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Powerful synergies are created, where the sum is truly greater than the individual parts.

Keeping Nature’s Connections Unbroken

Ellie M. Cohen


Ellie M. Cohen. PRBO photo.
As I was driving my kids to school recently, my typically loving and adorable eight-year-old daughter was in a rather combative mood. She complained that she was not prepared for her school lessons “because my parents wouldn’t help me at all.” In response, my five-year-old son replied, “They give you food and air every day, and you couldn’t live without that!” As expected, she was most irritated to hear his heartfelt explications.

I then asked both of them, “Where does air come from?” He said the clouds; she said trees. After discussing the role of land-based plants, I explained that scientists estimate that as much as half of the oxygen we breathe comes from tiny floating plants in the ocean—phytoplankton. They were quite surprised. My son said he would tell his class during “sharing,” as they were beginning a new unit on plants!

What I didn’t tell them that morning: a new study in Nature reported a 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton due to warming of the ocean’s surface layers since 1950.

While this finding has some detractors and is yet to be conclusively proven, it makes painfully clear the link between nature’s health and life on Earth as we know it. Those tiny plants are fundamental to our very existence. They turn solar radiation into food energy that supports the marine food web, they fix carbon from the seawater and store carbon deep in the ocean when they die, and they produce half of the oxygen we breathe.

In our (mostly) urbanized lives, we forget all too easily how dependent we are upon nature. Just like birds and other wildlife, we cannot survive without her many gifts.
Ocean conservation involves many connections, as illustrated in this poster by a fourth-grade student. To see a larger version, click here: Poster.

Indeed, nature provides us with air, fresh water, food, fisheries, pollination, fiber, flood regulation, climate regulation, and much more—including the soul-sustaining experience of watching birds soar, leap, dive or waddle (and identifying them, of course!). Nature is the beating heart that keeps our planet pulsing with life.

With the world’s human population soon to exceed 7 billion, and California’s soon to reach 40 million, we face ever-growing pressures on nature that are altering the interactions among and between living and non-living components—birds, whales, fish, bacteria, water, soil, nutrients, the atmosphere, and much more. We do not yet fully understand these processes, but we are utterly dependent upon them.

So how do we continue bringing PRBO’s highly regarded conservation science to bear on this huge challenge of our time? How do we contribute to improved conservation outcomes, as the pressures ratchet up?

No single entity can do this alone. By working in partnership toward shared goals, as highlighted in this Observer, a great deal is possible. Powerful synergies are created, where the sum is truly greater than the individual parts.

To that end, PRBO is engaged in dozens of flourishing partnerships and collaborations across the West and as far away as Antarctica. Employing sound science, we are catalysts, we are engines, we are wheels, and we are drivers.

That day in the car, riding to school, my children caught a glimpse of Mother Nature’s interconnectedness and our profound reliance on her wonders, even ones so seemingly intangible and distant as the plankton in the ocean.

As John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Through powerful partnerships, we are deepening our understanding of those complex connections and working to ensure that future generations of all living beings will continue to enjoy nature’s untold benefits.