Letting Go of the Big Bass

A Conversation with Carl Safina and Andrew Revkin

By Tom Andersen

The Garrison Institute’s recent symposium, Pathways to Planetary Health, brought together almost five dozen experts from around the world to discuss the climate change and biodiversity crisis. We explored the intersection of four emerging ideas–Half Earth, an Ecological Civilization, Regenerative Economics, and Pervasive Altruism–their convergence, and indications of the pathways towards planetary health. To keep the conversation going, we recently spoke with two of the symposium’s speakers, Professor Carl Safina, PhD and journalist Andrew C. Revkin.

Carl is a MacArthur “Genius” grant winner, author of seven books, and the first Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, where he is founding president of the not-for-profit Safina Center. Andrew is a former science and environmental reporter and blogger for The New York Times. He was the Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University, and now serves as strategic advisor for environmental and science journalism for the National Geographic Society.

Tom Andersen: When in your careers did you make the transition to trying to persuade people through your work and through your writing? To try to make a difference for the natural world and for the environment, rather than just recording your observations or the thoughts of other people.

Andrew Revkin: For me, it was when I started blogging. I think it was around 2006, I wrote a long article for the “Week in Review” section of The New York Times called “Yelling Fire on the Hot Planet.” It was the first time an editor had asked me to look at all the vitriol that had erupted around the climate change question, particularly around that time after Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s movie had been released.

And that’s when I started to talk to social scientists, and learned how they were not even remotely surprised that people were reinforcing their barricades and that the issue had gotten heated up. You would think that as a journalist, you would want to know how information does or doesn’t matter. I think most journalists almost consciously avoid that for the sake of being objective and not thinking they’re trying to sell people ideas or insights.

But there was peer-reviewed work–cultural cognition work at Yale, by Dan Kahan–who found that science literacy, for example, doesn’t change people’s view on contended issues. That’s just one of many things that I had missed. I think a lot of scientists and a lot of journalists still assume that the world just needs to know the information you have in your head, and all will be well. And it’s just not like that.

So, I started the blog also because of the complexity of the climate problem, which is very similar in other ways to the problem of maintaining biodiversity. There are no simple answers to these questions.

That’s why they were really a bad fit for conventional newspaper articles, certainly, and even longer media. The blog became much more of an interrogatory approach to journalism, where I was asking questions quite often. And consulting with people like Carl, and even going fishing occasionally with people like Carl.

Carl Safina: Not enough, though.

Andrew Revkin: No, never enough. But videotaping him explaining, on a boat, while we’re with 40-pound female bass, why you put the big bass back.

Tom Andersen: Carl, does that same transition apply to you? The transition from scientist to persuader? Or did you start out writing, trying to persuade people?

Carl Safina: No, I wrote peer-reviewed science papers for most of a decade. Still do, every once in a while. But around 1988 – that would have been the year after I got my Ph.D. – I don’t remember exactly why, but I started writing conservation articles for a weekly fishing newspaper. And my concept for what I wrote was, I was never going to tell anybody something that would help them catch fish better, but I would try to tell them something that would help them appreciate fish better, or appreciate the environment better, or the whole experience, or release fish in better shape.

Then, what happened was I wrote a couple of things that had to do with fishing policy because right around that time, I was seeing all of the fish disappearing, and that is not hyperbole; that was really across the board, everything was declining. I decided that I wanted to make fish a conservation issue.

And an interesting thing started happening, which was a lot of people started responding to me and these silly little articles.

I loved doing the fieldwork for the science. I liked writing the peer-reviewed papers. I liked getting them published. But then, there would be essentially no reaction to them and no effect from them. But I could write about fishing policy and people would respond to that. So, that was very encouraging, and very interesting and surprising. And that would bring us to about 1992, when I started working on a book.

Then, my idea of what I do changed to trying to just keep working on books. Those are the inflection points – from field ecology to fisheries policy, and fisheries policy to writing books.

