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Women In Conservation: 2011 Rachel Carson Award Winners

May 2011 marked the 114th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson, the famous scientist and writer whose pivotal book Silent Spring shone a spotlight on the dangers of herbicides and pesticides such as DDT on both wildlife and human health. Her conservationist legacy lives on in remarkable women who are going above and beyond to do their part to conserve our natural ecosystems and raise awareness about environmental issues. On May 23 Audubon held its annual Women in Conservation luncheon, honoring artist/architect/activist Maya Lin and actor/activist Sigourney Weaver with its Rachel Carson Award. The lunch also celebrated “Women of the Gulf”—women who rose to the challenge posed by the BP oil disaster. For interviews with last year's winners, click here.

Below are exclusive Audubon videos of the awardees and a Q&A with Weaver.



Maya Lin made an enduring contribution to history in 1981, when, as a 21-year-old student at Yale’s School of Architecture, she submitted a design proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—and won. Since then she’s produced an array of other memorials, architectural designs, and art. Upon viewing her work, it’s hard to miss signs of what inspires her: nature, and particularly landscapes. “I’ve tried to get people—especially in my art—to look at the natural world in a way they might not be thinking about, whether it’s through sonar mapping of the ocean floor or looking at a river as an entire system,” Lin told me in a recent interview. “I’m doing it partly as an artist in that I am extremely interested in exploring aspects of the natural world revealed by technology, but I’m also committed as an advocate.” This past May Lin received Audubon’s Rachel Carson Award at its annual Women in Conservation luncheon for her leadership. (Actor Sigourney Weaver was another recipient; see her interview here.)

Fittingly, Lin’s fifth and last memorial is designed to stir an audience’s environmental consciousness. The project, called What Is Missing?, “is focused on raising awareness about species loss and connecting it to habitat loss,” says Lin. But it will also convey what experts are doing to help, not to mention what we can tackle in our day-to-day life. “It’s both a wakeup call and a call to action,” says Lin.

A multi-sited memorial, pieces of What Is Missing? will be installed in various locales—the first at the California Academy of Sciences—and include one- to-two-minute films. The installations will be linked to a nexus site—a website called The site has an interactive map showing the status of different species around the world and will eventually reveal measures other people are taking toward a greener future. “Let’s re-imagine how the world could look,” says Lin.  She’s already well under way.



Audubon: What does it feel like to win the Rachel Carson Award?
Sigourney Weaver: I’m overwhelmed by the honor of winning the Rachel Carson Award. I’m a huge admirer of hers and of women in conservation in general in the Audubon Society. To me she showed, well, first of all, such vision but also such courage in standing up to agribusiness and holding her position. And of course she was right, but she was remarkable in all of this.

How has your interest in conservation changed or matured over the years?
Well, I think the situation on our planet has become more dire, so my interest in preserving the planet has grown. I think I was lucky enough to grow up in nature and always felt very nourished by it. Look at the changes made and the way people live, the loss of habitat, that there are so many children now who don’t have the experience of being in nature—to me it's so much a part of what makes us human and what makes us understand our relationship to the rest of the world. We are one of many species—we are not the main species—but if you’re in the forest, you know that you are there with the animals, the birds, the insects, the plants. Then you understand that balance. I think that working with the gorillas in Gorillas in the Mist was the first time I understood how much our species thinks of itself as the most important species. I think Diana Fossey felt very strongly that we are all equal and we must respect each other’s habitat and each other’s needs. And in the name of progress a lot of that understanding for the balance of nature and what’s good for the planet has gone out the window.

Is there an environmental issue that concerns you most?
I’m very concerned about the acidification of the oceans. Since about a third of the CO2 from burning fossil fuels goes into the ocean, I think there was a feeling, ‘Well, at least it’s not going into the atmosphere, creating more warming.’ But in fact CO2 mixed with seawater creates carbonic acid, and that reduces the amount of carbonate in the water, which makes it very difficult for shelled creatures to build shells. As they struggle longer to make shells and as they make more-brittle shells, it will mean they have less energy to find food and to reproduce. Scientists are already predicting that by the end of the century, our ocean water will be twice as acidic, and we really don’t know what will happen to the food chain in the new scenario. I did a film called “Acid Test,”—it’s on an NRDC website—that can tell you the whole story. It’s a big problem, as is the overfishing of the seas. And that’s why, frankly, Sylvia Earle, who won the Rachel Carson Award a few years ago, has these marine protected areas in the oceans that she’s trying to develop as “hope spots.” In these protected areas, life can come back because man has left it alone. We need to create hope spots on land and on sea, and in each of our homes, so that we can come to grips with what’s happened on the planet.

What advice would you give to young girls and even women interested in getting into conservation, whether as a vocation or an avocation?
I think women, traditionally, have been conservationists, because since time began, we have been the ones making food last and keeping fires going. So I think whatever one decides to do as an individual, we are well suited to being smart about Mother Earth. I think that it’s a field that we need to put a lot of energy and new thinking into, so it would be wonderful for young women and young men to go into this field. But whatever field you choose—I mean, in my field, I can step up and say, ‘We don't need a generator, I mean . . . bring the solar panels in to fuel the generator.’ We have the capability of finding solutions to a lot of this waste of energy, but people have to speak up. So whatever career you’re in, whatever career you choose, whatever community you’re active in, even in your own home, there’s so much we can do to improve the situation. And you can vote for a politician who will actually address the climate change concerns properly, and not someone who goes, ‘Oh, well, you know, our economy isn’t good enough; we really shouldn’t be switching over to sustainable fuels right now.’ Are you kidding me? Ask the people of Mississippi what they think about waiting.

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