Nature Conservancy lead scientist M. Sanjayan in Aspen for ACES talk

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Photo courtesy of Erika Nortemann/TNC
Erika Nortemann/TNC

Many environmentalists contend that nature is best off if left untouched by the hands of humans. The lead scientist for the world’s largest conservation organization begs to differ.

M. Sanjayan of The Nature Conservancy said he believes mankind has already had such an impact on wildlife and wild places that humans have little choice but to try to ease what they have wrought.

“It’s uncomfortable for a lot of purists,” Sanjayan said.

The scientist has traveled the world for the last few years surveying 30-some locations in 15 countries where he is documenting major environmental problems and possible solutions. This year alone he estimated he has traveled 250,000 miles to seven countries.

His work with a film crew is recorded for a 2015 PBS documentary, “Earth in the Age of Man.” Sanjayan will provide a glimpse of what he’s found on his travels in a presentation at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Paepcke Auditorium. It is free and open to the public. Sanjayan’s presentation is an installment in the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Jessica Catto Leadership Dialogue Series.

Sanjayan contends that most conservationists haven’t been able to keep up with the vast scale of planetary change. The world’s population has soared above 7 million and ongoing explosive growth is forecast.

“What chance for wild nature is there?” he asked. Sanjayan said he is an “optimistic man” by nature but has been beset by “some level” of trepidation and pessimism while working on his latest project.

Some of the environmental damage and challenges he has witnessed are “absolutely jaw-dropping,” he said. Sanjayan is guarded about the places and problems his documentary will explore as well as the primary message. (“I don’t feel I have the punch line yet,” he explained.) But for the sake of an example of jaw-dropping issues, he talked about the Rift Valley of Africa. The Rift Valley lakes are over-fished. One of the consequences is the prevalence of a snail-borne disease that makes people more susceptible to HIV.

“You won’t be able to save people until you save the lake,” Sanjayan said. “Nature, to some extent, needs a helping hand.”

While the documentary won’t necessarily examine Colorado’s increasing susceptibility to massive wildfires, Sanjayan has studied and spoken extensively on the topic. He believes the U.S. government must spend significantly more funds on forest management — or it will face increasing expense and tragedy fighting fires.

Sanjayan said preserving nature in some semblance of how we know it will be the challenge and should be the goal.

On the biggest environmental issue — climate change — Sanjayan said the scientists he has talked to give him reason for hope.

“They all tell me there is still time but the window is closing very rapidly,” he said. The expense to offset the expected changes, such as rising ocean levels, is climbing. It’s “crazy” to think humans can simply “adapt” to the effects of global warming, Sanjayan said. They must try to limit the changes instead.

“Now our eyes are wide open,” Sanjayan said.

He said he likes speaking in Aspen because the audiences there are open-minded and willing to consider unusual solutions. He vowed to give the Aspen audience a glimpse of what he has seen on his “incredible journey.”

“I’ve been around the world and (spoken) to people who say, ‘hold on,’” Sanjayan said. “They’re the ones that give me that sense” of hope.