Counting our Blessings: Reflections on working in the conservation movement

Earlier this year, Dr. Colin Campbell, Sierra Club BC’s Science Advisor of 10 years, retired. His contribution to the work we do was immeasurable. His formidable intelligence, his calm approach, his cunning wit and his humility touched everyone who had the pleasure to work with Colin. He is sorely missed. In tribute, no one could speak more eloquently than Colin Campbell himself.


 Dr. Colin Campbell’s Retirement Speech, January 17, 2015

My work in the conservation movement I consider to be the summation of a series of blessings. A key blessing has been the people in my life. First of all, of course, my family, mostly brought to me by Nancy, of whom there are four generations present tonight. Their constant support and validation has sustained me over many years in this work.

Then there are those friends from outside my work, who will listen and tell me when to stop. I present my arguments, tell them how things are and what we need to do about it and they say well let’s talk about fishing.  Many of my friends and family have become and are direct supporters of the Sierra Club. We have to acknowledge that we bring our friends to the work.

And then there are colleagues inside the Sierra Club who I’ve found to be incredibly talented, incredibly wise, and often incredibly young. A measure of what people think about our organization is, I think, the number of people who apply for jobs. Sometimes we get 80 applicants for jobs ranging from financial management to campaigners to education to media.  There are colleagues also from other organizations. We have to remember that we are not in this alone. We have companion teams working on the same problems. It’s a discipline as much as it is a movement.  It has its own set of skills and we learn on the job, generally.

In speaking about my contribution, I want to reiterate what I always say to public audiences when speaking for the Sierra Club. The first slide I project with the Sierra Club logo has the following text. It says, “We envisage a world in which people live and prosper in a way that protects, restores, and heals the natural systems of our planet.” This is not exactly the way the Sierra Club presents itself in words but I think it’s compatible and it’s the way I have always felt about it so I’m happy to put that out there. And then in our work at the Sierra Club, we always keep two things in mind.  Firstly, no matter what we do or what we achieve, we still eat and we still breathe and these vital activities can only proceed on a healthy planet so we have a duty of care for those processes.  These vital functions are maintained by living species and systems with no voice of their own.  It’s our privilege to represent those voices. We do care for humanity but we manifest our caring in this way.

Dr Campbell, who began his science career in zoology and paleontology in the 1960s and 1970s has a species named after him.  Bulungu Cambelli is a species of bandicoot that lived in S. Australia 24-26 million years ago.


There are five more things in my life that I consider blessings that brought me to this kind of work.  The first one was inevitable, being born in Australia where the natural world is very compelling and also very accessible.  I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time in that world as a kid, viewing nature naïvely and later on in a more thoughtful way.

A further blessing was the scouting movement. I was a mad keen boy scout. It got me out of the house, out of the city. More than anything I think it taught and allowed the practice of confidence in the wilderness.  You might be surprised given the way we watch over children now, what we were set loose to do.  I can remember being 14 years old, getting on a train with an envelope, which had a code in it that you had to crack before you knew what station to get off at. And we’d be carrying rifles because shooting rabbits was considered a public duty.  And we set off on hikes which over the Christmas period would be two weeks long with a replenishing stop in the middle. So quite young I became comfortable and familiar with rugged country in the southeastern part of Australia.Colin on bike

I was also keen on spear fishing. I lived on Port Phillip Bay in the city of Melbourne. When I was about 12 my neighbour and I read Jacques Cousteau’s book, “The Silent World” and we decided we wanted to have a look.  We pooled our money and got masks, fins, and a couple of spears that we made ourselves. We were very unsuccessful at spearing fish. Fish are quite clever at getting away from small boys. But I started to see things and had no idea what they were. There were invertebrates on the rocks, bryozoans, tunicates and other species. I started reading about them and this directed me toward studying zoology.

The next blessings were the universities that have been part of my life. I started at Monash University in Melbourne in the early 60s. It was just three years old. The Zoology Department had a staff, only two of whom were above the age of 30. So it was a brand new university. They were international people. They had come to a place that was just starting up, had money, had new equipment and we did tons of fieldwork with them because they needed the help and so got exposed to a wonderful social life.  The vigour of a young, forming department in a university is marvelous to experience.  I studied zoology and became knowledgeable to an extent in animals and got interested in fossils.  I did a research project on the bones and shells in aboriginal middens. I started to think about paleontology and faunal analysis, things which have stayed with me right through my working life. My supervisor from my honours project was an American and he said you know the only people with fossil representation of Australian mammals are in Berkeley in California so we should probably apply for a scholarship, which was an inspired thing to do.

It turned out to be a crucial part of my life. I did get a Fulbright scholarship to Berkeley and did my Ph.D. there.  I arrived in 1968 and things got a bit prolonged because the times were politically active and exciting. It was impossible not to pay attention to all that as well as to class. So I used up a couple of years, delaying my graduation to 1974.  I remember attending the first Earth Day rally. The women’s movement had emerged there at that time.  The political importance of minorities and other voices; all these things became daily fare.  A political awakening.

Dr. Campbell presenting at SFU’s Carbon Talks in 2014.

Later on when I returned to Australia with Nancy for 10 years, I worked at the National University and I was fortunate to be in a small department which had the unwieldy name of Biogeography and Geomorphology, but these are the most interesting of subjects. Investigating how the present state of the earth came to be – both geologically and biologically.    There was a lot of interesting fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, China, Japan and Northern Australia.  It was a sea level study based on climate change and we cored the estuaries and the flood plains of rivers close to the coast, working out their history from the last low sea level and the last glaciation.  All this in order to have a predictive model of what would happen to prime human habitat with one or two or more meters of sea level rise in the future.

