Carl Safina is a critically acclaimed ecologist and marine conservationist whose latest book is The View from Lazy Point. You can check out Bruce Barcott’s review in our January issue. We caught up with the MacArthur "genius" award winner to chat about Lazy Point and what’s so unnatural about the world that we live in.
How long have you been a scientist, and what drew you to ecology and marine conservation?
By my nature, I was drawn to science and wanted to "be a scientist" when I was 7 or so. I grew up near seawater on Long Island so naturally gravitated to the docks and bays and boats and birds, doing a lot of fishing and crabbing.
All of college and grad school was science training—which I largely paid for by playing drums. Then I worked a decade studying seabirds, a decade advancing improved fisheries policies, and a decade writing books about how the oceans are changing and what the changes mean for wildlife and for people. But now I feel that my work is more about humanity’s relationship with the rest of the living world and the future.
This book functions as both elegy and advocacy. What's the main message you want people to remember from it?
That nature and human dignity require each other. In my travels I slowly came to see this. I’m interested in conserving nature, so it took me a while to see that saving nature from people is also saving it for people. For an extreme example, think of Haiti. Bad government, no freedom, no dignity, and as a result they destroyed their forest and land. And now the resulting poverty is a terrible trap. They have no remaining natural resources from which to draw a future, rebuild, or envision a path out. No dignity, no nature; no nature, no dignity. That dynamic is visible in a lot of places, and it’s at the root of some of the world’s recent strife.
And yet, the world still brims with life. There is so much left, but there is only so much left, and that means the stakes are high. I sense it in the migrations of birds and fishes and whales and others that surround us in the course of a natural year at Lazy Point. Their energy brings me sanity, solace, delight, and hope.
The book’s subhead is: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. What do you think is unnatural about our collective current state of being?
Humans have become a force able to change Earth at rates and scales previously reserved for geological and cosmic forces like meteoroid strikes and volcanic activity. Those forces once caused rapid mass extinctions and changed the atmosphere. We are now creating those same effects. So the question becomes: Why do we allow these trends to build such momentum? Why don’t our institutions detect the dangers and steer us clear? Why doesn’t the market make prohibitively expensive those activities that are liquidating our natural capital and our future prospects? Why don’t our religions loudly denounce as immoral the destruction of creation?
I think it’s because the economy, religions, and philosophies that conceptualized our relationship with the world were devised before anyone knew the world was round, or that it changes, and certainly before anyone ever thought anything humans do could change the world. They reflect how we understood the world when we didn’t understand the world at all. They have no way to incorporate the findings of science because science didn’t exist when these institutions formed—geology and the idea that life evolves, which were the first inklings that the world changes, didn’t exist before the mid-1800s.
Because the institutions that give us our values formed before we understood that the world is finite and can be changed, they simply overlook and ignore the effects we have. Good example: the price of coal. It’s so "cheap," clean renewable energies don’t seem able to compete. But the cost of coal is enormous. The costs of burning coal include blowing the tops off mountains, acid mine-runoff poisoning streams, miners’ health problems, the mercury that gets into our seafood, the acidification of the ocean that is dissolving baby shellfish and disrupting the growth of coral reefs, and the destabilized heat balance of the whole planet. Coal is the most costly fuel in history, but it’s priced "cheap." That is a catastrophic failure of the market, with global implications not just now but for generations of people who aren’t here to defend their interests against our ignorance.
When did you first start noticing the troubling changes you write about in this book?
Well, I knew the phrase "endangered species" when I was in second grade. But notice? When I was about 12, there was a large wooded area I loved to traipse around in with a friend. One day, I rode my bicycle there, and I arrived to see bulldozers pushing down the woods. I will never forget how physically ill that sight made me. In my teens, I could still see enormous stick nests that were built by ospreys that had disappeared 15 years or so earlier because of DDT. Those empty nests made a big impression and filled me with a sense of loss for birds I had never seen. And peregrine falcons were disappearing. Then the striped bass I loved catching started to fall apart.
