The successful effort to rebuild Giant Panda populations will be among the encouraging stories shared at the Earth Optimism Summit.

Soren Wolf/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Earth Optimism Summit will provide contrast to marchers’ angst

There will be more than a little angst on display in Washington, D.C., over the next week. Science marchers will rally Saturday to express their concerns about perceived attacks on evidence and research, and climate marchers worried about U.S. policy are set to jam the streets of the nation’s capital 7 days later.

But there’s also some optimism on tap over the next 3 days: The first Earth Optimism Summit kicks off today at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, just blocks from where the marchers will be gathering. It will feature some 240 talks on what is working in conservation, energy efficiency, innovation, and other fields.

“There is a lot of attention being focused on the science march but it isn't all anger out there,” says coral biologist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., a leader of the event, which was planned long before the science march materialized earlier this year. “We organized this because it was clear that bad news gets most of the oxygen and we wanted to share successes to inspire others.” 

Presenters and attendees at the summit “will talk about what’s working, why it’s working, and how to scale it up,” she says. “It’s not Pollyanna, where people forget about the problems, but it is focusing on what is working.”

In panel discussions and 12-minute, TED-like talks, the participants will cover more than two dozen success stories, including the conservation of orchids, Mongolian horses, and maned wolves, as well as efforts to develop stronger ocean policies, productive kelp farms, and more constructive human behavior. A few titles hint at some unusual perspectives as well: “Poachers as protectors,” and “Penguins and Pipelines”—that one presented by an energy company.

Various organizations expect to announce new funding programs and fellowships. And meeting participants will be encouraged to compete in an X Prize–like “Make for the Planet” competition, to develop new hardware or software that might help solve conservation problems. The four finalists will make their pitches Sunday afternoon and one will receive a cash prize.

The idea for the summit dates back more than a decade, when Knowlton was a professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California, teaching marine biodiversity. “What we were doing was [holding] medical school for the planet,” she says, but most of the lessons were about dead or dying species and ecosystems. But “when you teach medical students, you don’t teach them how to write obituaries,” Knowlton says. So in a bid to find some hope, she started a Twitter account @OceanOptimism that garnered millions of responses, so many that eventually enthusiasts created a website with the same name.

Usually, “we are such complainers,” Knowlton says. “I hope to really change the conversation and make people realize we have to ability [to make conservation work].”