"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 (CMA/WCA)2, an organization representing twenty African countries.  In addition, Mr. Dioum3 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 Agriculture. 

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.

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Sources

1  Dictionary of Environmental Quotations, Rodes and Odell, Johns Hopkins Univ Pr, 1997, ISBN: 0801857384
2  CMA/WCA website (in French): www.cmaoc.org
3  Contact information for Baba Dioum: www.cmaoc.org/ctcorgen.htm
4  IFDC: www.ifdc.org/Board_of_Directors/baba_dioum.html 

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