But the ospreys, falcons, and striped bass recovered because of actions people took. I learned nature is vulnerable, but when we give it a chance, it comes back. Both of those realizations—vulnerability and resilience—drive my life.
Despite your cynicism, you believe in natural resilience. What concrete steps do you think we should take to get back to where we need to be in terms of a natural re-balance?
I’m not sure cynic is quite the right word, because a lot of things matter to me. We have to abandon the fantasy that our economy and population can grow indefinitely on a planet that isn’t growing. The head of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, recently acknowledged that basing everything on growth is "suicide." We can continue to improve education, science, security, but we can’t continue to push more and more material through more and more people. If the goal is to give people more, focusing on growth will give people less because more and more people will have to slice the same non-growing pie. We can’t grow our way out, but we could shrink our way out.
Longer-term, the only way to give people more is for there to be fewer people, and we could provide compassionate incentives for that. For instance, one of the most effective ways to create a desire for fewer children is to teach girls to read and write. Also, we should end subsidies that cause harm. Big oil, big coal, big agriculture, logging, fishing. By subsidizing them we’re taxing ourselves to pay for the world’s destruction. And on a planet powered by clean eternal energy, we should stop burning something every time we want to use a little energy—which we’ve been doing since we lived in caves—and harness some of that eternal energy that powers the planet.
You're a globe-trotting adventurer in your own right. What's the most striking place you've ever been, and what made it so memorable?
And which of my books do I think is best, and which of my children do I love most? One of those answers is easy, since we have one kid. You were clever enough not to ask for my "favorite" place, which I’d have to answer is planet Earth. Most striking place: Laysan Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Three miles across, with ocean to the whole circular horizon, and something like a million sooty terns, 300,000 albatrosses, and hundreds of thousands of other seabirds, of about a dozen and a half species--frigatebirds, tropicbirds, terns, noddies, boobies, petrels, and others. The place roars. It feels timeless and intense. You feel the heat of life turned up to full burn—and the shores have become just loaded with plastic trash, which many of the albatrosses feed to their chicks. I was there when I was writing Eye of the Albatross.
In writing Lazy Point, the place I most thoroughly enjoyed was Southeast Alaska. Filled with fish, thick with whales, crowded with bears and eagles. And the place has been recovering from past overfishing, overhunting, and overlogging—that beautiful resilience again. There are people too, modern people in boats and planes, making a living by fishing, hunting, logging, and just by loving it. Enough to use and enjoy the place. But not enough to wreck the place.
What advice do you have for other travelers?
Every place has a history and a trajectory. Any visit is just a snapshot. The more of its history you understand, the more you sense its direction, the richer the experience can be. That’s one reason I love being home. For me, being home is a very rich trip. But when you travel away, it’s good to keep in mind that there is no such thing as what a place "is like." There’s only what it’s like right now. The more you put into a trip before you go, the more you’ll see and get from being there.
For me, the best way to travel is to sink in a bit, spend more time in fewer places. Don’t try to "hit" places but instead get a little sense of the rhythm of a place, what mornings are like, how the day unfolds. Low-budget travel helps keep you connected. If you have the money to spend, really good eco-travel can be a good way to immerse in nature and see wildlife that can be hard to find on your own. Work-oriented travel is excellent, whether working with people or doing nature- or archaeologically related fieldwork. It’s not a vacation for lounging around, but in a short time that way you can really begin to see and sense a place.
What's your next project?
I’ve completed a book on the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon blowout, which was an intense immersion experience because the publisher wanted it to hit the shelves by the first anniversary of the incident. With that done, I have two TV shows that will appear on PBS this spring as part of a new series we hope to do more of, called Saving the Ocean, with Carl Safina. Instead of gloom-and-doom and focusing on problems, each episode will profile people who have a solution. I do hope to slow the pace this year, walk in the mornings, get out in the kayak more.