Mongabay Video

The ocean crisis: hope in troubled waters, an interview with Carl Safina

/ Rhett A. Butler

Being compared—by more than one reviewer—to Henry Thoreau and Rachel Carson would make any nature writer's day. But add in effusive reviews that compare one to a jazz musician, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Darwin, and you have a sense of the praise heaped on Carl Safina for his newest work, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. Like Safina's other books, The View from Lazy Point focuses on the beauty, poetry, and crisis of the world's oceans and its hundreds-of-thousands of unique inhabitants. Taking the reader on a journey around the world—the Arctic, Antarctic, and the tropics—Safina always returns home to take in the view, and write about the wildlife of his home, i.e. Lazy Point, on Long Island. While Safina's newest book addresses the many ways in which the ocean is being degraded, depleted, and ultimately imperiled as a living ecosystem (such as overfishing and climate change) it also tweezes out stories of hope by focusing on how single animals survive, and in turn how nature survives in an increasingly human world. However, what makes Safina's work different than most nature writing is his ability to move seamlessly from contemporary practical problems to the age-old philosophical underpinnings that got us here. By doing so, he points a way forward.

The view from Lazy Point
The view from Lazy Point. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Being compared—by more than one reviewer—to Henry Thoreau and Rachel Carson would make any nature writer’s day. But add in effusive reviews that compare one to a jazz musician, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Darwin, and you have a sense of the praise heaped on Carl Safina for his newest work, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World.

Like Safina’s other books, The View from Lazy Point focuses on the beauty, poetry, and crisis of the world’s oceans and its hundreds-of-thousands of unique inhabitants. Taking the reader on a journey around the world—the Arctic, Antarctic, and the tropics—Safina always returns home to take in the view, and write about the wildlife of his home, i.e. Lazy Point, on Long Island.

 Carl Safina. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
Carl Safina. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

While Safina’s newest book addresses the many ways in which the ocean is being degraded, depleted, and ultimately imperiled as a living ecosystem (such as overfishing and climate change) it also tweezes out stories of hope by focusing on how single animals survive, and in turn how nature survives in an increasingly human world. However, what makes Safina’s work different than most nature writing is his ability to move seamlessly from contemporary practical problems to the age-old philosophical underpinnings that got us here. By doing so, he points a way forward.

In an interview with, Safina discuses the many perils facing marine life; the recent ocean spill in the Gulf (which his next book will tackle); his views on capitalism, consumption, and religion; and how widening our circle of compassion to include all life could save the world.



Mongabay: Of the many crises facing oceans—overfishing, pollution, acidification—which do you see as the most pressing?

Carl Safina: Depends how you define pressing. Fishing is designed to kill and remove large quantities of ocean wildlife and it’s very good at that. There’s been a lot of overfishing—catching fish faster than they can breed—so we have deep depletions of fish populations nearly everywhere in the world. Fishing is the biggest agent of change in the oceans so far. We all commission it when we eat seafood. A good source of info regarding sustainable seafood is available at or with our free FishPhone iphone app. Pollution is acute in places, and includes toxic chemicals, fertilizers, gender-bending hormones (from birth control pills and estrogen-mimicking chemicals), plastics, mercury from burning coal—many things.) Perhaps worse than those kinds of pollution, one might argue, is the carbon dioxide that results from burning fossil fuels. Its effects include changing the whole planet’s heat balance and acidifying the ocean. Because of it, polar sea-ice systems are melting, sea levels are rising (by melting glaciers and land-based ice sheets), and more-acidic seawater is already dissolving young shellfish in some regions (for instance the West Coast of the U.S., where it is killing oyster larvae in hatcheries) and slowing and thinning the growth of corals. Overfishing could be stopped tomorrow. But we’ve barely begun to end the dominance of fossil fuels. So those problems caused by carbon dioxide seem to me to loom much larger as drivers of major, long-term ocean change that can’t be put back into the bottle very easily. The fact is, these different problems all need improvement and require change.

Mongabay: How do you view the US Gulf oil spill and the government’s reaction?

