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Camilo Mora has a simple plan to save the planet: Let’s have fewer children.
Solve the overpopulation problem, the Earth recovers from nearly two centuries of abuse and climate change is crossed off the list of crises facing the world.
In the meantime, live your life the way you like and consume what you want, but give the planet a break by doing things to offset your consumptive ways.
That’s the advice from one of the most straight-talking, easy-to-understand scientists to ever tackle climate change.
The 39-year-old professor was giving his last lecture of the school year recently to more than two dozen undergraduates in his Global Environmental Issues class at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus.
The topic was “Targeting the Cause of Biodiversity Loss: Overpopulation.”
Mora, a biogeography researcher, fears time is running out to cure the underlying causes of sea-level rise, heat waves, severe storms and a litany of other issues that threaten life as it is today due to the effects of human-induced climate change.
“Wouldn’t it be cool, if scientists were able to look back 100 or 200 years from now and see the turning point happened in Hawaii in 2015?” — Professor Camilo Mora
But he’s also optimistic and funny. Mostly though, he’s energetic.
It’s not just being well-caffeinated, although he is. Mora runs on the energy that comes from passion for a cause worth dedicating one’s life to.
From his humble roots growing up on a farm in Colombia to being homeless living on a hammock under a bridge in Australia while trying to wedge his foot in the door of academia, Mora has experienced a lot in his pursuit of saving the planet.
“He brings a perspective that most American-born scientists wouldn’t have because he grew up in a developing country,” said Peter Sale, a University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada) professor emeritus who recruited Mora as an undergraduate after hearing him give a speech in Southeast Asia.
With dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles now under his belt, Mora refuses to let up. He wants to share his knowledge, continue learning, inspire a new generation of leaders and, well, change the world.
“What we are asking is common sense,” Mora said. “You pay your debt to nature.”
Scientists have identified England in the mid-1800s, when the Industrial Revolution took hold, as the starting point of the climate change problem, Mora explained in his heavy Spanish accent.
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” he said, “if scientists were able to look back 100 or 200 years from now and see the turning point happened in Hawaii in 2015?”
Mora challenges the status quo. If something can be done better, he fails to understand why someone would still do it the same old way.
To Mora, studies to demonstrate the negative effects of climate change should be pau. Virtually everyone in the field would rather focus on what should be done in response.
“Scientists are building this massive repository of how bad this is, but nothing is happening,” Mora said.
He breaks effective problem-solving down like this: There’s a problem, scientists study it, the public responds, politicians act and the problem gets solved.
“I would argue that the problem is in the transfer of information from the scientists to the public,” Mora said. “There’s a bottleneck.”
Mora told his students that one would think the public would respond to staggering numbers like losing 20,000 species a year or generating enough greenhouse gas emissions to bring Hawaii to the brink of “climate departure” by 2029. That’s the point when traditional weather patterns shift to the point of no return. It’s also the subject of a major paper — he was the lead author — that the prestigious scientific journal Nature published in 2013.
Abby Frazier, who’s studying rainfall variability in Hawaii while finishing her doctorate at UH, worked closely with Mora on the paper. (Mora, Frazier and others describe the paper in the video above.)
“It was an incredible amount of work but he was so energetic about everything,” she said.
Going into it, Frazier said no one else expected the end result of being published in Nature.
“Most professors aim for the more average journal but he aims for the best of the best,” she said. “That sets him apart in a lot of ways.”
Mora points to studies showing that over the last 20 years, fewer people perceive overpopulation to be a problem. That means less impetus on rampant childbearing, especially in developing countries that can least afford it.
“As scientists, we are failing to reach out to the majority of the people,” he said.
Mora told the class how excited he was to receive a letter saying his scientific article had received 200,000 views online. Then he found out that Justin Bieber posted a music video that received 1 billion views in a week.
There’s no public pressure on politicians to address overpopulation, he said. That gets reflected in the amount of funding put into family planning; Mora said foreign investments have dropped tenfold over the past two decades.
“If we were to convince the Pope of the importance of family planning, we would fix everything,” Mora said.
He takes a professional risk in simplifying his studies in interviews and elsewhere so the average person can understand the significance of what he’s saying.
Scientists have a bad habit of writing and talking to the public with an incredible amount of jargon and sophistication that only experts in the field understand. And that’s partly why they do this. They want — and need — to sound as smart as they are.
But that just keeps the science bottled up in obscure journals the masses never read.
“We suck big-time at talking in front of people,” Mora said.
Scientists have studied this bottleneck and found there’s no reward for speaking out about overpopulation, Mora said. There’s a loss of personal time, concern about lack of support from colleagues and attacks by interest groups.
“This is a very dangerous topic for scientists that could end their career,” he said.
Mora hopes to change that. He’s not afraid to break an issue down to its simplest components and to use everyday language to help others understand.
He thinks religion is a serious underlying cause of overpopulation. That can be dangerous territory, especially in a college classroom.
“I’m totally optimistic. The solutions are right there. We could potentially plant 1 million trees tomorrow and restore this state by the end of the month.”
He points to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a two-time presidential hopeful and devout Mormon who has posted pictures of himself with his 20-plus grandchildren.
