David Helvarg, marine activist, answers questions
To Helvarg and Back
What advice do you have for federal resource-agency scientists trying to do the right thing under this administration? — Mike Kelly, McKinleyville, Calif.
Remember that sign they hung up in an EPA office during the Reagan administration, “No good deed goes unpunished”? Under George Bush, no good science goes unpunished. It’s not that government researchers haven’t been pressured in the past (see Todd Wilkinson’s Science Under Siege), it’s just never been as systematic as it is now.
So if you do good fieldwork, expect to be criticized by your higher-ups (the political appointees and their enforcers). If you persist, expect to have your personal and other motives questioned. Don’t take it personally. They just want to suppress your findings.
While federal employees don’t have the same level of whistle-blower protection that scientists in the private sector do, you should know there is lots of support out there for you. Groups like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have experience helping scientists get the word out without getting fired. And even if you do get in trouble, as I know Mike has — for demonstrating that if you take enough water out of the Klamath River the fish will die — you’ll still be known as a mensch (decent, honorable, upright person) for having spoken truth to power.
If we are to actually make drastic changes to current, complex problems, then shouldn’t we place more emphasis on the inherent value of natural resources, rather than the consumptive value? — Stephanie Marsh, Westwood, N.J.
I don’t disagree, I just believe healthy economies and communities are about more than their consumptive value and, to paraphrase Tim Wirth, economies are fully-owned subsidiaries of the environment. Farmers in the Midwest are coming to understand that the use of nitrate fertilizers (140 pounds per acre of corn in Iowa) does in fact damage the gulf, and that by reducing their surplus use, they get a financial savings plus the “value” of protecting a natural resource that they may not immediately depend on. Most Americans support protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge not because they expect to visit it, but because they place an “existence value” on having wilderness out there.
What we have to do is give people the tools to link their altruistic impulses and appreciation of the natural world around them to their daily lives, neighborhoods, and livelihoods. Right now there are far more family farmers applying for conservation subsidies from the Department of Agriculture than there are available funds. Why? Because the Republican Congress keeps shifting those funds to commodity subsidies which benefit the top 10 percent of corporate producers (and campaign contributors).
Environmental protection benefits family farmers; clean and abundant oceans benefit coastal communities. The question to me isn’t sustainable economies vs. inherent natural wonders, but democracy vs. oligarchy.
You mentioned that you are a diver. What are your favorite dive spots and how often do you get the chance to take dive trips? — Name not provided
I don’t get to dive often enough since I started trying to save the seas (oh cruel irony). I was diving off California in December and in the Keys in July. I’ve had some memorable dives off Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii, Monterey, and Cozumel. It was a total thrill riding a whale-shark off Baja (he didn’t seem to mind — just took me for an oversized remora). Actually, any time I get to blow bubbles pretty much lights me up.
I am perplexed by an ancient culture that values wisdom, aging, and contemplation but is killing the coral reefs in search of exotic sea specimens. What can the world community do? — Arthur Young, San Francisco, Calif.
The Japanese also use chains to chop up centuries-old deep-ocean corals, collecting the fragments caught in the links for jewelry. Through international agreements like CITES and the Law of the Seas, the world can begin to move toward agreements that would ban the trade in live and ornamental corals. It would also help if The New York Times Magazine didn’t run long fashion spreads on coral jewelry.
I live in Colorado and have never seen the oceans in person. But we do our part here in the Rocky Mountain region by raising captive-bred seahorses. Do you think by doing this we are actually helping the seahorse plight? — Mike Barr, Denver, Colo.
Captive-bred seahorses can help reduce demand for wild capture for the aquarium trade, which is good. Keep it up. Now we need to convince people not to grind them up for traditional Asian medicines — there’s no proof they cure asthma or (a more recent claim) reduce cholesterol. As for increasing virility, you’d think with over a billion Chinese this would no longer be a concern.
What is your opinion of the president’s implementation of the recommendations from the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Ocean Commission? What else needs to be done? Can such steps be accomplished with this Congress? What does “ecosystem-based management” mean? — Stuart Smits, Sacramento, Calif.
After his anti-environmental “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” programs, the president is offering what I call “Happy Oceans.” It sounds good but is basically a repudiation of what his own Ocean Commission recommended. We’ve posted a full analysis of the president’s Ocean Action Plan on our website. As for “ecosystem-based management,” I think it’s to the ocean what “sustainable development” is to the land, a term without a set definition to date. Still both the Pew and U.S. commissions talked about it in terms of the precautionary principle (“do no harm”), so that’s a good starting point.
Why is it that when you mention the precautionary principle in certain circles in the U.S. they say, “let’s don’t go there,” and yet the European Union has no trouble with the idea? — Thomas Brenner, Chicago, Ill.
Why is it that when you have record heat waves and flooding in Europe everyone talks about global warming, but when you have record droughts and forest fires in the western U.S. they blame environmentalists? Obviously the Europeans are smarter than us (and dress better). For a more nuanced analysis I’d recommend my friend Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The European Dream.
