Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III opened the Earth Optimism Virtual Summit, held April 22-25, 2020, with a version of these remarks.
As a historian of 19th-century America, I’ve always been struck by the capacity for hope, even in the grimmest of situations. Crises like this one have a way of showing who we are. In the midst of this pandemic, I have seen Smithsonian staff and our partners, and our communities at their best, rising to meet challenges and showing extraordinary resilience. That’s why we are thrilled about the Earth Optimism Digital Summit. I know it’s not what we initially planned, but it was important to the Smithsonian and to me personally that we continue our work and renew our sense of shared purpose. We’re gathering data, applying what we know, and equipping the public to stay safe and healthy.
That’s why I have the utmost faith in the Smithsonian, our partners, and the public as we join together to combat one of the great challenges of our lifetime: the global climate crisis.
Fifty years after the first Earth Day, the future of our planet hangs in the balance. But I know that we can marshal the same creativity and strength that we see around us every day to protect our planet.
It’s time to come together, put our heads down, and work.
Earth Optimism shows us how to find hope in the face of odds that might seem overwhelming. It reminds us that change happens when we focus on what works—when we collaborate to find solutions and celebrate our successes. In moments of fear and uncertainty, we need this perspective more than ever.
Over the course of this Summit, you’ll hear plenty of reasons for hope: Researchers making breakthroughs in biodiversity conservation; artists leading the way in sustainable design; young people starting local and going global.
I don’t want to minimize the scale of what we’re up against. The current environmental crisis isn’t a singular issue. It brings together a constellation of different challenges: economics, policy, culture and, as is now evident, global health.
Climate change is inextricably linked to racial justice, migration and fair housing. It touches on development and opportunity. And we know that its costs—like those of the COVID pandemic—are born disproportionately. Low income communities and communities of color are uniquely vulnerable to the threats that climate change poses, both here and around the globe.
This is the civil rights movement of the 21st century. And I am struck now by the words of one of my favorite authors of that period, James Baldwin, who wrote so powerfully about the urgency of combatting injustice: “There is never time in the future to work out our salvation,” he wrote. “The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”
Baldwin had it right: We can’t afford to wait. The challenges in this moment require us to come together across backgrounds, disciplines and generations. To cut through conventional boundaries. To create a shared vision of hope for our future.
That’s exactly what makes the Smithsonian so uniquely suited to lead this charge. We have an opportunity to harness the full strength of the Institution’s research, programs, education and convening capacity.
And with this opportunity comes a responsibility to ensure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table and a voice in crafting the solutions. Because we know that when we encourage diverse perspectives, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.
That’s what this summit is all about. Bringing together an extraordinary group of people from different fields and backgrounds. We’re here today thanks to the hard work of so many. I am awed by the perseverance and gymnastic flexibility of our Earth Optimism team and the Smithsonian Conservation Commons, led by Ruth Stolk. Let me also recognize the vision and guidance of Nancy Knowlton, whose idea this first was, and Steve Monfort for his transformational leadership in these efforts. Thank you all for making today happen.
In times of personal challenge, cultural institutions have always been sources of hope and healing for me.
Our planet faces the challenge of a lifetime. Let’s work together to imbue our future with all the hope and healing we have to offer.