Gut Feeling: We're All Ocean Activists Now

On a recent return flight from El Salvador I was treated to a rare taste of "the good life." Upon learning that I was a marine biologist, the flight attendant upgraded me to first class. It was an unusual turn of events for me, like so many others who have toiled in relative obscurity to save the ocean. It was just in 2008 that Scientific American ranked my oceanographer colleagues as having the second worst job in science, right after hazardous materials divers. It seems that the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe unfolding in slow motion before our eyes has not only refocused the public's attention on the tremendous risks of offshore drilling, it has tossed in a little bit of social engineering, too.

The seat upgrade wasn't granted grudgingly or out of pity, it was a genuine act of kindness and curiosity. After a while, the flight attendant sat down next to me. He pulled out a detailed list of thoughtful and probing questions about the causes, scale and scope of the oil spill as well as a smattering of related topics. Here it was--oceanography, marine ecology, seawater physics and chemistry, plastic pollution and ocean protection--all jotted on the back of an airsickness bag. A few more flight attendants gathered around, then passengers from fore and aft. Pretty soon we were deep into a discussion about the future of the ocean. This level of discourse was impressive for an ad hoc seminar 35,000 feet above the eastern Pacific.

One flight attendant said that she's been trying to reduce her plastic footprint both personally and on the flights she works. Another from Louisiana mentioned that some of the wildlife in several regions about to be clobbered by oil had made nice comebacks in recent decades. Everyone, in his or her own way, was genuinely and thoroughly worried about the future of the ocean. All eagerly jotted down the websites I mentioned. By the time we touched down at LAX, everyone was ready to take further action to protect the ocean.

Those who love the ocean--which is many, if not most of us--have had our hearts broken as we watch images of desperate fishermen suddenly without livelihoods, dying birds coated in oil, and sea turtles surfacing through iridescent slicks. Sadly, for them, the worst yet to come. For me, I've begun to sense that the nation is on the verge of an important breakthrough. With no real poll numbers to back me up, I feel that this oil spill may be the event that finally catalyzes a much needed, national shift to clean energy.

I use the word "feel" very carefully because as a graduate student in biology I was coached to keep emotion and advocacy at bay. "A scientist must be unbiased. Search for truth alone and never utter an opinion on matters. Never even hint at politics or economics," my advisors counseled. I ignored that advice wholesale.

These days I suggest to my own graduate students that they have a responsibility to be both impeccable scientists and effective activists. Laying low, out of the public debate as if somehow, someday our mountain of accumulated facts will be assembled and recognized by our leaders and that they will come to some collective epiphany by the undeniable truth before them is a dangerous dream whose time is long past.

After all, where have decades of research, piles of impeccable, unread reports, rounds and rounds of peer review, and scads super-computer analyses gotten us? Despite all that rationality, we're still on the verge of losing the heart of our country's most productive fishing grounds. We're at the precipice of extinction for the Atlantic bluefin tuna, several species of shark and numerous sea turtle populations. And our global ocean has accumulated an unthinkable quantity of plastic over the past century with no real collective motivation or feasible plan to remove it or stem the flow.

It is interesting then that from a different field of science--neuroscience--there now comes a flood of information about how the human mind works. We now know that there cannot be "reason" without emotion and feeling. We know that our brain's rational regions can be fooled easily and often lead us astray. We also know that our visceral, emotional connection to the ocean is very real indeed. In other words, the time for well-directed, passionate--though maybe not always rational--action is here. And, we need to let it rip. We need an ocean revolution.

For that to happen, we must first realign our relationship with the ocean--the source of life on our small blue marble of a planet. We know what to do. We know how to do it. After all, the rigorous and rational solutions are sitting there on the bookshelves of our universities and think tanks awaiting discovery.

And so, while I am sickened by the events of Deepwater Horizon and all the ill it will bring, my gut tells me we are at a tipping point, some sort of an "all hands on deck" moment. I truly hope I'm right, because we surely need it more than ever.

One thing I know for sure, we're all ocean activists now.