The sad thing to Mora was the campaign hubbub about one of Romney’s grandchildren being black, instead of concern over the fact that he and his kids have bred at an unsustainable rate, with Romney encouraging others to do the same.
The world’s population has grown almost 250 percent over the past 50 years. There are 7.3 billion people on the planet now and 9 billion are expected by 2020.
“Isn’t that insanity?” Mora asked the class.
His approach in the classroom works for many students, but not all. He concedes his reviews from them are “bipolar.”
Some like the fluid discussions and how he encourages attendance by not requiring students to take a final exam if they make it to every class. Others don’t.
Same goes for Mora’s effort to break down the teacher-student dynamic. He’s not “Professor Mora.” It’s “Camilo.” Or even “dude,” by the end of the semester.
“He was a big proponent of trying to get everyone to feel like they had a voice,” Frazier said of her experience working on the Nature manuscript with Mora and a dozen others.
Mora accepts the human resistance to change. With that in mind, his focus beyond overpopulation is on carbon neutrality. (Read: Maintain your lifestyle but do things to offset your carbon footprint.)
The options on the table to lower emissions are reducing consumption or restoring ecosystems, which act like an insurance policy cleaning up the mess people make, he said.
Mora doesn’t see reducing consumption as a realistic solution. The sacrifices are too much for people, even in first-world countries.
In Hawaii, he noted, most people don’t choose not to fly to see family on the neighbor islands or mainland because of their carbon footprint. They don’t quit eating meat or driving their car.
When Mora is not in the classroom, he’s in his lab working on a project to plant enough trees in Hawaii to offset the personal carbon usage of everyone in the Aloha State.
He’s enlisted UH engineers to help build a robot that not only talks well enough to secure grant funding, but also demonstrates how sensors can measure the humidity in the soil of potted plants and release needed amounts of water.
In the field, the only thing plant-tenders would have to do is make sure their buckets are filled with water, maybe a monthly commitment. Mora is also working on a sensor to let people know via email whether the bucket needs to be filled so they don’t have to waste a trip to check on it.
He’s partnering with the state for land, amassing volunteers to plant the trees, but is footing most of the bill himself for now.
He’s been able to cut costs by finding the parts he needs, like a weight sensor, in cheap appliances at Walmart or elsewhere.
Mora has been spending his weekends with elementary students, teaching them how to construct the sensors and then planting trees.
“I feel like a rock star working with those kids,” he said.
While Mora commutes to work from his Ala Moana apartment by bicycle, it’s not because he’s being green. He just doesn’t see the need to hassle with a vehicle — or a cell phone, for that matter.
Plus, he already has his carbon footprint covered via a farm back home in Colombia that’s he’s transformed into an “oasis” with more than 1,000 species of plants.
By his calculation, the farm is sequestering twice the amount of carbon he uses. (He’s also working on a phone app so other people can calculate how much carbon they use and what they need to do to offset it.)
Mora’s family’s farm could have been where he ended up if not for a few breaks along the way.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1999 from the Universidad del Valle, Mora said he knew he needed to go overseas. He was able to scrape together $5,000 with help from his parents, who sold their car, and he made his way to Australia to try to work with a professor at a university there. Bascially an international cold-call.
It was an eye-opener. One bus ride in Australia cost what he’d make working all day in Colombia.
Mora ate spaghetti with tomato sauce for three months. Eventually he strung a hammock under a bridge and lived there.
“I could’ve picked mangos but I’d rather starve,” Mora said.
He kept finding ways to spend time in labs at James Cook University until finally he was given an opportunity to deliver a presentation in Indonesia on some of the work he’d been doing.
His university mentor from Colombia, Professor Fernando Zapata, and a Canadian professor, Peter Sale, were there for the International Coral Reef Symposium
“My English was terrible but the science was good,” Mora said. Still, he felt like he bombed, mostly because he thought it was hard for people to understand him.
But Sale did. And he offered Mora a job in Canada.
“I was pretty impressed,” said Sale, noting that Mora only had an undergraduate degree at that point and was making an oral presentation in his second language.
Mora moved to Ontario, earned his master’s degree and then got his Ph.D. from the University of Windsor in ecological and conservation consequences of dispersal in marine fishes.
Mora was an excellent student and industrious, said Sale, who recently wrote a chapter in a new book about coral reef fish that Mora edited.
“He’s one of the very few students I’ve had to tell to go home and take the weekend off,” Sale said.
It’s a good thing he did. Late to a party after spending too much time in the lab, Mora met his future wife, who was just leaving. They now live in Hawaii with their 7-year-old daughter.
“Very few women can endure people who work like I do,” Mora said, noting that he lost girlfriends in the past for having an “affair with his job.”
“I’m in love with this work,” he said.
Mora said the more he learns about climate change, the scarier it gets, but he doesn’t let it shut him down.
“I’m totally optimistic,” he said. “The solutions are right there. We could potentially plant 1 million trees tomorrow and restore this state by the end of the month.”
Sale said he’s proud of what Mora has accomplished so far.
“I look at the way the world is muddling along and there are times I despair,” Sale said. “A few more people like him around, we can make a difference.”