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.
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.]