Harm de Blij endured five dark years as Hitler's storm troopers trashed Rotterdam.
The experience shaped his early lifetime and began the Boca Grande resident's vigilant world watch. A ceaseless globetrotter, he still enthusiastically connects the dots on all continents with a resultant understanding of far-flung events and trends that borders on the prescient.
So when de Blij speaks, people listen.
Harm de Blij (pronounced du BLAY)
His second appearance within three weeks April 3 at the Boca Grande Community Center sold out although the crowd of roughly100 people filled only half the seats. A benefactor bought all the seats for the benefit for Wildlife Center of Venice to listen to de Blij discuss "Wealth, War and Women: The Geography of (Mis)Fortune." Here are excerpts from his talk.
QUESTION: Why do you admire elephants most among all wildlife?
ANSWER: I've learned to admire animals, particularly elephants that have a culture, a language and an altruism that is all too often lacking in humans. They are excellent parents. Their control over their young, the teaching they do and the commitment they have is visible if you spend a little time watching an animal herd. They have a maternal society. All, or almost all, elephants are females and the largest will direct the herd to water or safety. They protect each other in times of crisis. They grieve over their dead. The story of the elephant graveyard is true.
Harm de Blij at a glance
Birth date: 1935
Residence: Boca Grande
Family: Married 36 years to wife, Bonnie with daughter and son.
Occupation: John Hannah professor at Michigan State University
Degrees: Ph.D. Northwestern University, master's degree Northwestern, bachelor's degree University of Witwatersrand with six honorary degrees.
Career highlights: Seven years geography editor on ABC's "Good Morning America. In 1996 he joined NBC News as geography analyst. Writer and commentator for the original PBS Series "The Power of Place."
Author: More than 30 titles
Travel: More than 100 countries
Hobby: amateur violinist, Cubs fan.
Discovered Boca Grande: A Florida resident since 1964, de Blij moved to Boca Grande with his wife 17 years ago. "I bought a village home at the Boca Grande Club," he said. "Bonnie loved it and I usually do what she says."
A: Why not whales, which exhibit many of the same characteristics?
Q: We don't know much about whales. We're just too busy killing them.
Q: What will future generations think of our policies toward wildlife?
A: They will say the people of the 21st century were the last to live in some kind of accommodation with wildlife that has evolved over 2 billion years. They survived the KT extinction catastrophe and the Cretaceous transformation of climate, etc. And here we are.
Q: Are we losing paradise with climate change affecting all wildlife and mankind on Earth?
A: I wish we humans were a little more respectful of the wildlife whose billion-year term we are ending by our relentless (population) explosion and lack of constraint. There is concern but it is numerically far too small to save the catastrophe that is befalling wildlife.
Q: A professor scanned the drawings of 40,000 students after asking them to illustrate their vision of paradise. What does it look like?
A: It looks like Africa. It is obvious that man has been taken out of Africa but Africa cannot be taken out of the genes of man. It gives you the sense that there is more to life than the material things we pursue.
Q: Why is vegetarianism disappearing, which places even more pressure on wildlife?
A: The pressure of globalization and the McDonalds of this world.
Q: Why do you discredit global warming theories every time you speak while still noting mankind's harm to wildlife?
A: There is nothing global about climate change. If the newscasts didn't focus on incidents on college campuses or gossip about the sexual lives of stars - and we had real news - we would remember a terrible cold wave struck Eurasia back in January-February with hundreds of deaths. People frozen in their homes. There was 16 feet of snow and, in some places in Europe, it got down to minus-40 degrees. That's climate change, which has been going on as long as the planet has had an atmosphere.
Q: Why do you believe Boca Grande residents can make a difference for animal life on what you call "Cruise Ship Earth?"
A: There are globals, people like us on Boca Grande, who can spend or borrow the money to go anywhere we want to in the world and do. Then, in the villages of West Africa, there are people who are never likely to leave the environment in which they live: the locals. Then, in between, there are the mobiles, the people who have the drive, energy and means to leave the place in which they live, carrying ideas and knowledge from one part of the world to another. We in the United States are recipients of that flow of information. Just 2.9 percent of people will live somewhere other than where they were born. It's infinitesimal. That's why.
Q: So, only the wealthy can affect this change?
A: Wealth is not only measured in money. It is measured in culture. We are all winners in the ruthless roulette of birth. The geography of where we are is the key.
Q: You weren't initially a winner at the ruthless roulette of birth, were you?
A: I was not quite as lucky as I might have been. I was born in the Netherlands just before the Nazis invaded. I was born in the mid-'30s and I was 5 when the Nazis invaded. My 9/11 came on May 14, 1940, when the Nazis decided to destroy the center of Rotterdam to break the Dutch Army, which was holding the Germans at the border. The experience has never left me, which I why I have the combination of assumptions and beliefs I do.