Carl Safina: I have a whole book on this coming out in April. It will be called A Sea In Flames. The blowout was caused by a lot of human error and awful judgment. It could have easily been avoided. The government and the oil companies were entirely unprepared. A lot of the reaction, such as all the skimming and burning, barely scratched the surface and did almost nothing to help. The main effects—on tourism, on fisheries—have been psychological. Many of the fears, fortunately, turned out to be worse than the effects of the oil in this case. For reasons having to do with depth, distance from shore, the nature of the type of crude oil, and the heat of the Gulf, far more oil seems to have done far less damage in the Gulf than the massive damage the Exxon Valdez did in Alaska with far less oil. So, the damage is not directly proportional to the amount of oil. Yes, birds and turtles died in the Gulf, but it might have been much, much worse in other circumstances. If it happened in cold water, for instance in Alaska, forget it; it would have been an absolute nightmare. But the real thing that truly is destroying Gulf wetlands, and threatening the future productivity of fisheries there, is something that was going on before the blowout and continues still. That’s the 8,000 miles of channels slicing and dicing the Delta wetlands, and the flood control that shoots the Mississippi River’s wetland-forming mud and sediments straight out into the Gulf instead of into the Delta. Swamps and marshes that are nurseries to fish and crabs and habitat for other wildlife are vanishing at the dizzying rate of about 25 square miles per year. Water control and shipping channels have done and are doing much more to destroy Gulf wetlands than the blowout of 2010 ever will.

Mongabay: Much of the news about the ocean is grim. What have been some positive developments?

 Ospreys around Lazy Point. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
Ospreys around Lazy Point. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Carl Safina: Where people have backed off of the pressures that have been killing wildlife—everything from banning DDT to ending overfishing in parts of the U.S.’s coastal waters— wildlife tends to recover. That’s as true for the once-rare falcons and Ospreys that we now see commonly around Lazy Point as for certain fish like Striped Bass that responded to fishing limits by surging back. Another positive thing is that many more people care about these issues now. And in some countries, human population spikes have tapered off or even turned downward as people have gotten better educations and desired smaller families. So it’s easy to both envision success and also to point at good examples around the world. It turns out that if you’re concerned with nature conservation, one of the most important things is teaching girls in developing countries to read and write. That’s part of what I mean when I say that nature and human dignity require each other.


Mongabay: What is the circle of compassion?

Carl Safina: It’s the perimeter that defines where we choose to apply the Golden Rule of “Treat others as you’d like to be treated.” For most people it includes our families and loved ones, our children. But it can extend to other people we know, or to strangers in our town or country, or to all people like ourselves, or to all living people no matter how different, or to people of the next generation, or to people and other living creatures, or the whole living world. The history of human progress has been a widening circle of compassion. Wherever we extend compassion—think of any human rights movement, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, nature conservation—it is always a struggle, but history always proves it was absolutely the right thing to do. It always improves life for all. And it always makes us better. It’s the way we get from being merely human to being civilized to the next step: becoming fully humanized. In our journey through existence, compassion is the compass that shows the right direction to go.

Mongabay: Why should we have compassion for other species?

An aged stranded dolphin. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina
An aged stranded dolphin. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Carl Safina: Simply because it’s bad to spread pain and suffering. That worsens life. Compassion is the most special and wonderful distinguishing characteristic of our species. We are also capable of being monstrous toward each other and to the things that support life. That too is part of human nature. Compassion keeps our coin loaded toward the positive. Every wisdom tradition has recognized that compassion is the thing that is best in us, and the path toward peace. One cannot be compassionate only to people and be cruel or uncaring about causing suffering to other feeling creatures. It just doesn’t work that way, because lack of compassion toward other living things becomes a bad habit that erodes compassion for people too.

Mongabay: Where should such compassion cease?

Carl Safina: It shouldn’t cease. Our task is to increase it. I am not entirely advocating that we never kill or use animals, though I think that is the best route to go. But I kill some fish to eat because it’s how I’ve chosen to be a participant in the natural world around me. It’s not up to me to tell people what they need to do. I am trying to get people to pay attention and see the big picture when deciding who they want to be. I am advocating restraint, improvement, and being mindful to act humanely. I am trying to tangle people up in how I love the world. But it’s not my role or my desire to dictate how others should find the right balance or the right quest in their lives. It’s more important that they find a balance, and a positive quest that both centers and expands their life.

Mongabay: Why in your opinion is conservation a better philosophy than animal rights?

Carl Safina: They’re not exclusive of each other, but animal rights is far too limited. People concerned only with animal rights see that an individual animal can suffer, but because a herd or a whole species might vanish without anyone actively trying to harm them, animal rights advocates tend to be silent and unaware about the trends causing wholesale destruction to forests, to species. They tend not to be very involved in the connections between nature and humanity. Forests and waters aren’t animals, so animal right advocates tend not to be visible in efforts to stop clear-cutting forests and polluting water. More simply put, concern over the suffering of individual animals is not sufficient to tackle and turn around the big problems that threaten the world and the future of people and of life on Earth. I’m not knocking anyone’s desire to treat animals humanely, obviously; we should. But that alone doesn’t get us far enough toward where we need to go.

