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“Equity is a prerequisite to true sustainability. ” with Ben Carswell

Strive to use your voice and actions to lift up and empower others that might otherwise be left out or marginalized. Equity is a prerequisite to true sustainability. We all need to do more and demand better until our institutional power structures and decision-making bodies are representative of the populations they serve. For parents, pay […]

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Strive to use your voice and actions to lift up and empower others that might otherwise be left out or marginalized. Equity is a prerequisite to true sustainability. We all need to do more and demand better until our institutional power structures and decision-making bodies are representative of the populations they serve. For parents, pay attention to whether the media you children are exposed to advances this ideal or reinforces inequitable constructs about race and gender. In our house, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, the son of a Black father and Puerto Rican mother, is one of the fictional heroes hopefully helping shape our son’s image of who real life heroes can be.

As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Carswell, Director of Conservation for Jekyll Island Authority.

Ben Carswell is an innovative conservation professional working in coastal Georgia as the first director of conservation for the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA). Charged with implementing the Jekyll Island Conservation Plan, Carswell’s mission is to coordinate responsible stewardship across the JIA organization and among its stakeholders to ensure that the diversity of native species and the integrity of natural communities on the island continue to be preserved and, where possible, enhanced. Accomplishing this task involves a balanced mix of communication, research, education, adaptive management, and patience. His expertise broadly encompasses the ecology of the southeastern United States, particularly coastal environments and fisheries, crafting policy, facilitating strategic planning, guiding research, and creating partnerships. In 2014, he was listed among Georgia Trend Magazine’s 40-under-40 honorees. Carswell’s instincts for opportunity along with experience building and staffing a conservation program at a high-profile barrier-island state park, serving on a tight-knit executive team, and managing a large shoreline protection project with a budget exceeding 11-million dollars, contribute to his willpower and adaptability to pursue and achieve goals at the highest level. He aims to lead his organization and elevate his community to a more sustainable future and is thankful to be entrusted as a steward for a place that is a multigenerational home to his family.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Imoved around quite a bit growing up, which exposed me to a mix of urban, suburban, and rural environments and communities. Accordingly, some of my first jobs included being a bicycle messenger in Washington D.C., working on a farm fencing crew in rural Virginia, and apprenticing with a historic preservation mason. I played youth soccer and mostly was a goalkeeper, which I credit with helping me develop confident communication skills and the ability to maintain positivity and performance despite inevitable setbacks. My parents really prioritized investing in education for my brother and I. Nonetheless, I struggled academically in high school, being much more attracted to exploring the outdoors than doing homework.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

My “aha moment” came in a gap year between high school and college. I was serving on a Student Conservation Association (SCA) “National Crew,” which is a program for youth in the 15–19 age range. Working among the bison in the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota instilled me with a drive to commit myself to the pursuit of a career in public lands conservation.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

I think the most important skill a young aspiring leader can nurture is their instinct for recognizing opportunities to make tangible change through their powers of persuasion and influence. These are the moments when, if you speak up, your voice alone can sway decisions for the better. The results can be a small good thing or a big good thing but recognizing the opportunity and having the confidence to act on it without hesitation are learned skills that should be exercised. It’s kind of like knowing when to go after the ball as a soccer goalie. Practicing this will lead to more of these types of opportunities as you build relationships and earn your team’s trust. Most jobs in sustainability and conservation, even at a high level, are influence-based, meaning that your power to make change comes more from your ability to be persuasive with your peers than from any absolute power associated with your position. That’s why building and maintaining positive, trusting relationships with the people you need to influence to make good change happen is so important.

For me, the result of exercising these skills has been that I get to see the results of my efforts on the ground on Jekyll Island: trees still standing that would have been cut down, a solar power plant generating electricity from the sun, a rain garden filtering stormwater runoff from a parking lot. These are all things that were realized with the efforts of many others but might not have come to pass in our community had I not been in my current position and gone for the ball, by speaking up, to set things in motion.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that your team at Jekyll Island are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Our emerging sustainability efforts are organized around three focus areas: energy responsibility, material-waste reduction, and water conservation. In the area of energy responsibility, we forged an innovative public-private partnership to build a solar-energy facility on a retired landfill site that generates enough power to offset the electricity needs of the equivalent of 100 homes with clean, renewable electricity. We are beginning to tackle material-waste reduction through auditing our waste streams for specific festivals and events island-wide, to understand our baseline waste footprint and identify the best opportunities for improvement. We are conserving water through stormwater management that promotes infiltration rather than runoff and through reuse of captured stormwater at our LEED-Silver certified Convention Center where large buried cisterns supply water for the toilets and landscaping irrigation.

Please share with our readers what makes Jekyll Island a unique destination for sustainability.

Jekyll Island is a unique destination because we are guided by an abiding faith in a simple but profound idea that is foundational to our sustainability as a public park, as a community, and as a destination: Jekyll Island’s ecological vitality and its economic vitality are inextricably linked and the preservation of its character depends upon actively holding these two otherwise opposing values in a careful balance that must be mutually empowering. That idea is empowered by state statute limiting the extent of development on Jekyll Island to no more than approximately a third of the island.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

Walk, bike, or take public transit if you can. When you buy your first or next car, consider going all electric, whether used or new. The charging infrastructure is more and more available, and the technology and pricing is more and more competitive with old school internal combustion vehicles.

