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.