George Wittemyer is an Associate Professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University and the chair of the scientific board of Save the Elephants. He specializes in developing solutions to biodiversity conservation issues, including decreasing human impacts on at-risk wildlife. He aims to increase climate change awareness and create a new energy economy.

Want to hear George Wittemyer speak? Register for the TEDxMileHigh’s virtual event: Rise

As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up?

I always wanted to work on wildlife conservation in the great north of Alaska. Wildlife and wilderness survival novels by authors such as Jack London deeply inspired me. I hoped I could contribute to protecting and maintaining these areas. I ended up living my dream, but in a much warmer climate (in shorts not snow gear).

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

Participation in a study abroad program in Tanzania during my third year of University was a turning point. Upon landing in Africa for the first time, I was immediately and deeply touched by the people, cultural richness, vast wilderness areas, and magnificent wildlife. The raw, uninhibited juxtaposition of life and death that is so much a part of Africa strongly resonated with me. I found my experience to be deeply inspiring, and that sense of purpose drove me to work on conservation challenges in Africa.

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. David Daballen. I have worked closely with David for the past 20 years, beginning as interns together in Kenya. He has taught me more than any individual and helped me see new paths to being effective in my work and interacting with people
  2. Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Iain is the original global elephant expert and a visionary on wildlife conservation. He understands policy and the art of political maneuvering
  3. Renee Wittemyer (my wife). Renee has been a driving force on resolving emerging social problems like adolescent mental health challenges. She is innovative, gracious, and makes everything fun. Her perspective and outlook inspires me daily

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

Hans Rosling’s TED talk on global population growth. People endowed with the gift of explanation are so important!

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By?

To those who much has been given, much is expected. I have been lucky that in life I have been able to focus on work that gives me a deep sense of purpose. 

I believe it is our duty to make our homes, neighborhoods, watersheds, and communities better than how we found them. 

To help accomplish this, I try to do one good deed a day. Even such a small, manageable effort, when scaled across all of humanity, can make the world a better place.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

Maintaining optimism and motivation in the face of daunting forces is certainly a challenge I face in my work, even if I tend to feel pretty optimistic. I try to focus on the tractable challenges I am in the position to help mitigate, but it is critical to look at the big picture which can be overwhelming. 

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

What makes us happy. I worry that much of our behaviors are driven by the ephemeral pleasure of consumption and by FOMO—Fear of Missing Out—rather than focusing on the pleasures we have at hand. 

The importance of economic prowess often outweighs our interest in happiness. 

Fascinating work on where these two objectives separate can provide us with important insight as to where our efforts can be most effective.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

Identify a mechanism to get broad public interest in global biodiversity conservation and climate change. These are among the most important challenges of our time, yet they do not register in the public’s consciousness. They will exacerbate social unrest, inequality, and suffering in general. COVID-19 is but one manifestation of the problems these challenges will instigate. 

However, it is exceedingly difficult to get people to focus on challenges whose impacts will play out over longer time periods. Can we figure out a way to move beyond our short-term individual interests?

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea? 

We need to force our politicians to enact policies to protect the climate and the environment. We need visionary leadership to drive innovations that allow for economic growth using sustainable energy. 

Colorado is a perfect state for such leadership to emerge because most of us who live here love to enjoy the great outdoors. Tourism, recreation, and the energy industry are fundamental components of the state’s economy. This nexus allows people from different perspectives to interact and constructively find new paths forward. A new energy economy is at hand—and we need to be global leaders in it. I would ask the community to vote for individuals that can lead in this space.