A public access path leads to the ocean at Wrightsville Beach, NC.
Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting.
Author: Dr. John N. ("Jack") Kittinger
The challenges we face in conservation can be overwhelming. Nature seems more intentional today in her reminders of how reliant we are on the life support systems she provides. New tragedies seem to unfold on a daily basis, accelerated by the climate crisis and built on a backdrop of endless assaults humanity hurls at ecosystems.
Conservation in the Anthropocene is increasingly about human security — it's about people, communities, families — our children. I think a lot of people are just starting to understand that the loss of nature is a loss of security. For many people, it is still a leap to understand that nature is vital to our survival and ability to thrive. But this is changing. Particularly for younger generations, for whom conservation is endemic to their choices and behavior in the world. The question is whether this will happen fast enough to prevent the worst of what the climate and biodiversity crisis will deliver to us. In other words, we live in decisive times.
In conservation, time and resources are not on our side. Even as our most pressing environmental problems continue to ratchet up, our resources to combat them don't keep pace. We strive and we fight. We often come up short. Working in conservation often feels like you are engaged in a perpetual and unwinnable war. Even small victories can feel diminished when one looks at the big picture. It's easy to look at the global scale of the challenges we face and feel overwhelmed — to want to give up. But we don't and we can't.
I've worked in the conservation sector for over a decade — long enough to know that if there is one thing that unites people in this work, it is a sense of urgent optimism and a total dedication to the cause. I didn't know exactly how to encapsulate this feeling until Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris Agreement on climate change, described it in this way (Figueres, 2022).
Conservation optimists see the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it could be, not as a barrier — but as an opportunity. For us there is no other more rewarding work. This is why conservation often feels like more of a vocation than a profession. It requires dedication, perseverance, and sometimes great sacrifice. We can fail a hundred times but if we succeed just once, even in a small way, it is worth it because we have made a difference. Most of the ardent and committed conservationists I know find strength in the simple truth that they are engaged in the fight – they are doing the work that must be done.
But this kind of transformation is hard, and it does not come without costs. I know people who have sacrificed nearly everything, given their whole lives to this work, just to make sure one species persists, a cultural practice is perpetuated, an acre of forest remains a forest. In the face of the incredible obstacles we face, where does this persistence and resolve come from?
I think it comes from a place that every one of us knows. It comes from home.
What is home? Home is a place you stumbled upon as you walked your own path. It's where you connected to something that resonated. It's where you discovered the beautiful, incredible natural world, and in the process discovered something about yourself. For some of us — it's where we grew up. For others, it is further afield. Some of us continue to search for it. It is the reason that kids who grew up hundreds of miles from the ocean have become some of the best marine scientists on the planet. It's the reason a wildlife ranger will risk her life to save a single animal. It is often deeply connected to our culture, our family, and our community. It is a core pillar of every conservationists’ identity. It is a wellspring and a reference point. Each and every one of us has a home.
Outer Banks seascape, North Carolina coastline. Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting
For me, home is a small strip of white sand in the outer banks of North Carolina. It is covered in sea oats, dunes, and a few live oak trees. By some act of foresight, it remained undeveloped, and is the longest stretch of coastline in that part of the world that remains this way. It has archaeological sites from its first nations. Hurricanes regularly split it into pieces. This is where I discovered the sea, and where I found myself, in many ways. This place shaped me. I carry this place wherever I go. More often, it carries me.
When I started my career – as a scientist, this place was the reason I went into marine biology. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do at that career stage, but I knew it had to be about protecting this place, this ocean, this special spot on planet earth. I thought being a scientist would lead me there. But it didn’t. The truth is, my wonderful professors were great at teaching me how to become a scientist. But none of the institutions, curriculum, or academics that I worked with could teach me about how to have impact – how to make a difference. Instead, you tend to learn that by doing. In my experience, this almost always happens outside of the academy. I was already a successful scientist when I started to ask myself the hard questions about whether my work really was going to matter – for my home, and for the incredible Pacific Island communities that I was lucky enough to be working in. Living in these communities, where genealogy and heritage are both the foundation of identity and its deep relationship to nature, initiated a process of self-discovery that never took root in my academic training. It was this inward journey that led me to change career paths (Kittinger, 2014).
In this way, home often becomes an anchor for many along the journey. I was thinking of home when I wrote the dedication for my PhD thesis: “No man [person] is an island, said John Donne, but I humbly dare to add: No man and no woman is an island, but everyone of us is a peninsula, half attached to the mainland, half facing the ocean – one half connected to family and friends and culture and tradition and… many other things, and the other half wanting to be left alone to face the ocean. I think we ought to be allowed to remain peninsulas. The condition of the peninsula is the proper human condition” (Oz, 2010).
Home can be disruptive. Insofar as your path leads you away from what matters to you, it will have a way of catching up with you. You will return home. Sometimes when you are adrift, home is the one thing that will call you back. I see this all the time in people who have made radical changes in their lives. They are coming back home, back to what they connected to, back to what is important to them.
When I think about the pressures we are ratcheting up on our blue planet, I think about my home. It may well disappear with rising seas. The truth is, I have not yet grappled with that future, and what it will mean for me. So many other communities face these same difficult futures. But the island has a way of being resilient, as we must be. The founder of Conservation International, Peter Seligmann, once told me: "We have to have the most impact we can, in the least amount of time, with the resources we have." To do this effectively, we need a diversity of voices, experiences, and cultures, all bringing their connections — their home — to this movement.
How to cite this page:
Kittinger, John N. (2022). You Will Return Home [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/you-will-return-home