With shared knowledge, ‘we could build a new world’: Q&A with Lisbet Rausing
Arcadia co-founder Lisbet Rausing speaks to Mongabay about Arcadia's work, COVID-19 and her reasons for optimism.
- Historian and philanthropist Lisbet Rausing founded the Arcadia Fund with her husband, Peter Baldwin, 20 years ago with the aim of preserving endangered culture, protecting endangered nature, and promoting open access to knowledge.
- In that time, she has “watched winters warm unrecognizably” and “seen wildernesses shrink dramatically”; but she has also witnessed how the young become leaders and exemplars — through school strikes, or in protests against injustice and oppression in countries across the world.
- Rausing also makes the case for a sea change in how society functions, culturally and environmentally, and the need for the political courage to effect that change.
- As bleak as things look, Rausing tells Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, there’s reason for optimism: “Thanks to young people’s common sense and good hearts, I feel hope.”
In the past decade we’ve seen an incredible rise in the availability of information, from open-access journals to freely accessible high-resolution satellite imagery to high-quality investigative journalism. But we’ve also seen the proliferation of misinformation — accelerated by social media and questionable internet sources — which has enabled authoritarian regimes, anti-democratic movements, and corporate actors to erode the people’s ability to discern fact from fiction, erode public trust in science, and erect new knowledge barriers. These trends have important implications for efforts to stave off environmental catastrophes like climate change, ecosystem degradation, and loss of species: knowledge about the dangers environmental problems pose to humanity’s quality of life creates an imperative to address them.
Recognizing the enabling power of knowledge, the Arcadia Fund has for the past 20 years made access to information one of the guiding principles of its philanthropic strategy, which extends across the U.K. charity’s three priority areas: preserving endangered culture, protecting endangered nature, and promoting open access. Arcadia, founded in 2001 by Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, supports these priorities in geographies around the world through grants to institutions ranging from universities to NGOs.
“Arcadia serves humanity by preserving endangered ecosystems and cultural heritage and by promoting knowledge sharing through open access,” Arcadia says on its website. “We protect complexity and work against the entropy that leads to barren lands, depleted seas and homogenous cultures.”
Rausing, whose work spans disciplines as a science historian, entrepreneur and philanthropist, says this approach arose out of her observation that the flow of knowledge is impaired in society.
“Today, people rightly speak of the importance of fighting ‘fake news’ and ensuring that we as societies take democratic, science-informed decisions. But we less often discuss why so little verified knowledge is readily available to citizens,” she told Mongabay in an interview in January. “How can we engage ourselves in fights for justice and for the planet, when we are kept ignorant? A great deal of the scholarly knowledge that we need to become effective change agents is not accessible to us. If we are to level up our societies, as indeed we should, we also need to address knowledge injustice.”
Rausing says the COVID-19 pandemic has both embodied this issue, in the bungled responses from politicians who ignored or denied the science, and provoked a response that could potentially transform how information is shared and, more broadly, how we conduct ourselves.
“We have seen in the last year, when COVID-19 researchers across the world dismantled knowledge barriers, how much more effective and speedy innovation is if we share data and cooperate with one another.
“Humans are creatures of habit, and we have seen how ready societies have been to go back to business as usual as soon as the pandemic has given signs of easing off,” she added. “But the recurrent peaks and the recalcitrance of this crisis are making it clear that the way we live and work needs to change permanently and substantially.”
Driving a permanent shift toward a more sustainable future won’t be easy, but Rausing says she finds hope in young people’s enthusiasm for getting involved and taking action.
“It is enormously encouraging to see so many young people turning to meaningful action,” she said. “Over my lifetime I have watched winters warm unrecognizably. I have seen wildernesses shrink dramatically. But I have also sometimes seen the return of rare and threatened fauna and flora. And I have seen the emergence of ambitious and big ecological partnerships, such as those behind the largest dam removal project in history, on the Klamath River in California. Most encouragingly of all, I have witnessed how the young become leaders and exemplars, for example through the school strikes, or in young people’s protests against injustice and oppression in countries across the world.”
Rausing spoke of these issues and more during a conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in conservation and environmental issues?
Lisbet Rausing: My childhood in south Sweden. I saw how, in my home province, Skåne [Scania], an intricate and ancient farming landscape was largely destroyed, as conifer plantations, marsh drainages, and intensified arable farming took hold. It was clear to me, even as a child, that this destruction was irrational.
