3 Questions with Jessica Hellmann, director of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Winter 2016

w2016_jessicahellmanJessica Hellmann will be a keynote speaker at the 2016 Southwest Florida Chapter Minne-College February 6. She, along with Stephen Polasky and Bonnie Keeler from IonE, will speak on "How Nature Builds Resilience into our Cities." Details at MinnesotaAlumni.org

What is your most pressing environmental concern?

Improving the relationship between humans and natural systems: understanding, strengthening, preserving, restoring, and rejuvenating that relationship so we can help each other flourish. Traditionally we think of environmental problems as those where humans have done something bad to nature. It’s true that we inevitably alter our surroundings—and when we do, we must take care to do so in a way that sustains rather than degrades. But issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss are just symptoms of a bigger problem, which is insufficient understanding that nature and we are in this together. What benefits nature benefits us. It’s like health. We want to be free of disease, but free of disease is not the same as healthy, vigorous, and long living. If we view environmental problems as symptoms to be alleviated, we’re missing the bigger picture.

This change of thinking—cultivating a greater appreciation for the interconnectedness of nature and the quality of human life and working to improve both—is something each of us can do.

What will it take to do that?

We have to decide how healthy we want our planet to be. We need to talk about our planetary values and figure out how we are going to manage Earth appropriate to those values. It’s all hands on deck. Science and engineering help explain which scenarios for the future are possible and how we might get there. But values and ethics provide direction.

As we do this, we’ll find ourselves relying on two core principles. First is the value and power of diversity. Managing for diversity is a really smart thing to do. Whether it’s genetic or species diversity, diversity of management approaches, diversity of energy or food production strategies, or diversity of opinions and people, it’s all important because you don’t know where the next great idea or the solution is going to come from. Second is the recognition that everything is connected. When we release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we change tropical forests. When we over-apply fertilizer, we undermine marine fisheries. The sooner we realize these interconnections and account for them, the better off we’re going to be. My job is to create, connect, motivate, and inspire new ways of thinking and doing, while also bringing those approaches into the real world where they can improve the lives of people.

If you could eradicate one misperception, what would it be?

I can think of three.

First, we need to get over the idea that climate change is something you do or don’t believe in. As soon as we overcome this barrier, we can take all of the energy we waste arguing and disagreeing and use it productively to talk about solutions.

Second, we need to eradicate the notion that science must be devoid of values. Scientists have something meaningful to say about the broader conversation surrounding environmental challenges. Many of the issues we’re confronting are scientific, but they’re just as much social, economic, spiritual, or philosophical. Science should be at the table talking about the whole, not just saying, “Well, now that we’re done with the technical conversation, good luck politicians and theologians. Let us know how it worked out.”

Third, we need to stop thinking there are only techno-fixes for our problems. Science and technology are unbelievably important in navigating our future, but we are not going to solve complex environmental problems unless we restore and protect nature’s talent for sustaining us. We’re not going to protect cities from sea level rise and storm surges just with big walls; coastal ecosystem management is going to need to be part of the discussion. The built, the engineered, the manufactured, and the chemical are not going to cut it alone.


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