"Accumulation of Small Actions Makes a Difference"
May 30, 2011
On campus for his 25th reunion, Bill Ulfelder ’86 – New York State Director of the Nature Conservancy – took the opportunity to deliver 2 significant messages to students during his assembly presentation:
- The skills that students acquire at Exeter can lead to unexpected opportunities later in life.
- We all share responsibility for preserving nature for ourselves and future generations.
Ulfelder began by describing how his current success grew out of skills and habits developed at Exeter. “One of the great gifts this school gave me was a determination to succeed in something I was passionate about. My lower year was not an easy one. I was failing biology, but I was determined to succeed here and I did ultimately pass biology.” Ulfelder built on this experience to win a Fulbright Scholarship for post-college environmental work in the Panama Canal.
Ulfelder added, “Appreciate the great gifts – some known, others unknown – that the Academy is bestowing on you. I had no idea that my Spanish studies would so dramatically affect my life. They helped me to get my job with the Nature Conservancy and allowed me to marry a wonderful woman from the Dominican Republic. Through them, I was able to become a citizen of this hemisphere.”
Drawing on his 16 years in the Nature Conservancy, Ulfelder then laid out the challenges taken on by conservation agencies. “We live in an age of unprecedented threats to our natural world. The U.N. projects world population may reach 10 billion by 2100. Increased demands for food, water, and energy have accelerated the impact on the Earth’s natural systems. The resulting effects of climate change are broad, pervasive and unpredictable.”
He added, “We now know that enduring prosperity for people depends on the health of nature. The scale of our solutions must match the complexity of the problems we face. Our solutions must work for people and nature.”
Here’s a summary of 2 Nature Conservancy projects described by Ulfelder, and questions students asked about the projects:
Water Resources: To provide clean drinking water for Quito, Ecuador, the Conservancy launched the first water fund, which was capitalized by Quito consumers. Rather than invest in treating dirty water, the fund was used to protect the watershed that supplies the water. Result: $4 million/year saved in treatment costs while providing clean drinking water to Quito. This project has been replicated in other parts of Central and South America.
Q: “What do you think we can do about the privatization of water in places like South America?” asked a student.
A: “We’ve put ourselves at risk in the management of the resource. We must be very careful in how the decisions are made in terms of ownership and access. The answers won’t be the same everywhere. Everyone will be focused on this issue in the coming decades.”
Climate Change: One-quarter of all carbon emissions are from the degradation and deforestation of tropical forests, particularly in Brazil and Indonesia. The Conservancy works with government representatives to create accounting systems that value standing forests rather than forest razing, as well as finding places for palm oil plantations on already degraded land rather than cutting down new forests. “In this way, we can find a balance that is economically sustainable while reducing emissions in a rapidly warming world.”
Q: “Because climate change is inherently a global issue, are you trying to work with international organizations, as opposed to just national organizations?” asked a student.
A: “Absolutely. Right now, the U.S. is not figuring very large in the policy discussions around climate change. To succeed, climate change has to be treated as a global issue, but there can be local or national opportunities within that larger global context.”
Ulfelder was impressed with the variety of student volunteer actions he had seen since his return to campus, and he encouraged students to continue to get involved. “An accumulation of small actions can make a big difference: get outdoors, plant a tree, volunteer, teach, travel, learn a second language.”
He closed with a theme familiar to Exeter students:
“We can change the course of our lives and in changing the course of our lives, we can change the course of our planet. So be the person you imagine yourself to be – non sibi.”
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— Mike Catano