And what my books are about has changed. The first three were about how the ocean is changing, and what those changes mean for animals and for people. Now, I feel like I’m writing a lot more about the human relationship with the rest of the living world. Climate change has made it impossible to say I’m just writing about the ocean because everything is completely fuzzy at the borders and blurred. Everything that we do on land affects everything on the ocean.

Tom Andersen: What are the frustrations and satisfactions with the methods that each of you has chosen?

Andrew Revkin: Probably the first 20 years of my journalism career, I thought that just writing a better story, or adding really cool photographs, or then, when I started blogging, incorporating all the great elements you can add to a piece online, like links to background information, and videos, and graphics–that just keeping at that could potentially tip the balance of understanding toward actions to create a more sustainable path. I do think that these things matter, or I wouldn’t do them.

But as I got more into the behavioral sciences and understood how once something becomes a polarized issue, it’s very hard for information to do much more than reinforce people’s reactions, based on their values or reflexes, there were limits. I began to think more and more about moving from telling a better story toward holding a better conversation–finding areas of concordance among people who might disagree on something for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t always work. If you think that no animal should be killed, and someone else is a fan of hunting, and you both value wild landscapes, then you’ll never really have an easy time coming to an agreement. But I think it’s at least a start on that path.

So, I became cognizant of the limits of traditional storytelling fairly recently, and that’s been an important thing for me.

At the same time, I became conscious of the value of facilitating engagement. And this is not just between my readers and me, or between experts and the outside world. But it’s even among experts with different disciplines or different approaches to problems.

Carl Safina: I was very inspired by several books when I was young, and I’ve always found a lot of value in writing. Almost all of the advances in my work and career have had to do with writing something. Very early after just observing my graduate advisor, who was a publishing maniac about science journal articles, I thought it was a good thing to try to have a written body of work instead of have a job.

I think you can reach more people with a book than potentially with maybe any other medium. That’s arguable. But anyway, there can be a lot of power in a book. There’s a lot of shelf life in a book. For a long time now, that’s mainly what I’m trying to do.

Tom Andersen: I want to talk about one of the topics of the symposium. In my notes I have this: “While altruism has been localized in the past to family, tribe, or community, we must now expand its bounds to life itself.” I want to ask you about the connection between altruism, the way humans treat animals, and the implications, if there are any, for the bigger issue of biodiversity protection.

Carl Safina: Well, different people have different ideas about what altruism means.

Let me just say that in my field, altruism means you interact with another individual at a cost to yourself. I think that a lot of what we do is actually just exceptionally brutal, and I don’t think we need to incur any costs to stop hurting everything around us and trying to kill other living things, which is really mainly what we do, and certainly mainly how we allocate our funding. We raise them all to kill them. So, I don’t even think the first step needs to involve a cost.

There are very well-established wisdom traditions that try very hard not to hurt other things, and to mainly emphasize kindness and empathy. Most of them don’t really cost anything, I don’t think. I don’t really think you need altruism; I think you just need compassion and to engage our empathy. We think we are empathic creatures and have the most capacity for empathy, but we don’t engage it very much, actually.

Andrew Revkin: I think we both have been on pathways that have circled in different ways toward the same thing.  A lot of my thinking about this has related to the evaluation of our communication choices. There are so many things in motion right now. The media environment is the one thing that’s changing faster than the actual environment around us. And it’s even harder to understand. And even the people who run these platforms, like Facebook, have admitted recently, they can’t govern their own, they don’t understand the full workings of the machinery they’ve created.

Like a number of people early on who were very enthusiastic about thinking about global challenges that require empathy, whether it’s between us and animals or other species, or whether it’s between an abled and disabled population of people, or the poor and the rich, the vulnerable and the secure, I saw the internet initially as this fantastic leap forward in facilitating empathy.

