Sissel Waage

Director, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Business for Social Responsibility

Have you ever had the chance to stand on bluff of California’s Big Sur Coast and see a condor glide by? Have you been able to stand beside Oregon’s Columbia River and see the crimson salmon swim up to spawn? Have you seen the Hawai’ian Ko`oloa`ula flower blooming in a forest? Have your friends, children, or grandchildren relayed, with excitement, how they saw free-tailed bats that launch in the evenings from Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge?

Passage of the Endangered Species Act signaled the importance of taking the long view, and considering national—as well as ecological and even personal—history.

While there are many scientific reasons—as well as a growing list of business arguments—to conserve, restore, and maintain biodiversity, perhaps the most compelling stem from another source. It is the images that we hold in our minds, the stories that we share after our forays into nature, as well as people’s individual, ethical sense of what is right. These more personal elements may be some of the most powerful wellsprings of action on biodiversity. They can be easily supported by rigorous scientific studies, and increasingly a business cases for action.

For me, it is the feeling—in my heart and in my throat—when I stand at the edge of a wetland holding hands with my two young children and watch birds take flight. It is the total silence of my boys, and their enraptured gazes. It is magic. It is a key part of the essence of life, and sharing it with those whom I love.

What is this all about? It is about biodiversity, as well as conserving, restoring, and maintaining species and habitats (endangered and non-endangered alike). And ultimately, it is about holding in our minds, in our hearts, the bigger context of life and work. For all of us, life is a balance—of personal and professional, of intellectual and emotional—as much as it is about following the rules and making new rules.

When the US Endangered Species Act was passed, it was a clear vote in the direction of creating new rules which valued the diversity of nature, even as economic systems reflected little, if any, monetary value for nature. Passage of the Endangered Species Act signaled the importance of taking the long view, and considering national—as well as ecological and even personal—history.

We have come a long way over the past forty years, as leading businesses are now passing aspirational corporate goals to have net neutral, or even net positive, impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Business people are finding that these aspirational “man on the moon” type goals can focus attention within their companies and catalyze innovation. Corporate discussions suddenly have permission to expand beyond what is happening today to include what should be happening over time, and even the question, “What if we did things differently?” Embracing innovation in all aspects of business offers the potential for significant positive returns, in every sense of the word, particularly when linked to net positive biodiversity impacts.

The Endangered Species Act in many ways can be seen as a path breaker, showing what is needed and what is possible. Perhaps the best way to think about the last forty years of work under the Act is through the lens of the famous Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.” The Endangered Species Act has been a key element in beginning to change business as usual, to protect that which we all rely upon. In many ways, the Act has offered up new sails, to catch new winds.

Today, for politicians and businesspeople alike, the take-away is clear: Continue to support—in every way—policies and actions that foster conservation and restoration of well-functioning ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity. The path may not always be apparent, but the returns are likely to be significant in the forests, grasslands, deserts, and other ecosystems that we will be able to walk through, holding hands with those whom we love.


Download the entire book A Wild Success here.