Audrey Buyrn and Alan Phillips — backpackers who have cherished the Earth’s beauty for 40 years — often hike at Yosemite National Park and over time have become alarmed.
In the past 20 years, they say, they’ve watched the glaciers shrink. They’ve observed the climate change. For example, they noticed in the Sierras, that it is no longer cold enough at night to kill off the bark beetles, which are destroying large swathes of pine trees.
Phillips says that despite all the talk about the environmental movement, “the situation is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”
Audrey agrees, adding that they were hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado a few years ago when a blizzard trapped them in a tent for two days.
“I was sitting there reading, The Making of the Fittest,” Buyrn says, and she spotted a line that said the war on nature has increased over the past 50 years, “but few powerful allies have come to her aid.” “When I read that, something just clicked. I turned to Alan and said, ‘We may not be powerful, but we can do something.’”
Now, Buyrn and Phillips have made a major gift to MIT to establish The Ally of Nature Fund, which will support exploratory projects to prevent, repair, and ameliorate people’s destructiveness of the natural environment. The first grant goes to Prof. Ron Prinn, a long time expert in the field of climate change.
“We are a very destructive species, and a species without much foresight,” Buyrn says. “We didn’t evolve to think longterm.”
The couple invites partners to help protect and preserve the Earth. They will match others’ contributions to the fund dollar for dollar up to $500,000. In addition, the couple has given MIT a second major gift, a charitable remainder unitrust, which also will support The Ally of Nature Fund.
“My dream is that the fund will expand enough so that it can do some really significant work,” Buyrn says. “I hope that something amazing will be developed or discovered, or an insight will be achieved, that will make a real environmental difference.”
As children, Buyrn and Phillips both loved the outdoors. She planted a perennial garden in her backyard in Hartford at age 6. He helped his father, an MIT math professor, care for a plot of land in Lincoln, Ma., where the family grew most of their fruits and vegetables.
The pair met at MIT as grad students. She earned three degrees in physics in 1958, 1963, and 1966. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a Ph.D. in 1961, also in physics. For a time, Phillips taught at Princeton and Buyrn taught at a Trenton, N.J. college. Soon, they made a move that would forever change their lives.
In 1969, both landed jobs at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Ca., where they lived for two years. They began hiking and backpacking in the Sierras every weekend.
“The greatest thing about hiking in the Sierra Nevada is the complete isolation,” Buyrn says. “You get up into the high country and the number of people drop off. Then you leave the road, and more people drop off. When you leave the trails, you can go literally for a week or two without ever seeing anybody. There is a profound silence broken only by wind, streams, and birds; complete beauty: the world as it was when it was young.
“There are places in the Sierras with vast expanses of polished granite that are just mesmerizing. There are waterfalls, beautiful rushing streams, and a gorgeous infinite sky. Alone in nature is where I feel most at home.”
By the end of their two years in California, she says: “We were sorry that we had to leave.” They moved back East and eventually settled in Great Falls, Va., where for the next 20 years Buyrn worked at the Office of Technology Assessment, and Phillips worked for 35 years at Science Applications International Corporation. The couple still travels West a few times a year to those beloved mountains.
“People talk about reducing carbon emissions,” Phillips says, “but that won’t reverse the warming trend. It’ll just make the Earth warm less fast. And the fisheries of the world are already failing because we’re fishing them out…The real question is which species will go extinct, and which will not. And saving species is the easy part of saving ecosystems.”
Although Phillips says “their gift and others like it” are not a quick fix to save the planet, they are, nonetheless, important steps.
“If you look 50 years into the future, there’s going to be a lot more people who are using a lot more resources,” he says. “That argues that the problems will just get bigger.
“This gift is an investment in the world –– a way to buy time. With only current technology, it’s going to get harder and harder –– impossible –– to reverse the adverse effects on the environment. But we’re technological optimists, and we’re betting that this fund, and others like it, will change the ways we do things. What other choice do we have?”