What work do you do?

I’m an international affairs specialist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal oceans agency.

How does it relate to the environment?

NOAA oversees a number of environmental duties in the U.S., from monitoring climate and forecasting weather to managing fish stocks within U.S. waters and protecting critical sites through a system of marine sanctuaries. I act as a conduit between U.S. experience on marine-related environmental issues and that of our foreign neighbors. Our efforts typically involve either refining and transferring proven technologies here at home to requesting parties abroad, or identifying and recruiting foreign solutions and experiences that could potentially enhance our management effectiveness here at home. In either direction, the aim is the same: improved marine management capacity.

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What long and winding road led you to your current position?

After our parents were killed, my sister and I went to live with our grandparents as toddlers. My grandfather was a retired rear admiral, a sailor whose first and eternal love was the sea. My grandmother was an elegant, intelligent native Hawaiian woman, who descended from the high chiefs of Maui. Through them, a deep adoration and honor for the sea was instilled in both my sister and me.

Parks surfin’ USA.

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Through my family’s love of surfing, which was also taught to my sister and me at a young age, and through free diving, my awareness of the subtle changes and moods of the marine environment grew throughout my childhood.

In my senior year of high school, I cajoled Earthwatch (then a largely start-up effort) to allow me to join their humpback-whale behavioral observation team off the Big Island in Hawaii. I was 17 at the time, the youngest volunteer they had ever agreed to let join a research expedition. It really put the hook in me (no pun intended).

A few months after, the University of Miami gave me a merit scholarship to pursue my marine-science interests. After my undergraduate degree, I was given a fellowship to do my graduate work at Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science. My graduate research allowed me to explore my dual interests in traditional management and marine protection in the Solomon Islands as a research assistant for the Fiji-based World Wide Fund for Nature South Pacific Program. Living there in a small, rural coastal village for the better part of a year, I found the path that has led me to where I am today.

That path has taken me through 10 years of service in the nonprofit world, working for three U.S.-based international conservation organizations: World Wildlife Fund, the World Resources Institute, and the Community Conservation Network. I joined NOAA two months ago. I am truly blessed in that I am able to simultaneously look back on my nonprofit service with great appreciation and pride, while also looking ahead into my federal life with much excitement and opportunity.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?

42 messages. It used to be filled with thousands of messages, many unread. At one point, a friend suggested to me that I do what he does: set up an automatic rule that deletes every other incoming message. Receiving this advice was a wake-up call. So I took charge, sought out and learned a few new tricks, and changed some old habits.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Born: San Francisco, Calif. My parents were both Hawaii-born, but like so many local youngsters, sought the bright lights and big cities of the mainland at their earliest convenience.

Currently: the town of Vienna, Va.

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What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

In August 1996, I was assigned to work on a project in Southeast Asia training indigenous community representatives how to monitor populations of wild versus farmed endemic birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera spp), through simple scientific methods and basic descriptive analyses that they could do themselves. The intention of the monitoring was to determine what, if any, impact on the wild butterfly populations of a nature reserve there was from butterfly farming activities just outside the reserve. Birdwing butterfly farming was encouraged as an alternative, small-scale enterprise activity to that of other potential money-making threats in the reserve, such as illegal logging or bushmeat hunting.

During my second week with this community, I learned something that would forever change both the way I viewed such interactions, and the way I viewed myself. In a nutshell, I learned that at least one resident in the remote, traditional village had recently died of AIDS. Upon further inquiry, I learned that the person likely had become HIV-positive when down in the nearest town, about two days hike out of the bush. After some investigation, I was able to fit together a theory for what was happening: butterfly farmers, supported through the conservation effort I was representing, were visiting brothels while in town after collecting the earnings they made from selling their farmed birdwing butterflies. Upon returning to the mountains, an infected member would then act as a vector within these isolated forest communities.

Questions whirled through my mind: Was this conservation project a vector for HIV into this indigenous community, which up until a few decades ago had no Western contact? Were our efforts to promote conservation actually undermining the ability of the local people to survive as a culture? How much human suffering might result as a direct consequence of my presence during those few weeks of monitoring training?

