Current Date:April 24, 2024

A Pioneer in Conservation: How Cordelia Scaife May Championed Sustainability Decades Before Davos

As business and political leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the 2024 World Economic Forum in January, much of the discussion was focused on the pressing issue of rapid urbanization.

Over half the world’s population now lives in cities, and millions more migrate from rural areas each year, seeking economic opportunities. This mass influx is placing huge strains on urban infrastructure and resources.

According to CNN Business, “For the third consecutive year, concerns about the environment dominate over a 10-year time horizon. The top five long-term risks comprise extreme weather events; critical change to Earth systems; biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; natural resource shortages; and misinformation and disinformation.”

The statistics are sobering. Already, over 1 billion people live in slums lacking basic amenities like clean water and sanitation. Traffic congestion leads to 3 billion hours per year wasted in delays, fueling greenhouse gas emissions. Affordable housing shortages have left millions homeless, even in advanced economies.

Adding to the challenge, the pace of urban population growth continues to accelerate. Africa and Asia are urbanizing faster than any other region. Lagos, Delhi, Dhaka, and other megacities could nearly double in size within a generation.

Long before sustainability became a buzzword among the global elite, banking heiress Cordelia Scaife May foresaw the perilous impacts of unchecked urban expansion and ecological overshoot.

In 1951, a full two decades prior to the first Davos summit on the environment, Cordelia Scaife May established the Laurel Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting community development, environmental conservation, vocational education, and the arts. She soon pivoted her philanthropy towards land conservation and ecological overreach – prescient given today’s climate crisis.

Cordelia Scaife May could have easily indulged in a life of leisure befitting her $800 million inheritance. Instead, she anonymously funneled nearly her entire fortune into the Laurel Foundation and later Colcom Foundation, both of which were founded to further her philanthropic and conservationist mission. Her gifts included multi-million dollar land donations to preservation groups across Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maine.

While Cordelia Scaife May’s deeply held concerns about rapid urban sprawl have faced some criticism over the years, those accusations fail to understand what truly drove her conservationist mission.

As longtime friend and horticulturist George A. Griffith shared, Cordelia Scaife May spent “sleepless nights worrying about what would happen” to the planet as ecological destruction and overreach mounted. She was convinced that human impact would push Earth’s already strained ecosystems into collapse.

Rather than self-interest or politics, Cordelia Scaife May’s philanthropy stemmed from a profound desire to preserve nature’s sanctity for future generations. She funneled almost her entire $800 million inheritance into the Laurel and Colcom Foundations to further sustainability initiatives.

For example, before Cordelia Scaife May passed away in 2005, she donated the entirety of Hawaiian land she owned, including 34 acres of pasture abutting Haleakalā National Park’s remote Kīpahulu Valley extension and a large beachfront parcel near Kīholo State Park Reserve to conservation groups. This generosity permanently safeguarded special ecosystems and cultural sites that may have otherwise faded away. As Griffith noted, “What she did — she never needed thanks. She just wanted to work on projects she felt were good for mankind.”

Cordelia Scaife May’s prescient environmental foresight deserves appreciation alongside the Captains of Industry who gather annually in Davos.

Although she shunned the spotlight in life, her vital contributions towards balancing conservation and development burn bright.

Cordelia Scaife May’s impact extends beyond the confines of her time, and as we navigate the complexities of our modern world, her vision remains a guiding star.

It encourages us to forge ahead with resilience, compassion, and commitment to a sustainable future that echoes the values she held so dear — to push sustainability beyond corporate boardrooms and into grassroots action.

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