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American Museum of Natural History celebrates 20th year of biodiversity center

The panelists posing for a photograph.
The panelists posing for a photograph.
Courtesy of Zani Gugelmann/Museum of Natural History

On Wednesday afternoon, a panel of environmental experts reflected on the environmental conservation movement in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

The panel discussion, part of the museum’s 24th annual Environmental Lecture and Luncheon, recognized the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation work over the past two decades. The panel featured Dr. Eleanor Sterling, the CBC's director, Andrew Revkin, an environmental journalist who writes primarily for the New York Times, and Dr. Armando Valdés-Velázquez, an associate professor at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru. Lynn Sherr, former correspondent for ABC News’ “20/20,” moderated the panel.

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation strives to eliminate key threats to global biological and cultural diversity, according to its official website. The center conducts scientific research in diverse ecosystems and applies science to conservation practice and public policy by working at the professional, institutional and community levels. The center defines biodiversity as the variety of life that exists on Earth at all levels, including everything from genes to ecosystems.

The panelists fielded questions about the environmental conservation movement, discussing how the movement has evolved over the past 20 years, how they define biodiversity, the rise of the environmental movement at the local level and the future of the movement. The panelists agreed that there needs to be more of an emphasis on developing conservation approaches at the local level.

In Latin America, Valdés-Velázquez said, environmentalists are using local and traditional knowledge to expand and reconstruct Inca dams and channels. They use the knowledge to bring water to farmers, expand the amount of farmland and improve the way they confront the lack of water.

“Before this, it was only, ‘No, let’s maintain it, let’s protect it’ but now it’s, ‘Let’s use it, let’s try to work together, development and conservation,’" Valdés-Velázquez said. "When we look at conservation as a really big challenge, if we root it locally, then solutions will sprout, solutions that can then be taken worldwide.”

Sterling agreed, citing a United Nations report released in 2011 that found that every decision made about the environment directly affects food.

“People who understand the system and figure out what the problem is and the solutions are can then actually work with other groups that are based in the same issues and problems of the same scale and collectively together form networks of people exchanging ideas,” Sterling said.

The web allows individuals to write about the environment engagingly, Revkin said, but it necessitates a cautious eye on the part of the scientifically- and environmentally-oriented audience.

“We all have to do some of the work of just discerning what’s real, what’s not real, whether something’s overstated or whether someone’s polarizing or disrupting things,” he said. “The internet landscape is dominated by the hottest voices.”

The rise of the web has also coincided with the rise of big data, Sterling said. When she attended graduate school, her friend wrote a thesis on the genome of a particular species that is now assigned to undergraduate students in an afternoon lab.

“I also think that big data, meaning huge amounts of data is suddenly available to us because of technology in a way that it wasn’t before,” she said.

The panelists concluded by stressing the need for individuals to find their niche and a way to contribute to global collaboration and take on more of a leadership role in the environmental conservation movement.

“You can use Twitter to just keep track of celebrities or you can use Twitter to create meaningful conversations about your thing,” Revkin said. “What is your part of this challenge of conserving species as humanity has its growth spurt? Find your niche, find your way to communicate to create a global collaboration using Twitter and Facebook.”

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