Mongabay: Beyond your philanthropy, you’re an academic, author, and entrepreneur, including working with Ingleby Farms & Forests, which has a strong emphasis on sustainable agriculture. How have those other pursuits influenced your philanthropy and vice versa?
Lisbet Rausing: Because I am involved in different kinds of communities and work, I see how the flow of knowledge is impaired in society. My husband and co-founder of Arcadia, Peter Baldwin, and I admire our partners working to secure environmental protection around the globe, under often exhausting and sometimes dangerous circumstances. They are heroes. We also see how people like them — citizens, communities and social activists around the world — are disempowered and kept in ignorance. Half of the world’s conservationists do not have easy access to scientific literature. They are largely shut out from evidenced knowledge, since so much publicly funded academic research is locked up behind publishers’ paywalls. Today, people rightly speak of the importance of fighting “fake news” and ensuring that we as societies take democratic, science-informed decisions. But we less often discuss why so little verified knowledge is readily available to citizens. How can we engage ourselves in fights for justice and for the planet, when we are kept ignorant? A great deal of the scholarly knowledge that we need to become effective change agents is not accessible to us. If we are to level up our societies, as indeed we should, we also need to address knowledge injustice.
The outputs of Arcadia’s environmental and cultural grants are open access, so that others can draw from and build on this work. Arcadia also supports open access advocates, to help make publicly funded knowledge free for everyone, anywhere in the world, anytime. To my mind, this should include all publicly funded research, but also standards and laws — which are also at times copyrighted so that while citizens have to abide by them, they cannot read them.
We have seen in the last year, when COVID-19 researchers across the world dismantled knowledge barriers, how much more effective and speedy innovation is if we share data and cooperate with one another. Imagine if students at poorer universities and colleges (who cannot afford to buy the journal bundles) had as good electronic libraries as the students have at Oxbridge and the Ivy League. Imagine if schoolchildren had access to the world’s scholarly knowledge. If local politicians did. If social activists did. If small businesses, NGOs, faith groups and civil services did. We could build a new world.
Mongabay: Arcadia is now about 20 years old. What initiatives have been the biggest successes for the foundation to date?
Lisbet Rausing: Arcadia has so many amazing partners. We see our role as enablers, not doers. Our job is to find good, effective partners, and then stay the course with them. One example: we first made a grant to Fauna & Flora International in 1998. Today, our support for its Halcyon Land & Sea program has helped it and its partners around the world to bring 9.6 million hectares [23.7 million acres] under conservation management, and improved the protection of 64 million hectares [168 million acres], benefiting not only flora and fauna, but also the communities who live in these areas.
Similarly, in 2018 our long-term collaboration with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative led to us jointly creating the Endangered Landscapes Programme, to help local communities — working with local governments, ecological experts and environmental activists — revive and heal entire landscapes throughout geographic Europe.
Mongabay: Protecting biodiversity is one of the three main program areas for the foundation. What do you see as some of the current gaps in the conservation space? What would you like to see more of in the sector?
Lisbet Rausing: I would like to see substantially more funding. It is exciting to see that the German government has begun to seriously fund the protection of ecosystems outside of Germany, together with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is another grantee of ours and an NGO we admire. Approximately 1% of charitable giving goes to environmental causes, and far less goes to biodiversity-specific activities. Increased awareness of the extinction crisis and engagement with nature-based climate solutions over the last few years has been encouraging. Of course, knowing about a problem does not mean the problem is solved. But it is encouraging that climate donors are now beginning to look at the enormous climate opportunities of restoring natural landscapes and seascapes.
Large-scale restoration activities are beginning to make landscapes bloom across Europe and elsewhere, bringing joy, hope and solace to millions of people. Innovative environmentalists are proving that even heavily degraded natural systems can recover, and that rewilding works. Well, strictly speaking, nature itself is proving that!
Arcadia aims to help people protect and restore landscapes and seascapes. Success depends on many factors. We see a need for more investment in conserving and restoring important areas for biodiversity; developing, monitoring and enforcing laws and policies that promote biodiversity; and enabling practitioners to improve their knowledge and skills — whether they are farmers, fishers, land managers, civil servants, politicians, retail buyers, or conservation professionals.
