Harnessing the Knowledge of Plants, Online

Originally published in American Forests Magazine Winter/Spring 2016 issue

Botanical gardens are building the first online catalog of every known plant species in the world. It could be a game-changing tool for conservation.

For more than 400 years, humans have been collecting bits of leaf and twig, pressing them flat and dry for safe-keeping and writing about them in journals and books, all to better understand the world’s plants and, more recently, to protect them.

Our knowledge has become exponentially more sophisticated over those years, but the information we’ve accumulated remains scattered all over the world and is often difficult to access. As biologists race to protect biodiversity, there’s an effort underway to change that, a global partnership to build World Flora Online — the first online catalog of the estimated 400,000 vascular plant species of the world.

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A Pitch to Billionaire Climate Donors: You Made the Pledge; Let’s Get To It

Originally published in Inside Philanthropy on October 12, 2015. Billionaires, we’d like just a moment of your time.

No, not you David Koch or John Paulson, this probably isn’t your kind of thing. We’re talking to a specific set of business titans, here—you guys who have more than a billion in the bank, have pledged to give most of it away, and are deeply concerned about climate change.

Namely, we’re talking to Mike Bloomberg, Eric Schmidt, Tom Steyer, Jeff Skoll, and Paul Allen. Here’s our idea. Sorry, we don’t have a slide deck.

The Elevator Pitch

You five have made it clear that you know climate change is a serious and imminent threat. We’re at a pivotal moment for action and curbing the worst effects, but things aren’t happening fast enough. Collectively, you have unique access to many billions of dollars, plus you’ve publicly committed to giving most of it away before you die. Some of you are already funding climate change efforts in a big way. But you all need to go bigger. We want you to give at least 10 percent of your wealth to fight climate change in the next five years, start a historic movement, and help save the world.


We recognize that is a big ask. For Mike Bloomberg alone, that’s a $3.8 billion check. But this is a big problem, an existential threat the likes of which neither philanthropy nor industry have ever encountered before...

Read the full article at Inside Philanthropy.

And the first post in this series on Climate Change and Philanthropy: Dear Climate Funders: The Clock is Ticking. Use Your Endowments

For Surdna, Infrastructure is Where Sustainability and Justice Cross Paths

Originally published June 26, 2015 on Inside Philanthropy. Infrastructure. It's not exactly the first word that comes to mind when you think of environmental grantmaking. But as the Surdna Foundation sees it, future metropolitan infrastructure decisions go beyond which bridges and roads to fix; they determine how equitable and sustainable a city is for generations.

Surdna is a medium-sized, national foundation with assets of just over a billion and annual giving of $46 million in 2014, derived from the wealth of the Andrus family (Surdna, get it?).

Helen Chin, Surdna’s Sustainable Environments program director, recently shed some light on the foundation’s green giving in an interview with Inside Philanthropy, including the thinking behind this unique approach to sustainability.

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Asian Longhorned Beetle Trackers Hunt for Hitchhikers

Originally published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Dec. 22, 2014. UXBRIDGE — In a wooded residential area off Route 122, a team of foresters and entomologists took turns looking through a scope at a small hole in the bark of a maple, maybe 55 feet up. Everyone agreed the damage came from a bird, probably a woodpecker, and not the Asian longhorned beetle.

A very good thing, since the invasive insect is not supposed to be this far beyond the infestation in Worcester.

But after six years of surveying 5 million potential host trees and removing about 34,000, the team fighting the beetle is taking a closer look at outlying areas that could be at risk of satellite infestations.

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Diller Island: Private Park Funding Gone Overboard

Consider for a moment that a billionaire is planning to literally reshape the shoreline of Manhattan by funding a floating island park, just a short walk from his office. Maybe, just maybe, private funding for parks has gone too far.

Media tycoon Barry Diller and his wife, fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg, have pledged $130 million from their foundation—around 75 percent of the total bill—to create a 2.4-acre park that will hover off the Hudson shore.

While there’s been widespread concern about outsized influence of the wealthy on New York’s public spaces following huge donations to Central Park and the High Line, this one takes things to a whole new level. See full post at Inside Philanthropy.

The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

Private funding is pouring into parks lately, and not everyone is happy about it. Regardless, cities are putting together creative projects with massive backing from wealthy donors, and it’s not all happening where you might expect.

Every city, it seems, wants to launch the next High Line. The abandoned-railway-turned-park in Manhattan is the poster child for private funding developing urban green space, and giving a shot of vitality to surrounding neighborhoods. Projects like that one are sprouting up all over the country, whether by nonprofit conservancy or public-private partnership.

Parks philanthropy seems to be surging at the intersection of a few trends. For one thing, you’ve got the overall concentration of wealth and concomitant rise in philanthropy nationally. Then there’s the fact that many city and state budgets have suffered following the economic crash, and parks aren't a top priority. But there’s also what one urbanist has termed the Great Inversion, in which the middle- and upper-classes are flocking to city centers, who miss those nice parks left behind in the ‘burbs. As for urban areas still struggling to lure people back, parks and bike paths are seen as the kinds of amenities that attract educated professionals to put down stakes.

Read the full article at Inside Philanthropy.

Science Fiction Can Save Environmentalism

| Essay originally published on Futures Exchange, via Medium, on October 22, 2013.

Bill McKibben was firing up a rally of climate activists in Cambridge, Mass., this past summer in preparation for a protest and mass arrest at one of the state’s coal-fired power plants:

“The message we need to keep sending all the time is, there is nothing radical about what we’re asking,” he said. “All we’re asking for is a world that works the way the one we were born into worked. That’s not radical. That’s actually kind of conservative.”

This is a shrewd point, and just one part of a pretty powerful overall talk, but as an environmentalist, I found the sentiment troubling. If the green movement’s rallying cry is to keep the world the way it was when we were born, isn’t it fairly doomed? Sounds like a stodgy, if not pointless cause. I would argue that, for environmentalism to stay vital in decades to come, it’s going to have to stop being so resistant to change, and dive into a far more imaginative conversation of what our future might hold.

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