The goal of the Clean Water Act is to eliminate all water pollution by 1985. Due to an incorrect application of an essential test, the EPA only addresses 40 percent of the oxygen-demanding pollution caused by fecal waste and ignores the same pollution caused by nitrogenous waste (urine and proteins), therefore still allowing cities to use rivers as giant urinals! Why is it so difficult to correct this essential test? — Peter Maier, Stansbury, Utah
The EPA keeps telling people the water’s fine, while groups like the Clean Water Network keep trying to tell the public how the CWA’s being misapplied and dismantled. Meanwhile, the major news media has switched from the Laci Peterson to the Robert Blake murder trials. I do know Key West, Fla., is the only city with an advanced nutrient-stripping wastewater treatment plant because activists and residents finally got sick of closed beaches and dying reefs.
By way of contrast, the EPA is about to give the OK for thousands of sewage plants to dump basically untreated (primary) wastes every time there’s a rainstorm (the new “blending” rule). This will lead to more beach closures next summer along our rivers and coasts and hopefully the “giant urinal” effect you speak of will piss off enough people to stir things up.
What strategy is best to prevent, slow, or at least ameliorate oil and chemical runoff into our lakes, rivers, streams, oceans, and watersheds? — Paul Kuchynskas, Brooklyn, N.Y.
We reduced major point-source pollution by building secondary sewage plants and outlawing end-of-pipe factory dumping under the Clean Water Act. The next logical step — after we save the Clean Water Act — is having EPA mandate total maximum daily loads of nutrients and other non-point pollution flowing down our nation’s waterways. Timber interests, developers, and factory farmers don’t like this idea. Guess where the administration stands ….
What experiences from your career as a journalist have you used in organizing and heading a nonprofit? Does anything transfer? — Name not provided
The hundreds of people I’ve interviewed over the years for ocean-related stories and my book have transferred nicely. (Many of them are key players in the seaweed movement we’re trying to strengthen, and about 20 joined my board of advisers.) The idea of talking (and listening) to people from many different sectors, drawing connections, thoroughly researching your materials, and communicating effectively to the public are all skill sets from journalism that I think will work in trying to mobilize rather than simply inform citizens. However, two years into it I’m still feeling a bit like a reporter playing the role of an activist.
So how has starting and running your own nonprofit differed from what you expected? Is it more work or less? Have you had more success or less? Do you find yourself doing nothing but fund-raising and hardly ever thinking or talking about actual oceans? Would you do it again, rather than reporting from Iraq? — Name not provided
There was about a one-year window in Iraq, after the U.S. invasion and before the April 2004 offensive, when Western reporters could get out and about and cover all sides, which would have been an exciting time to be there. But hey, none of those reports have changed Bush’s war plans. (I know none of my reporting from Central America changed Reagan’s.) On the other hand (flipper), I think Blue Frontier has had a lot of success in its first two years — bringing people together, providing vital information, and raising the importance of doing ocean politics from the bottom up — pretty much what I figured would happen (or I wouldn’t have tried it). Although I’ve spent far too much time in an office in D.C. away from the water, I’ve also gotten to work with some amazing volunteers, activists, and interns. I’m also doing lots of thinking, writing, and talking about the oceans. That’s in large measure ’cause I’m not doing enough fund-raising, but I figure even if we run out of fuel we’ll have left our mark on the water. Wait a minute. Hope my board of directors isn’t reading this.
Is there any conceivable connection between atmospheric behavior and tectonic activity? In other words, could changes to the atmosphere trigger mantle events? — Carole McIntyre, Waynesburg, Penn.
None that’s been shown, although the rise and fall of oceans from changing climate regimes (over geological time) has been linked to subsea landslides and methane eruptions of vast methane hydrate deposits — natural gas trapped in ice crystals — that are located on or just below the deep ocean floor.
If, as predicted, the oceans rise and there is another similar tsunami, how much higher would the resulting tidal waves be? — Larry Ramsay, Stayton, Ore.
Best present projections are for a three-foot rise in sea level in this century (unless the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to give way). This would be on top of the one-foot rise we’ve seen from fossil-fuel-driven climate change in the past 100 years. Tsunamis, typhoons, and other natural impacts will intensify. Ways to mitigate include better coastal zone development, protection of natural barriers (coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps, etc.), and of course a rapid transition to non-carbon fuels.
How has the clearing of mangroves along the coasts of Sri Lanka and nearby countries made tsunami effects worse? Why were they cleared in the first place? — Adele Kushner, Alto, Ga.
The mangroves in Asia have been cleared for fish farms, ports, and tourist developments. There’s a good article on this, “On Asia’s Coasts, Progress Destroys Natural Defenses” by Andrew Browne in the Dec. 31 Wall Street Journal (Page A5). [Editor’s note: The Wall Street Journal is not free online, but you can read more about the tsunami’s effects on the environment in yesterday’s Daily Grist.]