Some environmentalists are big on waging “winnable battles” and cheering about their “victories.” But the Streetlight Effect is the eventual cost. And the news from Hong Kong shows you the real price of today’s failed ocean conservation movement.

THE CITY WHERE SEA CREATURES GO TO DRY OUT. Very sad. Very true. The world’s oceans continue to be drained of wildlife with no end in sight.



I’ve held off writing this essay for a while, but after running it by a couple friends this past weekend, it’s time.

It starts with The Streetlight Effect, which David H. Freedman (who is a long time member of my Top 5 Journalists List) has written about in Discover. The basic idea is that a drunk is searching for his car keys in the grass beneath a streetlight. A man offers to help and asks him if this is where he lost the keys. The drunk says, “No, I lost them over there, but there’s no lights over there, so I’m searching here.”

Such is the story of “winnable battles” waged by environmental groups. They trumpet their victories and give the public the feeling of, “yay, we’re winning.” But they really have no interest in the honest big picture. Which for the oceans is grim and grimmer.

A couple weeks ago I spoke with a buddy who told me he had just returned from, “the city where sea creatures go to be dried out.” He was referring to Hong Kong and said there’s a part of it, “about the size of downtown Oakland,” where for block after block you see virtually every creature imaginable from the sea — from thresher sharks to damselfish — dead and being dried out for consumption. Gordon Ramsey gave a glimpse of it in his excellent piece on the shark finning trade.

In the meanwhile, conservation groups are busy convincing their donors that the real struggle to save the oceans can be found in singular places like a lagoon or a cove with one group of sea creatures. Which I guess is effective communication, but not effective global conservation. And ends up being basically searching under the street light because the lighting is good, not because it’s where the problems will be solved.

It’s all very distressing. Not only have the world’s oceans been stripped of so much wildlife, the stripping continues, largely unabated. The shark finning issue, at something like 100 million sharks a year, is enormous. And the public really has little clue because of these “winnable battles” communication strategies.


I would like a singularity of voice by the ocean conservation movement. As a communicator, that is what you wish for. Not dozens of groups competing against each other with their various brands. Just one, singular, simple, powerful voice, created by all the major NGOS’s, coming together to convey the upsetting truth, that the world’s oceans have lost X percentage of it’s total wildlife biomass, and if things don’t change, by 2030 it will be down to Y.

And then I’d like for EVERY group to get behind that singular message, dedicating themselves to stopping the trend in all their various ways. Instead of waging all their, “Yay, we’re winning, give us more money” campaigns.

This is what Roger Bradbury was talking about last year in his somewhat nihilistic NY Times editorial on the plight of coral reefs when he said, “conservationists apparently value hope over truth.”

Truly it is the sad truth.

Is there any better journalist in America today? The guy has won two Pulitzer Prizes. He was on Bill Maher last Friday. He’s proof that you can be motivated, honest and optimistic all at the same time.

I keep promoting his 2009 Outside Magazine article. It really is the very best thing ever written on how to communicate about issues broadly. It’s the best because it’s so concise and short yet packed with gems of wisdom gained by his first person experiences in Africa. Everyone needs to read the article. At least twice.



Let’s start with honest. He showed it repeatedly on Bill Maher last Friday night. So many people think the world is falling to pieces. It’s such a deeply held belief, particularly among environmentalists. Almost to the point that if you don’t think the world is falling apart, then you must be an anti-environmentalist. The result of having that belief is that if the world really is in collapse, it then means you have to be pessimistic about the fate of humanity, which then leads to being disillusioned and thus unmotivated. All of which he disagrees with.

The panel was agonizing over the Boston bombing and then talking about the sad state of, “the world today.” But he disagreed.

First, he pointed out that the entire nation went bonkers over an incident that killed three people while last week laws addressing guns that kill 30,000 people annually got minimal attention and failed to pass. But then he pointed out the bigger point — which is that violence worldwide and terrorist events are actually on the decline. Which is the point Steven Pinker tried to make in his major tome, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” But saying the world is NOT going to end doesn’t make for a good story. It just doesn’t.

It’s the same old problem the science world is suffering — selection for false positives (everybody loves a good story), and lack of interest in null results (nobody wants to know what doesn’t cause a disease). This is why an understanding of narrative dynamics is so important. Our world isn’t about the truth, it’s about storytelling.

And then they got on to the plight of women, which he has written about perhaps better than anyone else lately with his bestselling book, “Half the Sky,” and popular video game to go with it. The panel wanted to be depressed about the grim fate of women, but he refused. He said he’s optimistic. He said, “If you look at the progress on education, even on attitudes toward domestic violence, I think this is a battle we are winning.”

It’s not surprising he talks this way. Read his Outside Magazine article. He talks about how maintaining hope is so crucial. So his optimism is really the embodiment of what he says in that article. He’s amazing. He’s visited the bleakest of scenes of human suffering, yet has the brightest and most positive outlook on life. Everyone needs to share his perspective — working endlessly to solve the worst problems, but remaining optimistic throughout.

On April 19 I’m giving the opening talk in a special session on “The Great Challenges” at the TEDMED Conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be introducing the, “And, But, Therefore” template which will then be used at the end of the day to summarize each of the 20 discussions.

On the afternoon of the last day of TEDMED there will be a special session called The Great Challenges. It will begin with me giving a 10 minute talk about some general principles of storytelling, followed by two great storytellers — Ben Lillie and Erin Barker of the Story Collider Project. Then the participants will break into 20 discussion groups, reassembling at the end of the afternoon, when each group will be asked to give a one sentence summary of what they discussed. To structure their sentences they will use the “And, But, Therefore” template I have lifted and modified from Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, and will present in my talk. It’s going to be a rather novel experience — as far as I know, no one has ever used it as a device for summarizing discussions like this. Which is cool.



Assuming my flight out of Homer, Alaska on April 16 doesn’t get blizzarded out, I’ll be flying overnight from Anchorage in time to give the opening talk of the Great Challenges Storytelling Session on the last day of TEDMED in Washington, D.C. My talk is titled, “The And, But and Therefore of Storytelling,” and will be just ten minutes. But the cool thing is I’ll be introducing the “And, But, Therefore” template, then at the end of the day all 20 of the Great Challenges discussion sessions for the afternoon will regroup and report what they talked about, using the ABT template to summarize their discussions in just one sentence each.

Have a look at their website, and especially the 20 Great Challenges topics. I’ll probably attend the discussion on dementia since my father, who died last fall at nearly 95 years old, suffered from it in his final years. My workshop co-instructor, Dorie Barton, will also be attending TEDMED and the discussions. It’s going to be fascinating. And continues my journey into the world of public health which began in 2010 with my first visit to the CDC. It’s been the greatest unexpected joy of my book. It’s so refreshing to find a profession that not only understands what I have to say, they actually support it. Yay.