Mongabay: Is an unnatural world ultimately a bad one?

 'A Few Years Ago the Glacier Was Here'.  Photo taken in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
‘A Few Years Ago, the Glacier Was Here’. Photo taken in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Carl Safina: When I say natural, I mean those things that would happen independent of people. But now, humans are the major agent of change on the surface of our planet. We affect the distribution and abundance of almost every living community in the world, even in places far from most people, like the polar regions and open ocean. We now affect things at rates and scales previously reserved for forces like asteroid strikes and major volcanic activity. In the past, those things caused rapid extinction or atmospheric change. Now, we are causing exactly those kinds of rapid, long-lasting global changes. There are many unnatural things I really love, like art, books, science, medicine, human kindness to the less fortunate, and our ability to grow food. But in many ways we have really overshot what it’s possible to sustain. We’ve gone so far toward protecting ourselves from nature that we’re destroying our long-term options and the prospects for human dignity and peace. It seems obviously wrong to hand the next generations a world damaged and diminished from the one we inherited. By creating future scarcity because we’re doing things like cutting down forests, depleting the seas, using up groundwater, we are condemning the next generations to face more competition and more friction. We have no moral basis for behaving so destructively.

Mongabay: Is it human nature to desire endless consumption?

Carl Safina: I doubt it. For most of history and most of the present, most people have lived very modestly. Research shows that people report being happiest at moderate levels of consumption, and that once basic needs are met, and if people are relatively free from political oppression, getting more stuff doesn’t make people happier. Many religions have preached that it’s wrong to focus on the material and right to focus on getting fulfillment from work, from serving the community, from compassion toward those less fortunate, and from more spiritual pursuits. In this country, only in the last half century or so has growth become a goal, and marketing so taken over our daily environment that we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to be dissatisfied with what we have and to want to look different and have more things. It’s a sickness, and you can see it making people sick. It seems to me that if endlessly expanding consumption was natural, the obesity and diabetes epidemics would not be recent problems, and marketers would not spend so much energy and money advertising to convince us to be dissatisfied with who we are and unhappy with the immensity of what we already have.

Mongabay: Could we ever be satisfied with less stuff and more nature?

Carl Safina: It’s the only way the human heart and mind really can be satisfied. That, and a way to focus our efforts on serving the fabric of our communities. And really, many people are satisfied with less stuff. Research shows people are happiest with moderate amounts of stuff; people with the most material possessions are not the happiest.


Mongabay: You argue that our current institutions remain stymied in a medieval or ancient mind-set. What is your vision of a new philosophy?

 An unhealthy coral reef covered by algae. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
An unhealthy coral reef covered by algae in Belize. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Carl Safina: If we think of what we’ve learned in just the last 150 years, we can see the enormous mis-match between how we do business and how the real world actually works. Our economic system, religions, and main philosophical relationship with the world were established before anyone knew the world was round, or that the world changes at all, and certainly before it ever occurred to anyone that things people do could change the world. They reflect how we knew the world when we really didn’t know the world at all, and it shows. A relatively few very basic changes would bring things up to date, though I realize it’s a tall order. For one thing, the economy must include the true costs of things in the price of things. For instance, coal is very “cheap” because the price does not include the costs or ruining mountains, miners’ health problems, acid mine runoff into streams, global warming caused mainly by burning coal, acidification of the ocean which is killing shellfish and degrading coral reefs that millions of people rely on, and putting mercury in fish. All those things are real costs of coal, but they’re not in the price. Coal is priced cheap, but it’s really the most costly fuel we use. Who pays those costs? We all do. If those costs were included in the price of coal, coal would be very expensive, and better, cleaner energy technologies would be very competitive. That would be a market that worked, because it would recognize and reflect reality. We can’t survive with an economy that privatizes profits and socializes costs, whereby some get rich while sticking many with enormous problems. Enron went out of business because it tried to hide its real costs. We have Earthron. As for other institutions, religions would much more actively focus on the enormous moral implications of changing the world in ways that leave to those yet unborn a world damaged and diminished from the one we inherited. And we’d have a philosophical tradition that was less narrowly focused on how people treat each other and would give considerable thought and voice to how people treat the future and treat our other living companions in this voyage through time. We’d act on the realization of just the last 150 years that the world changes and that we are causing it to change, that all living things are related, that the human community includes the nonhuman community that keeps us here, that the forms of life that have been with us since before we arrived should continue to be our children’s companions, and we’d understand that nature and human dignity require each other. For an extreme example of how destruction of nature leads to misery and lost hope, think of Haiti.

