In Honor of World Oceans Day: A Conversation with Carl Safina

Author, activist and founder of the Safina Center (formerly the Blue Ocean Institute) Carl Safina has won the MacArthur "genius" prize along with Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships. His books have received awards from Lannan, Orion and the National Academies; and he's been given the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. An avid ocean conservationist, and advocate for all living beings, Carl's countless accolades are the result of his endless passion, and his devotion to better understanding our fellow animals as well as to improving their lives and the life of our shared planet.

Our oceans cover 71% of the earth's surface and are home to most living beings. Reminding us the vital importance of protecting our waterways, Carl's namesake Safina Center creates an original blend of science, art and literature that inspires a deeper connection with nature, especially the sea. In honor of World Oceans Day, I sat down with Carl to discuss humanity's relationship to our natural world, and how through practicing empathy and understanding of our planet of and of other living beings we can make strides towards protecting our earth and creating a better world for all who inhabit her.

You're clearly deeply connected with nature and animals. When did you first realize your experience of the natural world was not like the majority of those around you?

Probably Junior High; I remember being in 8th grade and feeling embarrassed that I had no interest in team sports, and even more embarrassing, that I liked just wandering around in the woods, making terrariums, fishing--. A year or two after that, when I had an owl and hawks and would leave my house at three a.m to ride my bicycle to the shore to cast for fish at dawn, I considered myself hopelessly uncool. The only thing worse would have been to be like everyone else; that would not have solved anything for me. 

You've written that you believe animals have emotions akin to humans. Can you provide examples of what led you to this belief?

I had homing pigeons in Brooklyn from the time I was 7 until I was 10 and we moved away. In their coop, they built nests in pairs in stacked boxes. The adults left to fly around during the day, and came home and took care of their babies. Across the yard, we lived in stacked boxes called apartment buildings. Our moms and dads left the coop and then returned and took care of their babies. The similarities were obvious. Nothing I've seen since I was 7 years old has made a different impression. Our many basic similarities are far greater than our few differences. Happy animals are happy, bored ones are bored; if they seem scared and run away from something dangerous, it's because they're scared.

What, if anything, sets us apart from animals?

From other animals. Very little. Our bodies work almost identically, have the same organs, the same bones make our skeletons and other vertebrates'. A frog's upper leg bone is its femur, just like ours. Our nervous systems are nearly identical. We inherited all these things. Humans' innate instinct for language is probably the biggest difference. Other animals communicate lots, in many ways, but we have far larger vocabularies and our syntax and grammar appear to be greater than those of any other animals. This lets us network our minds together, and share far more information. This difference has enormous consequences. We are also quite helpless without tools, and we are greater tinkerers than other animals. Our instinct for tinkering and our ability to share it by using language has built up over many thousands of years into this new explosion of humanity and tech that we are living in.

What have you learned from animals? And how can the rest of society benefit?

That it's possible to live in the world in a realistic way, being peaceful most of the time and not fighting over imaginary things and ideologies. Many other animals' lives make deep sense. They live rationally with one another and with the world that supports them. Their way of life works; it's been worked out over millions of years.

You're also passionate about ocean conservation.  Can you talk us through what led you to this path?

I was introduced to fishing early as a child. I loved everything about the ocean. Later I arranged to study seabirds. But I saw the fish getting scarcer each year. So I got involved in helping reverse some of that.

You've been actively involved in several ocean conversation campaigns.  What sort of success have these had?  And what challenges still face our waters?

The successes I've been involved in have been major. The global ban on drift nets. Overhauling US fisheries law and seeing many of our inshore fishes returning. The swordfish boycott and seeing swordfish numbers slowly rebuilding. Helping ban shark finning in the U.S. Helping save albatrosses from incidental catch in by fishing boats. Huge challenges and problems remain: overfishing in much of the world, whaling by Japan, plastics, pollution, warming, acidification.

You founded The Safina Center in 2003 with the mission to "help keep the living world alive by inspiring people to engage in real-world change."  What are some examples of these real-world changes?

In the last few decades people have made great strides in reversing the decline of Atlantic turtles, shrinking the market for shark fins, taking care of their local beaches and shores, and recognizing the problems that need to be beaten back. Vastly more people are working hard on the solutions. I remember when there were no ocean conservation programs in any conservation group, and no ocean conservation groups. None. It's a big difference.

What would you most like people to know about animals?  And our oceans? 

It's not about us, it's not about now. We come into a world that we did not make but can harm, and for a few years we can be stewards or create more damage to the wider world and all who will come after us. The whole world is a beautiful shimmering mystery, the only truly sacred thing. It's awe-inspiring. Many other animals--especially vertebrates--have lives, not just existence. They know who they are, where they are; they know who their friends and rivals are. Some aspire to higher rank and their life follows the arc of a career. For social animals, their individuality is defined by their relationships with other individuals, just like we are. Their lives are vivid to them. They are valid. They belong here. We need to just let them live, and leave them room on land and in the sea.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our fellow animals--and all creatures of the land, air, and sea?

That's a question for spectators. Players just do their best--and play to win.