Well-enforced and sensible laws and policies are key, so that protection is effective and long-lasting. Another key lever is competent, committed community and NGO leaders driving protection and restoration efforts.
Mongabay: Do you think the pandemic has been a catalyst for rethinking business-as-usual practices? And has the pandemic affected your philanthropic strategy?
Lisbet Rausing: Humans are creatures of habit, and we have seen how ready societies have been to go back to business as usual as soon as the pandemic has given signs of easing off. But the recurrent peaks and the recalcitrance of this crisis are making it clear that the way we live and work needs to change permanently and substantially.
Virtual meetings and seminars allow us to reach out beyond those people who can afford to travel, or who live in knowledge centers. It is one little chip in the walls that politics-as-usual has erected around evidential and verified knowledge. Our partners have initiated fascinating discussions with new audiences and collaborators. The Wildlife Conservation Society co-hosted the “One Planet, One Health, One Future” summit that promoted cooperation to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics. The Earth Journalism Network hosted a series of webinars for journalists on the links between COVID-19 and biodiversity loss, and TRAFFIC has seized the attention around illegal wildlife trade to offer sage advice about ending unsustainable trade.
Arcadia continues to prioritize protecting and reviving nature. But we have also offered flexible support to our grantees in this difficult time. Early in 2020 we helped Fauna & Fauna International to create a Partner Crisis Support Fund to offer emergency support to their partner organizations that suffered a drop in revenue, e.g. through the loss of ecotourism income. With Arcadia’s support, so far Fauna & Flora International has raised almost $700,000 more, and to date has helped 29 organizations in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America, working with them to develop more resilient funding systems so that they can continue to thrive despite the uncertain future.
Mongabay: In addition to protecting the environment, Arcadia is dedicated to preserving cultural heritage. How do these objectives complement each other?
Lisbet Rausing: Complexity and diversity spurs innovation and ensures resilience. Once inflicted, simplification is hard to reverse. And we are spinning toward entropy as we forget or destroy the fragile memories of worlds other than the global modernity we now inhabit. Arcadia helps people remember their cultures and protect their natural surroundings, to give coming generations a base for a vibrant, sustainable and just future.
Arcadia’s longest-running cultural project is the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. Since 2003, we have given grants to document more than 450 of the world’s most endangered languages, and the program is now the largest and longest-running of its kind anywhere in the world. Our Endangered Material Knowledge Programme documents traditional handicraft skills, many threatened by globalization. Language and the traditions around making and mending things are fundamental to culture, but this knowledge is easily lost when it only exists in the memories of elders. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, so the pandemic has accelerated memory losses too. But even recorded knowledges often decay and destruct. Projects funded by Arcadia, including the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, the Endangered Archives Programme, and the Modern Endangered Archives Programme digitize at-risk, often unique collections of culturally significant materials: everything from ancient manuscripts, to printed books, to fragile modern formats like photographic negatives. They have made more than 10.5 million pages of this material available online for free, so that the knowledge is preserved by being accessible.
Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Lisbet Rausing: To you all, wherever you live: you are right to be worried. But don’t give up hope. We can work together to turn the tide. It is enormously encouraging to see so many young people turning to meaningful action. Find your passion and work within that area, because then your heart will help sustain your stamina. You may love rare beetles, or you may care about biodynamic wine. You may be a climate warrior, or you might fight food deserts. You may want a fairer justice system, or a better deal for women. Whatever your passion is, build on it and fight for it!
Over my lifetime I have watched winters warm unrecognizably. I have seen wildernesses shrink dramatically. But I have also sometimes seen the return of rare and threatened fauna and flora. And I have seen the emergence of ambitious and big ecological partnerships, such as those behind the largest dam removal project in history, on the Klamath River in California. Most encouragingly of all, I have witnessed how the young become leaders and exemplars, for example through the school strikes, or in young people’s protests against injustice and oppression in countries across the world.
Arcadia’s work is intended as a gift to future generations. But we are also developing ideas of how we can support, empower and encourage early-career scholars, practitioners and activists, to help them participate in shaping the future. And again, thanks to young people’s common sense and good hearts, I feel hope. As the saying goes, the generational war is one war whose outcome is certain