Smithsonian convenes first Earth Optimism Summit

Rollbacks on environmental protections. Slashed budgets for science and research. Climate change denial. Amidst all the bad news, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Earth’s future.


partial view of earth from space

The Smithsonian will host the first Earth Optimism Summit April 21 – 23.

On Earth Day weekend, the Smithsonian will convene the first Earth Optimism Summit, a three-day event featuring more than 150 scientists, thought leaders, philanthropists, conservationists and civic leaders, which will highlight what is working in conservation and how to scale up and replicate it. The summit speaker sessions will be based at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., April 21–23.

The summit is organized by the Smithsonian Conservation Commons, a team of conservation experts from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, National Zoological Park, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The Conservation Commons brings researchers together to tackle complex conservation problems on a global scale.

Marra with male cardinal

Pete Marra, director of the Migratory Bird Center, is among the speakers at the first Earth Optimism Summit. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

The Smithsonian has a long history linking science and conservation. Since its founding more than 170 years ago, the Smithsonian has been a global leader in science, working to understand and protect life on Earth. Today, the Institution has more than 500 scientists conducting research on all seven continents on topics ranging from climate change to food security. Among its conservation accomplishments are the establishment of global forest and ocean-monitoring networks and saving critically endangered species, such as the Panamanian golden frog and the scimitar-horned oryx, from extinction.

“One of the greatest strengths of the Smithsonian is the unique position we occupy at the intersection of the arts, humanities and sciences,” said Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton. “Earth Optimism is an example of how we can leverage this position to bring together many of the greatest minds on the planet to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing the world today.”

Nancy Knowlton, the summit co-lead and the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Chair, has emphasized conservation solutions in a variety of public initiatives, including the #OceanOptimism twitter campaign launched in 2014.

Horse and foal

The Smithsonian is at the forefront of efforts to reintroduce the critically endangered Przewalski’s horse to the wild. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

The Earth Optimism Summit will feature a mix of plenary and “deep-dive” sessions on topics and themes. The success stories to be featured include saving species such as the black-footed ferret and the California condor, creating the conditions for biodiverse and sustainable cities, tracking the movement of life across the planet and using state-of-the-art DNA methods to combat poaching and invasive species. The scientific program will be complemented by presentations from business leaders and philanthropists, artistic performances and film screenings.

“The Earth Optimism Summit brings people together to share and learn from each other’s conservation successes,” said Steve Monfort, John and Adreinne Mars Director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and chair of the Conservation Commons. “When we shift the focus from problems to solutions, we empower people to replicate and scale up these successful programs in their own communities creating an influential international network.”

Speakers at the event will include artist and environmentalist Maya Lin; Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program Erik Solheim; conservation and sustainable energy philanthropist and investor Trammel Crow; and Executive Director of Lion Guardians and CNN Hero Leela Hazzah.

Smithsonian scientists participating include:

  • Pete Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, who will share how the Smithsonian’s “bird friendly” coffee certification programs are working to save migratory bird species
  • Melissa Songer, conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center, who will highlight successful efforts to reintroduce the Przewalski’s horse onto the steppes of Eurasia
  • Mary Hagedorn, research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival, who has pioneered a new field of coral cryo-preservation
  • Jeff Hall, scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, who will describe the Institution’s work to effectively manage the vital watersheds of the Panama Canal

In addition to the plenary and deep-dive sessions, the summit will feature an Innovation Commons, an area showcasing new, innovative tools and products that are critical for conservation success. “Make for the Planet,” a competition that will run throughout the weekend by Conservation X Labs, will challenge engineering teams to develop tools and technologies in real time to answer specific conservation challenges.

Coral reef and parrotfish.

Scientists working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute think corals in the genus Orbicella will continue to adapt to future climate changes because of their high genetic diversity.

The weekend also will feature public activities at Smithsonian museums, research centers and the National Zoo, as well as other venues in the Washington area. These include film screenings, a teen-only event at the National Museum of Natural History and an exhibition on the history of Earth Day at the National Museum of American History. Events also are scheduled at locations across the U.S. and internationally.

For full schedule of events (including a list of those open to the public), a list of speakers and descriptions of their talks, visit the Earth Optimism website. Tickets for the summit also are available on the website.

Posted: 20 March 2017
About the Author:

John Gibbons is the Press Secretary for Science at the Smithsonian. He spends much of his time skulking around the collections and research centers sniffing out all the cool science going on at the Institution. In his non-skulking hours, he’s most easily found on a hiking trail looking at anything with feathers.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>