"In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we
understand. We will understand only what we are taught."
The quotation1 above has always resonated
strongly in my mind and in my heart. I don't think I've read anything that
so succinctly encapsulates our instinctive environmentalism as well
as it's most daunting challenges.
The quote itself is derived from a 1968 speech made in New
Delhi, India by
the Senegalese environmentalist, Baba Dioum, to the general assembly
of the International Union
for Conservation of Nature . Mr. Dioum was born in Dahra, Senegal on October
15, 1937. He studied ecology at the Ecole Nationale des Eaux et Forets
in Nancy, France where he received a degree in Forestry Engineering. Since
that time his career has centered around environmental issues in Africa,
including conservation, water and agricultural policy.
He is currently the
General Coordinator of the Conference of Ministers of West and Central Africa
an organization representing twenty African countries. In addition, Mr.
serves on the boards of the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC)4
located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Mr. Dioum was a founding member of the International Union for the Conservation
of Nature and the International Council for Environmental Law as well as the
Director of the Agricultural Policy Unit for the Senegalese Ministry of
In the end we will conserve only what we love
Perhaps the most vexing challenge identified by Dioum is that love itself is
usually a higher order emotion most fully
expressed when more basic needs for safety, shelter and sustenance have already
been met. On the most fundamental level it's difficult to convince a subsistence
farmer that reducing the nitrogen loading on the local estuary is more important
than using chemical fertilizers on the crops that feed his family. We really do
only conserve what we love, and at the most basic level most of us love
ourselves, our family, our friends and our community and beyond in expanding
concentric circles of urgency and commitment.
We love only what we understand
Another intrinsic dilemma for environmentalism has always been that
it demands a perspective that is broader than most people are capable of
sustaining. Dioum's quote captures this problem perfectly. To some
extent, this explains the difficulty of achieving significant strides on
environmental issues that demand sacrifice and discipline beyond the borders of
what we know and understand first hand.
We will understand only what we are taught
Dioum's inclusion of education in the equation is equally astute. One
can only imagine the exasperation he must have felt during a long career
grappling with the challenges of forging environmental policy within the context
of the predominately uneducated populace of many African countries. What
may seem intuitively obvious to a literate westerner with even a rudimentary
scientific education might be insurmountably arcane to an African farmer.
of Environmental Quotations, Rodes and Odell, Johns Hopkins Univ Pr, 1997,
2 CMA/WCA website (in French):
3 Contact information for Baba Dioum:
4 IFDC: www.ifdc.org/Board_of_Directors/baba_dioum.html