A diver helps restore damaged reefs.© TRAF
I think it’s really helped. I didn’t start out to work with disasters. A lot of my work in ecology has been on how change affects systems. First-hand experien
ce has had a huge impact on my understanding of how ecosystems are shaped by natural disasters and how in turn the ecosystems effect our lives. Having witnessed many of these disasters and seeing how we respond as a species has taught me much about what you can and cannot do to help. There are some communities who will be in shock for longer, and there is not much you can do at that stage. Other communities really need to get back on their feet, and you can help them develop a stronger relationship with their environment and rebuild and reshape their lives in different ways, maybe ways that are more sustainable.
It’s pretty clear now that reefs protect coasts, as do mangroves and sand dunes—just look at what happened on the U.S. Gulf Coast, for example. Do you think people are getting the message about the importance of wise coastal development?
I don’t think everybody is getting the message, I really don"t, and that is distressing to say the least. People especially aren’t getting the message in the developing world, where they are most vulnerable. Many people on the ground are responding in ways that are not sustainable because they’ve got no choice.
I have been to the Gulf Coast since Katrina, where a lot of the issues are the same as I saw in Southeast Asia. The devastation isn’t as huge, but it’s very serious in some areas and people are responding in the same ways. I think it’s clear that some of our activities, such as putting channels through the mangroves, made the disaster worse because we created funnels for the storm surge.
Do you think that knowledge is going to translate into better coastal management down on the Gulf?
I think that unless we make a very strong, concerted effort to do things differently, that what will happen is exactly what happened before. We may do some little cosmetic things, but what we need to do is take a very different approach. We need to get our scientists, economists and the communities together and recognize that we do need to protect the environment. But people are also going to live there, and fish there, and that instead of taking a piecemeal approach we really need to hammer out how are we going to sustain our environment for the long term.
What needs to be done sounds like the work you are doing with the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, which tries to plug scientists into public decision making. Do you agree with the scientists who complain that their profession has become more politicized than in past years, and is that a problem?
There has always been some politicization of science, but I do think it has gotten worse in the last few years. I’ve seen people look at science not as something that will give you information that you can use, but rather as something that is either for you or against you. Different groups are looking at scientific data and saying, "Well, it supports our viewpoints, so we must be right.”
You’ve talked a lot about the need to reconnect communities with science. How do we do that?
That’s what I hope to get to, and the way to do it is to make science relative to people’s lives. We’ve made science into something that often people don’t understand. Science is a process, and it provides us with great information we can use to cure diseases or protect ourselves against hurricanes. What science cannot do is to tell you that a politician is right. People also tend to think of science as this awful physics class they had to take. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to use scientific information, because everyone is connected to science and the environment. Science can be a community process. For example, we’re working to get recreational divers involved with reef restoration.
Given the impending realities of global warming and associated sea level rise, a lot of scientists have predicted doom for many of the world’s surviving coral reefs. Then again, critics counter that so much of climate science seems uncertain. How do you explain such complexities to the average person?
What I say is don’t be confused by the fact that data are still coming in. Don’t throw it out and say, "This scientist says that but another says this." The main message is the one that you want to listen to, and that is our environment is really suffering and changing, at a very fast rate. Whether that means two inches or four at this point is irrelevant, because the message is that it is changing, and the consequences for us and our kids are going to be enormous. Once you grasp that, then it is a matter of what you do with it. You have to look at yourself, see what skills you have, and get involved.
How hopeful are you that we will still have reefs in 200 years?
I am worried about what is happening to reefs because I have seen many of the changes, yet I’ve also seen what a difference people can make when they decide that they are going to take care of their environment. I helped set up a marine reserve 10 years ago in the Caribbean, at St. Bart"s. At first, there were hardly any fish there. Ten years later many fish have come back. People who hated the reserve in the beginning are now proud to have it.
Also, protecting reefs, or any ecosystem, is like saving money for a rainy day. If we have a sufficiently large amount of ecosystems protected in reserves, species will be able to adjust to the inevitable changes that are heading our way. Reefs may be destroyed by a natural disaster or ships running aground, but if there are enough in reserves we’ve got enough to nurture the next generation of coral.
What is it like to dive on some of these diverse reefs?
The first thing that hits you is the incredible colors. Then you are struck by an amazing diversity of fish, both in terms of shape and color. They are floating around, doing their stuff like you’ve landed in a really cool party and everybody is having fun. You don’t always know what is going on, and it’s exciting, different and beautiful. There are beautiful, huge corals, like tall statues in a sculpture garden, and everything sways back and forth with the currents. It’s a total assault on your senses with movement, beauty and color.
On a destroyed reef, there is too much sediment, making the only color gray. The entire reef might be turned upside down, or smashed to bits. There are far fewer fish and much less life.
Brian C. Howard is an avid snorkeler and is Managing Editor of E.
Erin Coughlin provided editorial assistance.
Tsunami Reef Action Fund, (503)869-5769, www.tsunamireefactionfund.org.
Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, www.sei.org.