a different decision. But how could I explain to them that I was going to do something like this? I’m also on a campaign to get myself using power solely from electricity from renewable sources. I’m installing solar panels on my roof. I bought an electric vehicle when my Prius died. Now my next step is to buy a heat pump for my home. And there are members of my CREW that said, “Oh, I’ve researched heat pumps, or I have a heat pump, here are some resources.” So it’s a wonderful place to exchange ideas, and it’s just wonderful to be with a group of people from all walks of life who are working towards the same goals you are. And I came out of CREW with a personal sustainability plan, which was just wonderful.
I also loved that my CREW had people who are as young as you and as old as me. It was nice to have that array of men and women, old and young, all in different phases of their lives and their carbon expenditures. It was edifying, it was encouraging, and it really helped me along the road to a more modest carbon footprint.
In regard to our future and the environment, what gives you hope?
When I was your age, no one talked or cared about the environment. We were visibly consuming foods filled with toxicants and breathing air that was toxic. People won’t stand for that anymore. Society has a different view of health as including a healthy environment, and young people have been raised understanding the scope of the problem. Someone like Greta Thunberg has made the whole world recognize the hypocrisy of political leadership as they give lip service to the environment by taking contributions from major polluters who tried to confuse and beguile the public with misleading advertising. People are beginning to see that! B Corp companies exist now, and are committed to protecting the environment.
The biggest source of hope for me is young people, who have a very strong and committed view to social change. You’ve been raised in the insanity of school shootings, so you have a very different view of gun control as a public safety and public health measure, rather than a misreading of the Constitution, in my view. And similarly with the environment. As young people today move into positions of leadership, it is my fervent hope—and even I have some optimism—that more environmentally sensitive politicians will be elected to make policies that reflect the reality of the existential danger we’re in.
Another reason CREW is great is that talking with like-minded people gives you hope that it’s not just you. You’re not alone, and as Greta said, no one is too small to make a difference. One person plus another person adds up, and pretty soon whole communities are demonstrating leadership in environmental considerations.
Why and how do you think the younger generations should remain hopeful walking into this world?
Because you can change policies. There’s a Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In my own career, I called it diving off the high diving board without knowing if there’s water at the bottom. If you want to do something, just do it. The worst thing that can happen is you learn why it didn’t work the first time. So having persistence, resilience… water does indeed wear away rock.
I’ve seen over the decades of my career that things that seemed impossible, sometimes overnight and sometimes gradually, became possible. The area in Pakistan, in the Himalayas where I first became an environmentalist, that forest that was being destroyed in a corrupt regime is now a National Park! It’s supported by lots of people who go visit it. I have a former student whose family was from that region. He went home to visit and he sent me back photographs. The same number of monkeys are there, the forest looks the same, and that filled my heart with joy because I thought that place was going to disappear. Instead it’s a protected area that is actually protected.
There are so many other success stories like that around the world, too. There’s a forest regeneration program in Brazil in Sao Paulo state, where 80% of the natural atlantic forest of the interior was destroyed, and this massive corridor project has grown in response. Now it’s taken on added energy because they’re selling carbon credits to companies that offset carbon emissions. So when you offset your carbon emissions, you’re planting native trees in Brazil that are helping to thoughtfully reconstruct this forest! There are points of joy everywhere if you know where to find them. We just need to look for them and find ways to support them while also creating others.
Mary has spent her life and career studying, advocating, and educating people on our environment and the intricate systems that are dependent upon its well-being. Her dedicated efforts to preserve and protect ecosystems reminds me that there are people out there willing to put in the work to promote a healthy planet.
Ironically, it is young people that give Mary hope for planet Earth’s future. “The biggest source of hope for me is young people, who have a very strong and committed view to social change.” Somehow, I fuel Mary’s optimistic view of the future while she fuels mine. This is what CREW is all about: like-minded people coming together and inspiring one another, creating real change one person at a time.