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Conservation everywhere

Winter/Spring 2013 | By Paul Robbins

I recently returned from a trip to southern India, where I conduct a long-running research project on human interactions with nature in agricultural settings such as coffee plantations. On each of my many visits to India over the last 20 years, I’ve been amazed by what is happening there, but never more so than on this latest trip. 

Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

Contrary to what you might expect, many of these managed landscapes teem with wild animals – panthers, langur monkeys, antelope, and countless species of birds and reptiles, all able to adapt and thrive in the midst of human activities. Conservation is succeeding not by design but by happenstance, often where organized conservation programs have previously failed. It is happening, more astonishingly, in one of the most densely populated places in the world, amidst meteoric economic growth.

What does this tell us about nature, and about ourselves? Perhaps that conservation is moving beyond the classic notion of wilderness, and that it can happen anywhere – in rural areas and in cities – at least under certain conditions and with the right kind of help. This means that new, imaginative approaches are essential in a rapidly changing world, one in which the climate will inevitably be warmer, more variable and more extreme; a world populated by as many as ten billion people, mostly concentrated in cities. There is no going back, and we need to figure out how to live and prosper in this new reality. There is room in this turbulent period not just for warnings and dire predictions, but also for hope!

After my first six months on the job, I firmly believe that the Nelson Institute is well positioned to help meet this challenge. We will continue to produce knowledge that makes a difference in the world and to prepare young minds to become leaders in this effort. I’ll have more to share in coming months about how we plan to build upon and strengthen our exceptional education, outreach and research enterprises.

One of the latter, the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research (CCR), recently marked its first 50 years, and we’re spotlighting its critically important work in this issue of In Common. We’re pleased to tell you about the remarkable range of research that has grown in reach and impact since the center’s founding by the pioneering climatologist Reid Bryson in 1962. Bryson, also the founding director of the Institute for Environmental Studies – later renamed the Nelson Institute – was well ahead of his time in understanding that environmental issues could only be clearly seen through an interdisciplinary lens. Even so, I suspect he would be amazed at the breadth of the work done at CCR today. 

Our Land Tenure Center also hit the 50-year milestone in 2012, and we’re pleased to describe in these pages its role in a critical global conversation, finding ways to value the 

carbon stored in tropical forests. You’ll also find stories in this issue about a wide array of other accomplishments by Nelson Institute alumni, students and faculty.

Finally, I would like to invite you to join us at the seventh annual Nelson Institute Earth Day conference on Monday, April 15. Our theme is “Conservation Everywhere: Sustaining Natural and Cultural Diversity,” and our keynote speaker will be world-renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall. This one-day event will examine conservation across a range of environmental contexts: from forests and oceans to cities and farms. You can find information and register at nelson.wisc.edu/earthday. I hope to see you in Madison in April. 

Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute



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