Mongabay: Has capitalism ultimately failed us?

Carl Safina: In a sense, yes, but not because capitalism is fundamentally bad. The economic system has caused enormous harm because we’ve abused the ideas of property and entrepreneurship. In moderation—and with compassion—those things can be quite beneficial. But our system is rewarding runaway greed, and that is proving enormously destructive.

Mongabay: What is your opinion of emerging payments for ecosystem services markets? Does this just exacerbate problems or offer a path for dealing with what economists term ‘externalities’?

 Erosion impacting an Eskimo village in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
Erosion impacting an Eskimo village in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Carl Safina: What economist call ‘externalities’ are utterly intrinsic. It illustrates both how clueless most economists are about the way the world works, and the energy economists will expend to create an artificial way to dump costs into the public commons of space and of time. It’s just reckless and irresponsible, and it’s a huge part of why the economic system is working against us. So, yes, I tend to think that payments for pollution and environmental and social damages helps force the market to price things more realistically, by including, rather than ignoring, more of the true costs involved in various business decisions, government policies such as subsidies, and commerce.

Mongabay: What kind of economic system would provide people with what they require but preserve natural resources for future generations?

Carl Safina: Most basically, we can’t have an economic system committed to growing forever on a planet that isn’t growing. Constant growth means putting more and more material through the system. It can’t work. If we focused on development rather than growth, meaning making things better rather than bigger, it could work. But the population cannot grow endlessly, nor can the economy, because the planet is limited and non-growing. If we took away incentives and subsidies for destructive things, we’d get pretty far toward what’s needed. And we certainly need to get private money out of elections by enacting fundamental campaign finance reforms. The corrupting influences of money in politics have largely stolen our government and trashed the idea of government of, by, and for the people. Despite what the Supreme Court decided recently, corporations are not people. People have belly-buttons. Corporate “free speech” utterly swamps our national discussion and our elections because corporate money advances self-serving views that simply drown out the real voices and true interests of the majority of people. Economic policies should abandon the suicidal obsession with growth and focus on the stabilization and the moderation that makes people most happy and gives us the best long-term chances for improving life, securing peace, and surviving. Then, we could be OK.

Mongabay: Do you see world religions as having a role in bringing about an ethical mindset toward the environment, both local and global?

Carl Safina: Yes of course, because many religions, to their credit and very importantly, don’t elevate the valuation of profits above people, and because, to their discredit, their focus on a spiritual realm and afterlife has allowed them to largely ignore and even disparage their relationship to this earthly creation. They could as well reemphasize those passages in scripture that speak of our role as stewards of creation, and of concern for future generations, and they could fuse that call to stewardship with the science that shows how fast we are changing and running down this world in which we miraculously find ourselves. I do see some major movement along these lines within religious movements, and that is very encouraging.

Mongabay: What gives you hope?

Carl Safina: The energies of the migrating birds and fishes and other creatures that come and go around Lazy Point and that I witness in my travels are deeply inspiring. They give me delight, solace, and hope. These creatures strive with all their might to survive and continue the chain of being that has brought us all here out of the deep past. They never ask whether they should be optimistic. The mere fact of them is their optimism. They are so instructive. Despite the gloom and the dangerous trends, the world still brims with living vitality. There is so much left. But there is only so much left. We are all here together, and that is all the hope I need to get started and keep going.

Mongabay: Given the scale and complexity of these problems, what can a single individual do?

Carl Safina: First, we can all always try to be a little better in our personal lives. That’s a project we can work on. Then, drop out of the consumer culture; we don’t lose anything by ignoring ads, and we hang onto our money, our dignity, and our sense of calm. Whoever knows they have enough, is rich. We win. Third, engage in the political process. Write letters to elected officials. Demand an end to subsidies that so destructively go to Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Agriculture. Demand clean energy. Demand better schools and higher standards for teaching and education. Honor knowledge and science, and fuse facts with values. Then, we can say the best thing anyone can claim: “I tried my best.” And always, enjoy, savor, and be filled with the mystery and wonder of life.

Blue Ocean Institute

Carl Safina’s books

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