Julie Packard

Forecasting the future is a risky proposition at best, never more so than today. The natural world is changing at breathtaking speed. People’s attitudes are evolving quickly too, as the millennial generation – the largest cohort in human history – exerts its influence.

We urgently need new ways of thinking about the challenges that confront us. Albert Einstein said it best: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Tragically, with most of the great environmental threats we face, too many people are standing by, assuming everything is under control or subject to a quick technological fix.

Carbon pollution that’s changing our climate and altering our oceans, unsustainable fishing practices, degradation and loss of our watersheds and wetlands and the insidious spread of human-made chemicals into the air, water and food we eat: We are extending our reach deeper and deeper, into riskier and riskier waters, with less understanding of how we’re affecting ecosystems that are already under siege.

We have the opportunity to come to our senses and to do the right thing on behalf of the planet that sustains us. In the next 25 years we can truly affect a sea change in our relationship with nature. How do I know this? Because we’ve done it before.

In 1969, a blowout on a drilling platform in the Santa Barbara Channel released more than 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean. That dark day alerted the nation to the fragile nature of our environment, and catalyzed the biggest environmental movement our country has ever seen. It inspired lawmakers to enact scores of landmark laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. These laws form the foundation of our system of environmental protection.

Without them, the lands and waters of our nation – and here on Monterey Bay – would be profoundly different.

The bay is an amazing success story and a national model. We host a thriving marine research community with nearly two dozen institutions contributing knowledge to create tomorrow’s environmental solutions. We have the world’s best public aquarium, reaching millions of people from around the world with a message about the importance of the oceans to our lives. Our incredible coastline of protected lands and protected species drives a vibrant tourism economy.

Protection of our life-support system is the single most important thing we can do to assure a future.

Sadly, these natural assets and the thriving economy they support are not truly safe for the future. We must continue to lead the nation in developing practical solutions that afford everyone in our community opportunities for success based on a healthy natural environment.

I’m confident this vision can become our reality because of experiences I have every day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When I walk through our galleries, I see people falling in love with the kelp forest, sea otters or jellies. They leave with a new commitment to take action on the ocean’s behalf – by using a Seafood Watch pocket guide, joining as members or bringing friends back to learn more.

In our classroom programs, I meet teachers dedicated to the success of their students. I meet remarkable young people who bring such passion to the cause. The Aquarium’s been around long enough that we’re seeing the generational impact of our work: Young adults who came here as kids now bring their own children to visit. Kindergartners who squealed as they touched a sea star have begun careers in the sciences or public policy. Each in their own way is making a difference. It’s our job to give them the skills and tools to understand and address the challenges ahead.

Most importantly, we must drive home the value of civic engagement; the votes young people cast will create their future.

I believe that protection of our life-support system is the single most important thing we can do to assure a future for the human species. All else pales in comparison. Life on earth is gloriously diverse and it will surely prevail. The question is, will humans?

I believe people everywhere seek a common vision of a sustainable future on earth, one that’s practical, attainable and in which they can play a part. Places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium can support people around the world who yearn for reasons to hope, and can give them guidance about ways to make a difference.

By focusing on doing what’s in our power on behalf of the environment, we’ll ensure that nature and humankind together survive and thrive. We owe it to future generations.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director JULIE PACKARD serves on the boards of the Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the California Nature Conservancy. She is a former member of the Pew Oceans Commission.

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