July 16th, 2012
“Hope versus the truth.” It’s a battle environmentalists are going to face increasingly in the future. What do you do when “people want hope” but the truth is, there is no hope. Coral reefs may be/probably are/definitely look to be doomed. Do the math for ocean acidification for starters… it’s grim. That’s what Roger Bradbury has done with a powerful and truthful NY Times OpEd, which of course has irked a lot of people who feel, “you have to give us hope.” Really? Even if there isn’t any?
What do you do when the patient shows no further vital signs? Do you cling on to the possibility of the heart restarting itself? Do you hold out hope for the one time in a million when a flat-lined brain springs back to life. Do you resort to mysticism and belief that the dead shall rise again? There are major elements of “facing death” going on right now for the coral reef community, with long time coral reef ecologist Roger Bradbury having the audacity to finally say, “Stick a fork in it.”
YEE WHO SPEAKETH THE TRUTH
My old friend Roger Bradbury (he was a research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences back when I was a postdoc there in the Pleistocene) has written a powerful and blunt OpEd in the NY Times (Andy Revkin has hosted a discussion of it on his Dot Earth blog) which I helped with a bit early on (we had dinner two months ago in Canberra when he was just getting going on it). There are two reasons why it is not just an important essay, but I think is one of the best pieces of environmental writing I’ve ever read (of course, I have little patience for most “environmental writing” that is nature adoration in a world of decline — this piece I love because it blasts out the truth).
It’s powerful first because it says coral reefs are doomed, and second, because it calls into question this dilemma of “hope versus truth.” He hits the second point on the head by stating, “conservationists apparently value hope over truth.” That is so beautifully and concisely said. Boom. There you go. The canary in your cage is dead — quit telling people it will do tricks if they’ll just give you money. It’s like a Monty Python sketch.
I’ve been dealing with this hope vs. truth dilemma for over a decade with my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project, so let me offer up here 5 perspectives that relate to what Roger has said.
1 “THANKS, GLAD TO KNOW GOOD PEOPLE ARE ON THE JOB”
In 2002 I produced a 5 minute Flash slide show titled, “Pristine?” that was the centerpiece of our Shifting Baselines campaign. In an early draft, after going through a lot of grim facts about the worldwide decline in fisheries, the narration then said, “But there is hope,” and told about a marine reserve in the Florida Keys where grouper were now getting larger. In showing the piece to various friends, a clear pattern emerged. Environmentalists (who were so demoralized) absolutely LOVED that last bit and thanked us for “giving them hope.,” but non-environmentalists — my knucklehead friends who knew nothing of the state of the oceans — they mostly had a consistent response of, “You had me all the way up until the grouper thing.” Meaning that all the bad news got them really upset and wanting to somehow get involved with the issue … until we told them that in the Florida Keys we’re already fixing the problem. Their feeling was, “oh, whew, that’s great, you’ve clearly got good people on the job and don’t need my limited time and effort — good luck to you, and please tell those folks in the Keys to keep up the good work!”
It’s very, very tough in today’s world to motivate anybody. These things are not simple or easy. So what do you want with your communications — something that motivates the unmotivated, or something that boosts the morale of the motivated? You can’t always have both. It’s NOT easy. I don’t have the answer, I only know that Bradbury’s essay brings this mess into focus. It’s something that environmental groups should be discussing. If you get too deep into deceiving the public about nature you will eventually lose their trust.
2 HAPPINESS FIREPOWER VS. ZOMBIE TRUTH
Do you have any idea how powerful the existing message in our world that “coral reefs are fine” is? I do. I saw it in 2005 when we thought about doing a Shifting Baselines project in the Florida Keys. At the invitation of a group of folks down there, I spent a week traveling the Keys talking with about 25 central characters in the ocean conservation scene trying to figure out if we could do something meaningful in terms of communication. What I learned was that they have something called the Florida Keys Tourism Development Council. I met with three of the nine Council members. They had (and probably still have) an annual budget of $10 million to blast out the message to the public that, “Our coral reefs are pristine and protected.” Seriously? What a pack of lies. The coral reefs of the Florida Keys are a ravaged mess with only a tiny fraction protected by poorly enforced regulations. I was told by sources they were using stock footage in their commercials of healthy coral reefs from the Bahamas and old photos for their brochures taken 25 years earlier before the reefs had died. Just a gigantic propaganda campaign to sell the reefs of the Keys. Why not? If I were one of them I’d probably do the same. It was (and probably still is) like a giant Match.com experience where the person’s photos look nothing like the person today. Selling the dream, not the reality.
So what are you going to put up against such massive communications firepower — a bunch of wimpy academics saying, “We think that possibly, maybe, sometimes, given the wrong conditions, in some places, there may be a few coral reefs that might be less than pristine”? No. You need a ball buster like Roger Bradbury to just shout it out to the world in the NY Times that coral reefs have become, “zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive.”
Mass communication is a tough game that doesn’t lend itself well to subtlety. The Florida Keys TDC doesn’t bother with nuance. What are you gonna do? It’s called the real world.