And then, of course, everything that’s unfolding since then says, guess what? Like any new technology, quite often the dark side figures it out quicker than the bright side, whether it’s hacking, or cyberattacks, or misinformation, and falsehoods. Our brains are really easy to hijack. It’s not rocket science. Brain science is not rocket science in that sense, at least in terms of being able to come up with an app that can completely distract us and take us toward the less productive side of the new communication world we’re in.

It’s so far from what I grew up as a journalist thinking about. It’s completely new terrain. One of the last things I’ll say is, it’s not a journey with an end. The journey is the new normal. There is no sense of status quo right now. And that takes some getting used to, as well.

More problematic is that we just can’t possibly keep up with the potential downside of this kind of capacity. I tend to hope that we can figure it out and find ways, especially for young people, to develop the motivation to not be distracted. The motivation to be empathic.

Tom Andersen: How do you keep your sense of optimism? Do you take solace in or find yourself being restored by the natural world?

Carl Safina: Mainly yes, although there’s a lot about it that is extremely depressing and dispiriting right now. I mean, almost certainly every week and sometimes more than once a day, I read some appalling thing that I didn’t know before.

And it’s just heartbreaking. On the other hand, going out and seeing what is still there is very uplifting, assuming that there is something still there. But there are a number of things that used to be in much worse shape when I was young. I’m thinking mostly of the birds of prey, because I was a birds of prey fanatic when I was a kid. There were no ospreys, there were no peregrine falcons. And I simply never thought I would see these things. I knew what they were. I knew that they had vanished. And I couldn’t believe I had just missed them by so little time that the nests were still in the trees.

But then, they all came back because a few people worked very tirelessly, and a few good things happened, and some right decisions were made.

So, one of the things that keeps me optimistic is that I hope I’m wrong about a lot of things, just like I was wrong when I was 15 years old, thinking that I would never see an osprey.

And I also have worked on some things that had to do with fisheries management that made some very positive differences.  For many in-shore species of saltwater fish, there are more of them now than when we were kids. And we are the first North American generation in 500 years that could say that. So, that’s something.

And there are whales all over the place now. When I was a kid, you simply never saw a whale. And last year, we saw them just about every single time I went fishing, or even took the dogs to the ocean for a walk. So, there are all those kinds of things to work against the often very dispiriting other things.

Tom Andersen: During the symposium, we discussed the self-awareness that contemplative practices such as meditation can help build. I’m wondering if either of you have any thoughts on how that might play into the way we deal emotionally with these environmental issues?

Andrew Revkin: Well, I don’t meditate in the sense of doing a formal practice of any kind; I probably should–I’ve tried off and on. But when I walk with the dogs in the morning, having a rhythm of engagement, quiet engagement with landscapes is helpful all the time. I guess I would go back to what I said earlier about the nature of complex problems that don’t have an easy path to a solution, like the old things we dealt with pretty effectively.

Climate change requires a certain sense of being able to find a way to renew, and to accept the aspects of it that are out of one’s control.

It’s like choosing which invasive species to fight, or which to embrace and accept its new role in the ecosystem. With climate change, it’s embracing the reality that poor people need energy more than they need to think about having a more efficient and lower carbon energy source sometimes.

I guess what I’m saying is that the thing that feels meditative, or the practice of meditation, is reminding oneself that the bigness of some of what’s going on is not within control of any particular individual or generation. But there’s plenty left to do.

Carl Safina: I don’t meditate. When I’ve been serious about meditation, it’s always been explained to me as you’re supposed to empty your mind and have no thoughts. And I tried doing that, and I don’t find it very interesting. What I like is paying attention. And then, a few years ago, I heard the phrase “walking meditation” and I realized that that’s what I like to do.

One of my great jobs, probably the thing that I simply enjoy the most in my everyday life, is taking my dogs out in the morning, just like Andy–in fact, I did that with Andy while we were there at Garrison–and it’s just very happy. I try to pay attention to the day, the weather, the season, whatever animals are around, as it is always constantly changing. I like that. That’s what I like the most.

Tom Andersen, author of This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound, conducted the interview.


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