It’s not a battle of technology versus nature

Technology can be the enemy of nature. We can stare at screen instead of sunsets, and look forever online to find connection and purpose when all we really need to do is take a walk amongst some trees. Technology and “progress” has demolished landscapes and affected our planet and humanity in countless horrible ways. See Deepwater Horizon, the orchards of Silicon Valley in 1956 (then known as Valley of Hearts Delight), and average screen time of American teenagers as just a few examples.

The powers of technology can also be used for the good of nature, and for human beings. I like what Tiffany Shlain says in this podcast about how technology is really just an extension of us. It doesn’t dominate us. We can control it and use it for all the good we want to create. This view of technology puts us in the power position, and that is a much more productive perspective.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because yesterday we joined some new friends as they conducted their monthly monitoring of 1.5 miles of the California coast. Every four weeks Jan and Diane walk a bit of the San Mateo County coastline and write down what they see. They count birds and write it all down with code names like WeGu (Western Gull), TuVu (Turkey Vulture), and BrCo (Brandt’s Cormorant). They take pictures from the same spot every visit to show what’s changed and what hasn’t. They note how many seals they see and describe what those seals are doing (usually either swimming or laying on the rocks). When back home, Jan and Diane enter all the data into a centralized database in the cloud for scientists at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to analyze and compare to all the other 1.5 mile stretches along the California coast.

Jan and Diane are not alone. They are two of thousands (millions?) of citizen scientists who are collecting data for scientific study. Whether they’re collecting the data with an app or a pencil and paper, that data is turning into Big Data and influencing policy, land management decisions, scientific study, and more. That’s what got me thinking about technology as a tool for good. A cool app can entice people to go outside, and centralized databases can leverage the data for a bigger purpose. For example…


There’s iNaturalist. It’s an amazingly powerful collector of data on animals around the country. Sign up and learn more about what plants and animals you’re seeing in your world. Follow Alison Young on Twitter or Instagram to see how fun this can be.

Litterati is helping to clean up our planet one piece of trash at a time. I saw a lot more trash when I started with Litterati, and then started cleaning it up too. Data from Litterati is being used for advocacy and policy decisions, so that cigarette butt you document is making a real difference.

I love the Kings Tides because it means super dooper low tides that are perfect for exploring super dooper big beaches. But the high tides that come with Kings Tides are perfect for showing what sea level looks like. Enter the California Kings Tides project. They’re crowd sourcing pictures of the high tides so that we can plan for the rising seas.

And there’s this. Could it be that people are going outside more because of Pokemon Go, and what kinds of good things are happening when they’re there?


These are just examples. Of course there are more apps, databases, and technologies that are helping our planet be healthy. And there are thousands — no, I think millions — of people just like Jan and Diane who are taking the time to observe, monitor, and track what’s happening out there. All those WeBu observations and all those bags of trash add up. And that is powerful.

The count is 3 and 2, and this still counts as being outside

This summer I took the kids camping. It’s our third year going to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and my love is deep for that place and this tradition. We go for a full week and we fully settle into nature, routines, and happiness.

Spend a little time in an established campground and you’ll see lots of ways of camping. There are huge RVs, ginormous tents, tiny tents, no tents at all. People bring fully cooked meals that just need to reheated and others eat hot dogs cooked over the fire. Some pack the campsite with brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, kids of all ages, and a neighbor just for fun. Others camp solo.

There isn’t one way of being outside, nor is there one way of camping. It’s just like parenting… every parent will do it his/her/their way.

One of the things that we did a lot on this camping trip was play baseball. We played baseball at least twice a day. Sometimes it was just a game of catch, other times there were bases and rules. But every day we played baseball.

It’s what my kids are into right now. It’s what gets them excited, it’s how their imaginations work (who says my 7 year old isn’t Buster Posey??). Sure, we could just stay home and play at the local park. But why when you can play amongst the redwoods and foggy beaches of Northern California? When you could use driftwood for a bat and a pinecone for a ball?

There are lots of ways of being outside. Playing baseball is how we did it this summer, and maybe we will again next year. Or maybe not.

This weekend I saw hope, and it was beautiful.

I saw hope this weekend. It looked like:

Truths being acknowledged.

Respect for all beings.

Gratitude for everyone’s contributions however small or big.

The hope I saw this weekend looked like this:

For 12,500 years the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians lived in what is now called the Sonoma County coast. In the mid-1800s a group of Russian boats appeared on the horizon of the Pacific Ocean and the lives of the Kashia people changed forever. Their land was violently taken from them, as were many of their lives. The connection between the Kashia and the land was then and is today a deep, deep connection. The brutal separation of land from the Kashia people had a profound impact on every Kashia person’s soul.

Through many partnerships, a lot of hard work, and vast amounts of hope, the Kashia celebrated the return to their ancestral land this weekend. They now own 700 acres that includes the coastline, prairies, and redwoods. The Kashia can hear the sound of the ocean, harvest food from the soil, and take deep breaths in the shade of the trees. They are home.

This is not my story to tell, really. I am not Kashia. Nor am I Russian or even a resident of Sonoma County. I had nothing to do with making this return to their homeland happen. I do not understand the pain and trauma that the Kashia have suffered. I am not a historian, archeologist, psychologist, or any other -ologist that gives me any credibility in ‘knowing’ this story.

There are a lot of things that I’m not, but it is paralyzing to let myself stay in that way of thinking. If I believe that I have to be a Native American (or African American or Latino or …) to make change, then I’m missing the point. It’s us white people who need to change.

For me, the change started with listening. It started with one conversation with one Tribal Chairman which turned into more conversations which led to a 3-day summit of Native and non-Native people and all of this resulted in a film I produced about partnerships between Native Americans and land conservation organizations. The film brought me to the Kashia and the Kashia invited me to attend this past weekend’s celebration.

