NEFF Leadership

An Earth Day Essay: When Worlds Collide

Apr. 21, 2020

By Robert T. Perschel, New England Forestry Foundation Executive Director

As the 50th Earth Day rolls around I find myself thinking of the first one. I was a freshman in college and bought a belt with flowers engraved on it on the New Haven green. That first Earth Day—when 20 million Americans of all political persuasions turned out for nature—helped inspire my own personal journey into conservation. Later as a staff member of The Wilderness Society, I worked closely with Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. Gaylord mentored a land ethic project I was leading, and every April I would get a chance to chaperone him to various Earth Day speaking engagements. Earth Day became a prominent landmark in my work life each year.

This year, on the 50th anniversary, there is more at stake than ever. We are facing a worldwide pandemic that calls for a coordinated global response. Perhaps the lessons society is learning will help address climate change—another worldwide challenge calling for a global response.

The climate change emergency became even more personal to me and jumped into sharper focus last fall. My worlds collided at about 2 p.m. November 23 when students from both Yale and Harvard interrupted the Yale Harvard football game to protest the climate emergency. (Climate Change Protesters Disrupt Yale-Harvard Football Game, NY Times, November 23, 2019).

I was captain of Yale’s 100th team in 1972. I have spent much of the intervening 47 years enjoying the fact that my team beat Harvard, and have followed the annual contest known to its aficionados simply as “The Game” every year. And yet today I work every day trying to understand how forests are degraded by climate change and how they can help mitigate its worst effects.

The protesters remained on the field for about 50 minutes before the game resumed. Yale went on to prevail 50-43 in double overtime to clinch a share of the Ivy Championship, but those 50 minutes were enough to set me on a roller coaster of intense reactions.

At first, I was enthused to see students taking action on what is the most existential threat humanity has ever faced. The protest reminded me of the societal turmoil during the Vietnam War when I played for Yale. Although none of our games were directly affected, street and campus disruptions were common and the University shut down in May of 1970. My teammates and I wondered if football, in the context of those changes, had much to do with anything.

This year, as the players left the field to the protesters, I resonated with the dedication, effort and commitment the student athletes on both teams put into their sport and the dedication of the protesters. “The Game” is the pinnacle of this devotion to football, the rivalry, each other and their school. Tens of thousands of fans had come to New Haven to enjoy a sports spectacle, and millions more watched it on TV. On the other hand, as an alumnus of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and now Executive Director of the New England Forestry Foundation, I am very aware of the Yale Endowment’s ownership of a substantial portion of the northern forests of New England. How Yale and the other 215,000 private forest owners will manage their lands over the next 20-30 years may hold the key to whether the management of forests throughout the world will play a role in either mitigating or exacerbating climate change. (Let’s Fill Our Cities With Taller Wooden Buildings, NY Times, October 3, 2019)

For me, “The Game” is no longer just one of the greatest rivalries in sport, a tremendously exciting event and a well-played exhibition of football. “The Game” is also what is playing out before us in real time as humanity pits its wisdom, technological achievements, capacity to work together, and wealth against its own historical blindness to see the connection between healthy natural systems and our hopes for the future. Regulation time has expired in this game of humanity vs. the natural world. What we have lost, what we are losing and what we may lose is terrifying. There is still a bit more time on the clock, but we are now in overtime and must make all the right choices because, like in a football game past regulation time, the next few plays will totally determine success or failure.

As the students refused to leave the field during halftime and the afternoon sunlight began to fade in a stadium unequipped for night games, it seemed possible that the contest might be called because of darkness, postponed or simply ended as a tie, which would deprive Yale of a championship. Could the students be justified in causing such a termination? On one hand, we have the disruption of a storied rivalry, the Ivy Championship and the recreational disappointment of the fans. On the other hand is the fate of our planet, humanity and millions of species of life. These are the kind of choices we will all be faced with in the overtime of this new game, with the light fading and the clock ticking down. Let’s hope we choose wisely.

Which brings us back to how these Universities invest their endowment portfolios during humanity’s climate emergency overtime. The student protestors were specifically demanding that Harvard and Yale divest from fossil fuel investments. The Universities politely decline and explain they can battle climate change best if they keep the firewall between what they invest in and what students are actually taught at the Universities. This was a good defensive strategy in regulation time, but will it work in overtime where it is basically all or nothing? Yale and Harvard’s portfolios total 69 billion in aggregate. Does it matter if those portfolios are 169 billion in 20 years if the planet is toast? The Yale and Harvard Endowments both own forest land. Does it matter how they manage those lands over the next 20 years and in what state the forest ends up, or is it good enough that they earn 8 percent and increase the endowment bottom line?

At Yale I was taught how to manage New England’s forests to increase carbon stocks while providing multiple other benefits. My colleagues and I at New England Forestry Foundation have refined that basic approach into a system of climate smart forestry techniques called Exemplary Forestry—practices that are proven to mitigate climate change. In fact, if Yale and other landowners apply these practices, we could sequester 1.9 gigatons of carbon in the forests of northern New England, the equivalent of taking every vehicle in New England off the road for 20 years. And if we began to use the sustainably produced timber from these lands to build new tall wood buildings on the Yale campus, on the Harvard campus and in urban areas like Boston, New Haven and New York, we could expand this climate benefit and give the world a fighting chance.

Will Yale manage its forests to accomplish this? I can’t tell you. That decision and the data to support it lie behind the firewall, hidden from public or even alumnus scrutiny. We can all respect what the portfolio managers do. Their job is to make money and they have done it well. But there are other goals that Yale teaches its students to seek for the betterment of our society and the planet. Yale taught me to protect and nurture the forest and pass along healthy natural ecosystems for the benefit of future generations. In the overtime period of humanity’s climate emergency, should there be a firewall between these two missions? This shouldn’t be a game played between two opponents, student protestors on one side of the field and Yale’s endowment experts on the other. We are all on the same team, and the health of the planet and the future of civilization is on the line. It is time to act like one team.