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David Garcia on standup paddle board

Today’s Conservation Leaders: David Garcia

David Garcia became a naturalist and a conservation leader via an unusual route: an early career in the resort industry. Now as “roving naturalist” for NOVA Parks (Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority), he delivers interpretive nature programs for thousands of people each year in NOVA’s 12,000-acre system of 30 parks, which serve the most populous region of the Washington, DC, area.

A shorter version of this Q&A originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Outlook magazine.

How did you get interested in nature, conservation, and environmental education?

Garcia: My passion for interpreting nature came to me in a fantastic way. My father was a diplomat so I spent my youth traveling the Americas. Along those journeys, I fell in love with surfing and loitering with sea turtles and dolphins out on the ocean waves. I studied physics in college, but the ocean kept softly calling and eventually I chose a career in beach resort management. I worked in exotic, unspeakably beautiful destinations for 15 years and in nine countries; it led me to my life-calling of reconnecting people with the wonders of nature.

Who has most influenced your career path and why?

Garcia: Three people were beacons in my path to finding my life purpose. In my youth, it was Carl Sagan. He was a brilliant communicator who made science very captivating and exciting; I studied physics in college due to his influence. Father Thomas Berry helped me see a bigger picture of which science is just a part. He was a self-proclaimed Geologian who saw the interior dimensions of nature. Brian Swimme is a cosmologist who can weave the spectrum of human inquiries into one coherent cosmic story. He changed my life and my relationship with the natural world.

David Garcia with girl holding snakeWhat do you think is the greatest challenge facing conservation today?

Garcia: Conservation today faces a communication challenge with the public. Much of our communication wants to shock people into action; our messages regularly reference guilt, shame, and fear. I’m hopeful that future generations will communicate conservation in ways that help people create emotional connections with nature. In doing so, conservation will return to its roots in nurturing and caring for the land and oceans that give us so much life.

How has your connection to Leopold’s legacy and the land ethic affected your career or the way you approach your work?

Garcia: Aldo Leopold had deep insight into the connectivity and inter-relatedness of life and nature. His land ethic is essentially an Earth ethic that challenges our mechanistic view of the world and invites us into a new relationship on how to view and interact with nature. He was a fresh voice that came out of the western academic tradition, and I connected with his
writings early on in my work as a naturalist and interpreter.

Any advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps as a naturalist and conservation leader?

Garcia: My advice is simple: Be cautious of specialization. Science continues to provide a wealth of knowledge, but that knowledge tends to be fragmented and compartmentalized. As a result, our behavior on the planet continues to be based on extraction, almost parasitic on Earth.

We are in dire need of a reorientation in our human-to-Earth relationship. It is the central issue facing Earth today. The world needs divergent thinkers: people who can connect all the different dots and see the big picture across the humanities and sciences. These creative generalists will help us forge a new way forward with the rest of the Earth community.

Anything you want to add on this topic that we haven’t thought to ask?

Garcia: This is the greatest time to be in the field of conservation. We are at a pivotal moment in history that can inspire the next generation of humans with new meaningful connections to our natural world. So much depends on how we stimulate and reveal to them the magic found in nature.