This world contains so many realities. But if we believe that our reality is everyone’s reality, we miss the opportunity to grow and learn and make a difference. We miss the opportunity to take all of our gifts, talents, and privilege (if we have it) to make a wrong right or build bridges or plant new seeds of hope.

This weekend I saw hope, and it was beautiful.

Four reasons why I have hope

I hold tightly onto an observation that Paul Hawken made in 2007. In his book Blessed Unrest, Hawken describes the millions of people around the world who are working for social change and environmental sustainability. They work on a multitude of issues at every scale. They are tireless activists and dedicated leaders. Yet there isn’t one leader or even a name or label to assign the whole collection of “do gooders.” They’re everywhere and doing all they can to make right on this planet of ours.

I love this observation. There is so much hope in it. It’s like turning the half empty glass (greed, corruption, violence, destruction) that we hear so much about over to find the glass is half full. The glass, and this world, is full of people creating, healing, and restoring. This feels so powerful and empowering.

Every year I design and lead the Open Space Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the conference we create the opportunity for the land conservation community in the region to get inspired and get energized. We pick our heads up from the desk and from our local geography. And we spend a day in conversation with other change makers, earth menders, and society healers.

The 2016 Open Space Conference on May 19 at the Craneway in Richmond, CA.

At this year’s conference, which was held last week in Richmond, CA, we heard from four people that more people should know about. They give me hope for the world. They represent the half full glass and they should be widely known and celebrated.

Betty Reid Soskin.

Betty started working for the National Park Service as a Ranger at age 85. She’s now 94. She tells masterful stories about the history of Richmond during World War II in ways that feel alive and 100% relevant to today. Betty works at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center in Richmond where she tells of how Richmond changed the world. I feel inspired by every word she says.

Stacy Bare.

Stacy is a force of nature. Standing tall at what must be 7 feet, Stacy brings a sharp wit and a deep passion for getting people outside as Director of Sierra Club Outdoors. What impresses me most about him, though, is how he elegantly turns the act of preserving land from a defensive act (Protect! Defend! Save!) into something that is creative and essential. Parks and open spaces allow us to be human and alive, he says. I couldn’t agree more.

Peter Byck.

What’s not to love about someone who creates a film called “Soil Carbon Cowboys”? The title is quirky, and the man behind it is intelligent and inquisitive. Peter is working with some big dogs — the World Bank for example — to understand how we can put carbon in the ground through innovative ranching techniques. I hope he’s onto something.

Sedrick Mitchell.

Sedrick is a quiet man with profound thoughts and a masterful way of telling a story. He works for California State Parks and I’m guessing that most of his days are spent in bureaucracy. In the hours that I talked with him in preparation for the Open Space Conference, I heard a philosopher, psychologist, and activist on the other end of the phone. We talked about diversity, inclusion, and equity in ways that pushed my thinking on a topic I think a lot about. I know that Sedrick is making changes to this world, even from within the bureaucracy.

There were 450 people in the room at the Open Space Conference last week. Given plenty of time and no word count limit, I could list so many people who are changing the world. In the room that day there were visionaries, artists, community builders, and advocates. Every person attending that day is somehow contributing to a Bay Area with parks, farmlands, and open spaces, and therefore doing the essential work that Stacy Bare talks about. Each in their own way.

There’s so much goodness in the world if we choose to see it.

Open Space Conference attendees took a walk on the Bay Trail at lunch..

All the kinds of environmentalists

Yesterday I convened an event about a controversial topic.

160 people attended our Rainy Season Gathering (after 4 years the title finally makes sense again) to talk about grazing and conservation. We at the Bay Area Open Space Council partnered with UC Cooperative Extension, Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program, California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, Central Coast Rangeland Coalition, and California Rangeland Trust to put this event on. In the room were ranchers, ecologists, foresters, rangers, biologists, land managers, watershed managers, general managers, executive directors, board members, and academics.

And they are all environmentalists.

Most people wouldn’t consider ranchers deserve the “environmentalist” label. And there’s probably a rancher or two who don’t want the label. But as Justin Fields, a 5th generation rancher in Santa Clara County, said at the Gathering yesterday, “Ranching in suburbia isn’t easy. I do this work because I want to be outside. I have to make a living. If I abuse the natural resources I’m managing, I will be out of business.”

That sounds like someone who wants to take care of our earth.

Taking care of the earth’s resources — think creeks, hillsides, trees — is complicated. What works in one place won’t necessarily in another. Ranching isn’t appropriate everywhere. Neither are parks, houses, or shopping malls. What works in the Bay Area won’t in Montana or Florida (and that goes for all kinds of things, not just how land is managed). But I really believe that we can’t shut out the people who are out on the land everyday. We can’t shut down the conversation about conservation just because they do it differently.

See our summary of the Gathering here, including pictures, presentations, tweets, and a list of resources on the topic.

We closed the Gathering with a cowboy poet, Clayton Koopman. He’s a 5th generation rancher and land manager at the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. And he read this poem:

Ranching for Newts

Ranchers are struggling, bills they can’t pay,

Vaccines, vet bills, pasture costs and hay.

Fuel cost, insurance and that damn estate tax,

All breakin’ down that old camel’s back.

Calf checks don’t cut it, they can’t get on their feet,

Ranchers grow progressive, lookin’ to make ends meet.

Butterflies, whip snakes, an imaginary fox,

Got today’s ranchers thinking outside the box.

Conservation, mitigation, easements and trusts,

Supplemental funding, ranching for critters is a must.

I’ve grown progressive too; just you take a gander,

Saved my ranch here with a herd of salamanders.