David Helvarg, marine activist, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m president of Blue Frontier Campaign.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Blue Frontier works to strengthen America’s ocean constituency by building unity among seaweed (marine grassroots) activists at the local, regional, and national levels by providing tools like a movement directory, conferences, field trainings, and awards for ocean heroes. We also work to heighten awareness about our ocean frontier and practical solutions for its restoration through various media outlets.
Our mission will be accomplished when we have clean and bountiful living seas and sustainable coastal communities. Too bad I won’t be alive to enjoy them, but hey, that’s the downside of long-term planning.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m doing final edits on the campaign’s Blue Movement Directory, officially the Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide 2005-2006, which will be published by Island Press this summer. It lists and describes about 2,000 blue groups along with lots of other useful info.
I’m also working on an article for Sierra Magazine about Donna Frye, a seaweed activist and city council member in San Diego who won a three-way race for mayor in November — although if she’ll get to serve depends on whether a judge’s ruling disqualifying 5,500 of her write-in votes is allowed to stand.
I’m also beginning to talk to people about cosponsoring (with Coast Alliance) a mid-Atlantic conference of blue activists in February/March — possibly at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. This would be the first regional follow-up to our Blue Vision Conference in July that drew 250 ocean advocates to D.C. from 170 organizations in 25 states and territories. That gathering demonstrated that there’s a growing social movement to put the blue back in our red, white, and blue.
This week I’m also trying to rewrite a budget as per instruction from my board of directors, planning to make some fundraising calls that I keep procrastinating on, and working with Jeff, our West Coast webmeister, updating our Bluefront.org site. I’m also writing a report from last week’s trip to California where, among other activities, I got to dive off Anacapa Island where the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper is doing the first-ever open-ocean eel grass restoration project. On the bottom I met a sarcastic fringehead — a fearless, big-mouthed fish that, if it were nine feet instead of nine inches, would be the terror of the sea.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was a journalist and investigator for 30 years: wars, corruption, epidemics, wrongful deaths, military killer dolphins, that sort of thing. At the same time I was living on the beach, body surfing, diving, and having a great time in, on, and by the water. When I wrote Blue Frontier — Saving America’s Living Seas, I felt like I was finally able to integrate my investigative reporting skills with what I really loved (the everlasting sea).
So, after I suffered a personal loss two and a half years ago, I found myself at one of those crossroads in life, sitting here in D.C. not sure what to do next and considering three options. I could return to California and work as a private investigator for an attorney friend, but felt like I’d already done that. I could return to war reporting as President Bush was clearly planning a preemptive war on Iraq, and that had some appeal. I also started meeting with Ralph Nader who’d read my book and was encouraging me to organize the marine grassroots community I describe in the book’s final chapter. After a good deal of thought, and discussion with other folks, I decided that while we’ll probably always have wars, we may not always have wild fish or reefs. Besides, it seemed like a good example of recycling, turning my book into an activist campaign.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Not to sound too Pollyanna-ish but most people and institutions fascinate me, even the ones that are clearly destructive to life as we know it on our blue planet. The pain-in-the-ass stuff comes mostly from the administrative and fundraising functions I hadn’t counted on when we founded BFC two years ago. I thought it would all be politics and beach parties. No one told me I’d have to learn Excel spreadsheets.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
What I find interesting is that a lot of Bush administration officials are personally responsive and friendly as they go about their tasks of liquidating our natural resources, living heritage, and civil liberties, while many Clinton officials, who tended to have better policies, were arrogant SOBs.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New York, on Long Island Sound where I spent much of my childhood playing in water, both salty and brackish. I now live in Washington, D.C., a concrete-covered former swamp.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Since most of my professional life has been as a journalist, my worst moment(s) were losing good friends in combat, including two outstanding war photographers I considered brothers, John Hoagland and Richard Cross.
What’s been the best?
When people tell me my writing or, more recently, my activism, has helped inform or inspire them in their works.
Who is your environmental hero?
So many — including Surfriders, Waterkeepers, other bottom-up activists like shrimper Diane Wilson in Texas, scientists willing to speak out like Ran Meyers, Jeremy Jackson, Nancy Rabalais, Bill Fraser, and the late Rachel Carson. Also Jacques Cousteau (of course), his son Philippe, Chico Mendes, Dave Brower, Karen Silkwood, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Yul Choi, Phil Burton, Ed Ricketts, Rell Sunn, and anyone working for democracy and campaign finance reform.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. and his fossil-fuel posse.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
Individual or political action? Let’s see, should we stop smoking or fight the tobacco companies? I’d say it’s pragmatic to do both at once. It’s like Steve Miller, who runs the Aquarius underwater lab off the Florida Keys, told me on a dive/visit: “People used to talk about ‘Think globally, act locally,’ but now we’re seeing (environmentally destructive) impacts that are local, regional, and global in scale, so we have to think and act at all levels at once.”
What’s your environmental vice?
Coca-Cola, but I figure since I don’t own a car I could probably also litter and eat more steak and still stay ahead of the curve.
What are you reading these days?
Not enough. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson at the moment; also looking forward to reading Carl Hiaasen’s latest.
What’s your favorite meal?
Anything fresh, tasty, and shared with friends (excluding shellfish and bitter greens).
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Tropical coral reefs below the surface, the California coast above.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Using science to identify the dynamics of ecosystems and anthropogenic (human-caused) impacts on them.
What’s one thing environmentalists are doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Building popular coalitions by identifying how intact ecosystems help assure healthy economies and communities. If you look back at the coalition formed for the Clean Air Act, it included the steelworkers union, public health advocates, and enviros. At the Blue Vision Conference, we had a panel on expanding our ocean constituency that included public health, recreational, religious, and tribal representatives. We’re also reaching out to business, labor, science, and educational folks.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A shift of federal subsidies from fossil-fuel to non-carbon energy systems (wind, solar, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass, tidal, hydrogen storage, etc.).
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Rolling Stones in the ’70s, Clash in the ’80s, Midnight Oil in the ’90s, and now I’m down with the Boss. As Springsteen gets older, he gets better; I can’t ask for more inspiration than that.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges was a big influence. Today I watch The Daily Show with one complaint — the “fake news” is doing better journalism than the real news. One of my favorite movies is Local Hero.
What are you happy about right now?
Having just had a chance to get back in the water.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Go to your favorite beach, salt marsh, or ocean and recharge your spirit; it’s going to be some rough sailing over the next few years.