We Need Big Hairy Audacious Goals for Climate and Conservation

Tony Hiss' new book "Rescuing the Planet" advocates for greater scale and scope in our climate and conservation goals.

In his 1994 book, “Built to Last”, Jim Collins coined the acronym BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal. He described a BHAG as something that is “clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort – often creating immense team spirit…It is tangible, energizing, highly focused. People ‘get it’ right away; it takes little or no explanation.” And while we don’t need more of the types of companies featured in “Built to Last”, it certainly couldn’t hurt to have more  BHAGs in the climate and conservation movements.

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During my recent conversation with Tony Hiss, author of the new book, “Rescuing the Planet: Protecting Half the Land to Heal the Earth”, we discussed several of these audacious goals central to the conservation movement.

The Half-Earth Project is easily one of the biggest and most ambitious of all . Led by famed conservation biologist E.O. Wilson and named by Tony Hiss, the Half-Earth Project is a “call to protect half the land and sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet.” One of Wilson’s contributions to conservation biology was the finding that protecting just 15% of the land and sea (which is what’s currently protected in North America today) guarantees the long-term survival of just 25% of original species. But protecting 50% guarantees the survival of 90% of the species that call that place home.

In a world where one-third of plant and animal species could go extinct in less than 50 years, a BHAG of protecting half the Earth is more important than ever.

And if it seems like we’re living in the age of environmental and climate BHAGs, it’s because we are. The Green New Deal is a BHAG of BHAGs. Eliminating carbon emissions from dirty fuel sources. Righting the wrongs of centuries of systemic racism. Ensuring safe and fulfilling jobs that pay a fair wage to anyone that wants one. Reforming the police and public services in order to actually protect communities.

Like the Half-Earth Project, The Green New Deal calls for a radical transformation to create a society that is successful, sustainable, and fair for everyone. Any pushback against the Green New Deal for being too big or too broad in scope misses the point – we have a lot of work to do to not only save the planet but also make it a place worth saving.

And that’s the kind of thinking that has been missing for too long. Our initiatives have been too small or have excluded too many. Our thinking has been too short- term. Our sights have been set too low.

While researching his book, Tony Hiss spent a lot of time with the First Nation people who have inhabited Canada’s Boreal Forest for centuries. And he found a critical difference in the way they think compared to how much of Western civilization thinks. “They (First Nation people) are used to thinking at a much bigger scale…The scientific approach to preserving, say, caribou is ‘let’s think 25 years ahead – what will the needs be?’ They say, ‘oh no, we have to think at least 400 years ahead or it doesn’t make sense.’ They’re just attuned in ways that we’re slowly catching up with.”

The average CEO spends less than 5 years leading their company. In America, elected officials serve for terms of 2, 4, or 6 years. Short-term thinking is ingrained in our society. It’s no wonder we’re constantly sacrificing the future for short term gains – we’re incentivized to do it that way!

But the only way to ensure a future with clean air, clean water, abundant wildlife, and a fair and just society is to think big and never shy away from Big Hairy Audacious Goals. And we must support our political leaders, activists, and the people doing the work to promote and achieve these worthwhile BHAGs.


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