3 TECHNOFIXOLOGY (ESCAPE FROM TODAY’S REALITY)
Some of the coral reef folks speaking out against Roger’s OpEd point to the ability of some corals to adapt to warmer waters through heat-tolerant strains of their symbionts. Come on. Do you really want to be in the same boat with legendary climate skeptic Fred Singer? I interviewed him for my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” The guy wrote a very lame book titled, “Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years,” which even one of the other climate skeptics in my movie dismissed off camera as rubbish. In his book he cited the work of my long time friend Mary Alice Coffroth on heat tolerance in coral symbionts, which really irked me. He was basically saying her small scale work showing a tiny bit of heat tolerance of a few species of corals is proof that entire coral communities will have no problem with massively, rapidly warmed oceans. We don’t know this at all, and this just becomes a means of escape from reality that is no better than gambling on as yet unforeseen aspects of technology that may or may not solve our future problems.
4 CONNECT THE DOTS
This is sort of Roger’s main argument — that we still have some reefs, and yes, if somehow the entire planet puts the brakes on the disastrous climate trends over night, that calamity will not befall coral reefs, but what are the odds of that happening? Not likely. All you have to do is connect the dots of today’s situation then extrapolate the curves, not that far, and coral reefs look doomed. End of story. No reason to expect anything different. Just look at the plot for coral reefs in the Caribbean that Jeremy Jackson referred to repeatedly in his excellent plenary talk last week at the International Coral Reef Symposium (where he was given the Darwin Medal — yay!). The curve for live coral cover in the Caribbean from the 1970’s to the present is a straight downhill trend, showing a net decline of between 50% and 75% of the coral. I know this trend too well. I dove the reefs of Jamaica’s north shore in 1978 when they were a coral wonderland. Now the entire region is mostly dead coral rubble covered with “slime” as Jeremy and others describe it. It’s grim and getting grimmer.
I traded emails with a prominent climate blogger about Roger’s OpEd. He complained to me about the “ball-lessness” of the climate community. Same for the coral reef community, which is why Roger wrote such a loud, powerful, and impassioned piece. It’s a sort of cry against the fading of the light and I am 100% there with him on it. I’ve seen the decline in my lifetime. Dammit, people, what does it take to get large scale movement on this???
Ten years ago in Santa Monica we held a fascinating “Round Table Evening” for Shifting Baselines in which we assembled 100 concerned folks with a “round table” of a dozen experts including Jeremy Jackson to talk about the world’s ocean problems. One person gave an impassioned discourse on the need to “emphasize the positive” while avoiding “doom and gloom.” This was our first introduction to this struggle between hope and truth. He finished by very confidently saying, “People protect what they love.”
Yeah? Really? Bullshit. Sorry. I remember my buddy Katy Muzik giving an amazing talk at the 1985 International Coral Reef Symposium — waaaay before coral reef scientists realized their beloved resource had terminal problems. She told about the people of Okinawa, Japan who have all these rituals and ceremonies and parades filled with artwork of all their favorite sea creatures from the coral reef fish to the clams and lobsters and shrimp and … everything else that no longer could be found in their coastal waters because while they loved and respected all these lovely creatures, they had also eaten the holy crap out of them or destroyed them through careless coastal development. Their coral reefs, even in 1985, were shot. Her talk was heart wrenching, and for everyone present with a heart she brought out deep feelings. But for a few robot zombie scientists without hearts she ended up getting tongue lashed for presenting such a “non-scientific” bunch of hogwash. Well, it’s almost 30 years later. She was right, you were wrong, and that’s what Roger’s OpEd is about.
Furthermore, Jacques Cousteau did the ultimate, all time job of getting people to love the oceans. He was wonderful. But if you plotted the health of the oceans versus how much effort he exerted each year getting people to love the resource you could have your spurious correlation to suggest he caused the problems — the more he popularized the oceans, the worse they got, but there’s no relationship, only the proof that people can both love and destroy something at the same time. We all know the whalers loved and respected the whales they slaughtered.
So I’m pissed. That’s the bottom line. I loved coral reefs. EVERYONE who dived on coral reefs in the 1970’s knows what we’re talking about. They have been ravaged. The Emerald City, Pear Tree Bottoms, the Haystacks — these are just a few of the spectacular, legendary coral formations that existed on the north shore of Jamaica in the summer of 1978 that I spent at Discovery Bay Marine Lab. They are all gone, gone, gone. Not a trace remains. Literally, just like the dinosaurs. We saw them, you can’t.
This isn’t a case of “alarmism.” The alarms were already sounded, starting in the late 1980’s (actually starting even earlier with people like Katy). I remember Tom Goreau, Jr. in 1989 being one of the first to connect the dots on coral bleaching by assembling plots showing ocean temperatures and coral bleaching events. He got the same sort of ridicule for things which now are completely accepted. It’s tough watching science progress. It’s not a pretty picture. And now there is an ugly picture for coral reefs, which Roger Bradbury painted like a true realist this past weekend in the New York Times.
The truth hurts. It really does.