Be conservative in your consumption of meat and single-use plastic.

Reject entrenched knee-jerk positions about environmental issues including energy production and technological innovation. Instead, be open-minded about solutions, but be realistic about challenges, knowing that there will be tradeoffs. Read the book Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

Nurture wonder and enjoyment of the natural world — even just getting outside helps. You don’t have to travel; nature is everywhere. One of my best memories is taking a wild canoe ride down rock creek in Washington D.C. after a storm. Don’t forget your life jacket!

Strive to use your voice and actions to lift up and empower others that might otherwise be left out or marginalized. Equity is a prerequisite to true sustainability. We all need to do more and demand better until our institutional power structures and decision-making bodies are representative of the populations they serve. For parents, pay attention to whether the media you children are exposed to advances this ideal or reinforces inequitable constructs about race and gender. In our house, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, the son of a Black father and Puerto Rican mother, is one of the fictional heroes hopefully helping shape our son’s image of who real life heroes can be.

Encourage fearless creativity. Environmental and sustainability challenges are so complex and daunting that the solutions must come from bold new ideas. If your kid wants to dig up the back yard to try to build an underground fort (yes, I once did that), hand them a shovel and watch the dirt fly. Then bring them in to practice some math, because we’re going to need all the creative engineers we can get.

Discourage rigid, unyielding opinions. We need to demonstrate to the next generation that it’s okay to change your mind and to admit that you were wrong or made a mistake. For progress to happen, ideas need to be fluid and dynamic, like nature, not hardened into ideological concrete. There is nothing about being a conservationist or sustainability advocate that makes us immune to the human tendency to want to cling to what you think you know. Ideological orthodoxy is incompatible with progress. Science is one of the best tools we have to keep our knowledge base growing and changing in response to new information, but too many people mistake it for an ideology in and of itself. My family has gotten used to hearing me constantly correcting the pundits on the radio and TV when they say someone “believes in science.” I always reply, “Science is not a belief system!”

Bring people together. Connecting people who can do good together is really an extension of lifting people up. Issues of sustainability are so complex that no one can make much progress alone. Some of the best decisions I’ve seen made have been inclusive, team decisions. Some of the biggest failures I’ve witnessed have been made by someone going it alone. Once again, the soccer field, or any team sport, is a good place to learn this.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Waste reduction, in essence, is inherently about reducing cost, whether monetary costs borne by the business, or externalized costs borne by society. The best example out there for this is the carpet tile company, Interface. With Interface, Roy C. Anderson showed the world that an international commercial manufacturing business can achieve net zero carbon emissions and the company Anderson passed on has now set its sights on going carbon negative. The message of the Interface story is that this kind of green industrial revolution is possible, but it takes clarity of mission, sustained focus, creativity, ignoring the nay-sayers, and never letting up.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been so fortunate to have had mentors whose life experience have differed substantially from my own. One of the most influential is my friend and graduate school advisor, Dr. Cecil Jennings. Cecil has had a remarkable career full of achievement as a fisheries biologist that has taken him on a journey from his childhood in the U.S. Virgin Islands to a research career with the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units, where he has served as the unit leader for Georgia. Dr. Jennings was recently elected to a prestigious leadership position within the American Fisheries Society (AFS). He has provided thoughtful training and professional and personal guidance to a steady stream of students who have gone on to spread his legacy of integrity, quality, kindness, and good humor in their lives and careers. His deep, hearty laugh reminds me of my grandfather’s, and was always the perfect antidote to physical and intellectual fatigue after a long day in the field catching, counting, and measuring fish in the heat, bugs, rain, or all of the above!

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For a start, I would like to see the world come together around an abiding commitment to honesty, especially for people in public service and politics. I envision an honor code that would expel people who knowingly lie, whether for personal or political gain, from serving or leading the public. Dishonesty is totally corrosive to the advancement of society in a positive way. I think of a stronger commitment to honesty across all of our social systems as an essential step on a pathway to a more morally centered world that elevates helping others over helping oneself.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

I have two family quotes, one from my grandmother on my mom’s side and one from my grandfather on my dad’s side, that might seem contradictory to each other, but I think of them as complementary. My Grandma liked to say “Can’t never did anything”. And my grandfather, who we all called “Dad”, who could be a bit of a cynic, often exclaimed, “If at first you don’t succeed, quit!” Grandma was a hard-working state government employee and Mother of five. Dad was a brilliant engineer and inventor. I take their two quotes together to mean that you’ve got to try before you can accomplish anything good, but, if what you try doesn’t work well, you’d better get creative, learn from the experience, and try something different.

What is the best way for people to follow you and Jekyll Island on social media?

On LinkedIn, at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-carswell-74b43646/

Jekyll Island:
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JekyllIsland/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jekyll_island/

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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