The fieldwork was marvelous because of the locations. The lab work was tedious because we were really trying to numerate the whole thing. In the end I realized that much as I loved and respected the research world, you can’t just find things out, you have to do something with them. And I became very interested in the political side of the environment.  And I realized that I didn’t really have that skill set so I took advantage of the generosity of the National University and did a two year law degree in environmental law.  It helped set me up for this kind of work.

The fourth blessing, the thing that really connected me with the environment was fly-fishing.  And although I have been on dozens of field trips into the bush I never really saw nature as well as I did when I was fishing.  It’s almost as if everything around you knows what you are doing. The fish certainly know what you’re doing so they stay out of your way. The birds don’t care. I was in Australia so platypus would swim between my legs. There were water rats close by. Insects would land on the rod. I never had such an intense feeling of fitting in and being acknowledged for what I was doing. They knew I was hunting, that I wasn’t hunting them.  As I said the fish knew and they defended themselves. I never did much damage to trout. But thinking about it, there and later, I really got this definite sense that if recognition has anything to do with intelligence then ecosystems are intelligent.  That’s an interesting and valuable mindset to have when you do the kind of work we do.

The final blessing has been of course the Sierra Club itself. All this is nothing if you don’t have a role and a voice and a platform and the club has offered me those and it’s been a great privilege and a great pleasure to take advantage of that offer.  Here I’d like to mention one person, Vicky Husband, who recruited me into the wild salmon policy program.  She’s been a great warrior for the environment for a long time and helped a lot of people. And although I wouldn’t assign her any responsibility for anything I have done, I would say that any training I received in this game came from her.  She is a wonderful asset to our movement.

So what about our work? What is it we think we’re doing? I often begin this discussion by asking you to imagine that you are in a spaceship on a far in the future tour of the universe and you approach the Earth – moon system. They haven’t quite warned you about what is going to be here. And here it is; the blue ball.

The question is, what can you tell about this planet from that distance?  A simple scientific instrument, a spectrometer, would tell you what gases are in the atmosphere. Right away you would know this is a very unusual place. There’s way too much oxygen. There’s way too much nitrogen. There’s way too little carbon dioxide. There’s methane, which comes and goes in no time at all in natural circumstances. So what is forcing this interesting imbalance? It can only be living systems, energized by a sun, which is clearly close by. Even with a rudimentary instrument that people had 150 years ago, you’d know what we know now – that there must be some vast body of life that drives and maintains the atmosphere – this is the bacteria and the archeans. And you would surmise even if you couldn’t see anything that another layer of life would learn to exploit that richness of energy.  And if you wanted this system to prevail through time then you would want to look after both of those layers of life.

Our work is to preserve what we know must be preserved; the things that are critical and key to the natural processes of the planet. We have to manage our impact on all of it. But to say what I just said, you must assume that humanity wants to prevail, that our survival instinct is dominant. And it’s a very weird thing to live in a time when that’s not necessarily guaranteed from all quarters.  Although I think we’re overcoming it slowly, there are still people who see that science is an act against the will of God. There can be no discussion with people who think that way.  All we can do is offer a more compelling vision of the future and the present.

I have to say it has been a remarkable privilege for the last year where my work at the Sierra Club was to have been basically let loose to review the literature and put together a position paper on how the future looks, where conservation science is leading us, what the modern thinking is and how our campaigns need to realign. (This paper, The Future is Here, has now been published.)

So it’s an interesting time to be retiring. Definitely a new vision is being crafted. Nothing that I reviewed or wrote is original. We probably have ten crucial years to effect some major shifts in energy usage. The science, of course, is simply validation of all this. You could understand the science of everything about the environment perfectly well and it wouldn’t solve the problems. It has to transfer into the will and desire of people in the population.

The skills called for in our work go beyond science.  You can see this in a well-balanced organization like the Sierra Club with people who understand advertising and media and messaging and teaching, writing, speaking, and even thinking. I am very grateful to the Sierra Club for this opportunity to contribute and I take this opportunity to say farewell but not good-bye.

I just want to finish by saying a few words about working in a world of women. It’s not an original observation but it’s an unheralded fact that the great body of work in the environmental movement is done by women of all ages, all remarkably skillful.  And of course it leads to some interesting situations. I can remember times at the Sierra Club when there were 18 or 20 women employed and 1 or 2 men. So you know you have to have a strategy when you’re the man in these situations. Basically I figured out two things really quickly. One is that you watch your p’s and q’s. You’re definitely outnumbered so you can’t misspeak. And the second thing is to just quietly admire the landscape.  And count your blessings.


Read 2015 Sierra Club BC report based on Dr. Colin Campbell’s work. The Future is Here.

Read 2012 Sierra Club BC report co-authored by Dr. Colin Campbell & Jens Wieting. Emissions Impossible: British Columbia’s Uncounted Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Read 2010 Sierra Club BC report by Dr. Colin Campbell. The Case for the Conservation and Enhancement of Estuarine Processes and Sediments in B.C.
Read 2008 CCPA report, co-authored by Dr. Campbell.  Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Scenarios for BC: Meeting the Twin Objectives of Temperature Stabilization and Global Equity