February 07, 2011
The view from Lazy Point. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
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.
In an interview with mongabay.com, 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.
AN INTERVIEW WITH CARL SAFINA
Mongabay: Of the many crises facing oceans—overfishing, pollution, acidification—which do you see as the most pressing?
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.
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.
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.
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 in Belize. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.
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.
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?
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
World failing on every environmental issue: an op-ed for Earth Day
(04/22/2010) The biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, the deforestation crisis: we are living in an age when environmental issues have moved from regional problems to global ones. A generation or two before ours and one might speak of saving the beauty of Northern California; conserving a single species—say the white rhino—from extinction; or preserving an ecological region like the Amazon. That was a different age. Today we speak of preserving world biodiversity, of saving the 'lungs of the planet', of mitigating global climate change. No longer are humans over-reaching in just one region, but we are overreaching the whole planet, stretching ecological systems to a breaking point. While we are aware of the issues that threaten the well-being of life on this planet, including our own, how are we progressing on solutions?
In the midst of marine collapse will we save our last ocean?
(07/05/2010) Imagine an ocean untouched by oil spills: a sea free of pollution, invasive species, dead zones, and over-exploitation; waters where marine animals exist in natural abundance and play ecological roles undimmed by mankind. Such a place may sound impossible in today's largely depleted oceans, but it exists: only discovered in 1841, the Ross Sea spreads over nearly a million kilometers adjacent to the Antarctic continent. Here killer whales, penguins, sea birds, whales, and giant fish all thrive. However, even with its status as the world's 'last ocean', the Ross Sea has not escaped human impact. Over the last 15 years commercial fisheries have begun to catch one of its most important species in the ecosystem to serve them up on the dinner plates of the wealthy.
The long-ignored ocean emergency and what can be done to address it
(08/18/2008) This year has been full of bad news regarding marine ecosystems: one-third of coral species threatened with extinction, dead-zones spread to 415 sites, half of U.S. reefs in fair or bad condition, increase in ocean acidification, tuna and shark populations collapsing, and only four percent of ocean considered pristine. Jeremy Jackson, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of California, San Diego, synthesizes such reports and others into a new paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the Naional Academy of Sciences, that boldly lays out the scope of the oceanic emergency and what urgently needs to be done.
As a tiny island nation makes a big sacrifice, will the rest of the world follow suit?
(09/15/2010) Kiribati, a small nation consisting of 33 Pacific island atolls, is forecast to be among the first countries swamped by rising sea levels. Nevertheless, the country recently made an astounding commitment: it closed over 150,000 square miles of its territory to fishing, an activity that accounts for nearly half the government's tax revenue. What moved the tiny country to take this monumental action? President Anote Tong, says Kiribati is sending a message to the world: 'We need to make sacrifices to provide a future for our children and grandchildren.'
Visiting the Gulf: how wildlife and people are faring in America's worst environmental disaster, an interview with Jennifer Jacquet
(07/29/2010) "President Obama called it 'the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.' So I thought I should face it and head to the Gulf"—these are the opening words on the popular blog Guilty Planet as the author, marine biologist Jennifer Jacquet, embarked on a ten day trip to Louisiana. As a scientist, Jacquet was, of course, interested in the impact of the some four million barrels of oil on the Gulf's already depleted ecosystem, however she was as equally keen to see how Louisianans were coping with the fossil fuel-disaster that devastated their most vital natural resource just four years after Hurricane Katrina.
Record high fish consumption keeps populations imperiled
(02/01/2011) More people than ever are eating more fish than ever, according to a new report by the United Nations covering the year 2008. At the same time, fish populations in the world's oceans continue to decline threatening marine ecosystems, food security, and the fishing industry itself.
Photos: Scientists race to protect world's most endangered corals
(01/11/2011) As corals around the world disappear at alarming rates, scientists are racing to protect the ones they can. At a workshop led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the world's foremost coral experts met in response to a decade of unprecedented reef destruction to identify and develop conservation plans for the ten most critically endangered coral species.
Mediterranean Sea may be polluted with 250 billion microplastics
(01/05/2011) The 2010 scientific expedition undertaken by the European program called Mediterranean En-Dangered (MED) reveals that 250 billion microplastics could be found in the Mediterranean Sea. The main goal of the program, which will end in 2013, is to quantify the distribution of plastic pollution and better understand its dynamics in the Mediterranean Sea. Microplastics are usually defined as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters, so for most part they are invisible to human eyes.
UN report urges fishing subsidy reform
(12/28/2010) The continuation of government fishing subsidies is damaging to the world's oceans and should be halted, states the United Nations Environment Programme in a new publication that calls for subsidy reform. The report, Fisheries Subsidies, Sustainable Development and the WTO, finds that in many cases the subsidies encourage fishing in areas whose ecosystems are already overtaxed.
World has run out of fishing grounds
(12/06/2010) The world's oceans can no longer accommodate fisheries expansion, confirms a study conducted by joint effort between the University of British Columbia and the National Geographic Society. The study is the first of its kind to analyze the geographic expansion of global fisheries. Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the study lends additional credence to reports that current fishing practices are unsustainable. Researchers holistically determined the ecological footprint of commercial fisheries by looking at primary production—the tiny organisms that make up the bottom of the food chain—and calculating the amount necessary to support current fishing yields around the world from 1950 to 2005. The study finds that the amount of primary production required to maintain commercial fishing at current levels far exceeds that which exists.
Beyond gloom: solutions to the global coral reef decline
(11/10/2010) The world's coral reefs are in trouble. Due to a variety of factors—including ocean acidification, warming temperatures from climate change, overfishing, and pollution—coral cover has decline by approximately 125,000 square kilometers in the past 50 or so years. This has caused some marine biologists, like Charlie Veron, Former Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, to predict that coral reefs will be largely extinguished within a century. This year alone, large-scale coral bleaching events, whereby coral lose their symbiotic protozoa and become prone to disease and mortality, were seen off the coasts of Indonesia, the Philippines, and some Caribbean islands. However a new paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution attempts to dispel the gloom over coral reefs by pointing to strategies, and even some successes, to save them.
Who's to blame for the oil spill?
(05/04/2010) America, we deserve the oil spill now threatening the beautiful coast of Louisiana. This disaster is not natural, like the earthquake that devastated Haiti or tsunami that swept Southeast Asia in 2006; this disaster is man-made, American-made in fact, pure and simple. So, while in the upcoming weeks and months—if things go poorly—we may decry the oil-drenched wildlife, the economic loss for the region, the spoiled beeches, the wrecked ecosystems, the massive disaster that could take decades if not longer to recover from, we, as Americans, cannot think smugly that we are somehow innocent of what has happened. You play with fire: you will get burned. You drill for oil 1,500 meters below the surface of the ocean, you open up oil holes across the surface of your supposedly-beloved landscape, sooner or later there will be a spill, and sometimes that spill will be catastrophic.