It was by far the worst day of my professional life. Words cannot begin to describe the range of emotions I felt during those first few minutes of realization. And because I was a two-day hike out of the bush to the nearest telephone, there was no escaping or vetting the thought process that I had to endure the next several days in finishing up my work. The fear, the doubt, and the loathing permeated my psyche those few days in the bush in a way that forever changed me.

Needless to say, I alerted project partners as to the potential predicament when I had returned. I came back to do follow-up work a few months later and brought with me an award-winning investigative journalist whose job it was to learn about any potential links between the income being generated from the butterfly-farming project and the incidence of HIV. As it turns out, the links between the two were not as overt as I had originally feared. But learning this did not bring me much comfort. I knew that the presence of an additional income source in the community undeniably contributed to the overall change in the social realities and risks that come with an indigenous community’s conversion from a traditional to a Western cash culture.

Who is your environmental hero?

This might sound trite to some of you, but in all honesty I’d have to say my oldest son, John. Seeing the world through his 3-year-old eyes has reaffirmed a deep sense of hope and optimism in such a profound way that I could not have ever imagined possible at this point in my career.

What’s your environmental vice?

I work internationally, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, so my flight time is enormous, and my carbon footprint affected substantially as a result. When I can do so, I have tried to soften the impact through purchase of carbon offsets with a certified program. But the environmental impact of my flying so much is still huge.

How do you get around?

I take the Metro [subway] to and from work. I try to run at least 20 miles a week, and we live in a community that is walking friendly, so we’re big on foot traffic. But I do use my Volvo more than I’d prefer to.

What are you reading these days?

I am working my way through John Powers’ Sore Winners, in an attempt to better understand “Bush World” and try to make sense of why the election went the way it did.

Truthfully, I’m reading Beatrix Potter’s The Tales of Peter Rabbit and Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon quite a bit. While he has a wide variety of books to choose from, my son John prefers these two bedtime stories. The protagonists in both books are curious, juvenile male rabbits. I am not quite sure if this is supposed to tell me something insightful about my son …

What’s your favorite meal?

My favorite is horiatiki, or a traditional Greek village salad. My wife and I usually make it for Sunday family dinner at our home. I’ve found that a regular dose of fresh greens with olive oil and feta helps me stay centered and on balance.

What’s on your desk right now?

My beat-up Apple Powerbook G4, with 10 years of my life stored in it as a series of 0’s and 1’s.

A copy of Mac Chapin’s recent article “A Challenge to Conservationists” from the Nov/Dec issue of World Watch magazine. This should be required reading for anyone working in international conservation — or for that matter, anyone reading Grist.

A hard copy of “2005-2010 Strategic Plan of the National Ocean Service,” covered in red ink with my suggested edits and comments, due to my boss’s boss by the end of the month.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

Even at the most harmless social functions, I feel compelled to inform (“lecture” is the word my wife would use) people about the facts when they express an opinion or belief about how “there is nothing really wrong with the environment.”

Also, up until recently, I had long hair — down below my shoulders. I was often told, “Oh, you’re one of those long-haired hippie environmentalists” by people who’d ask me what I do for a living. I’d get this stereotype not just from folks here at home in the states, but also from peers abroad, in places like Indonesia and even Fiji.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?

The conservation community is very good at navel gazing. It is done frequently, and with fervor.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?

Convincing the American public why effective conservation and environmental regulation should be as high a priority as ending the war in Iraq and avoiding a terrorist attack. We need to get more media savvy, and fast. Framing environmental issues through the lens of public health/security is a good place to start.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

My new law: Every household must grow at least a portion of their own food. For city folks and those who otherwise would not have the socioeconomic ability to access land, this would require that governments judiciously exercise land grabs via eminent domain and greatly expand and support our wonderful (albeit diminutive) national network of urban community gardens. People’s values and priorities change when they take time to work the earth, to honor it and get to know it.

What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?

People tend to forget that Earth is an ocean planet: 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and over 90 percent of the planet’s inhabitable living space (volume) is marine. At this very moment, the world’s oceans are in severe crisis. Over 90 percent of the ocean’s top predators and large fishes have been annihilated. Some 80 percent of the world’s fisheries populations have either collapsed or are threatened due to overfishing.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, marine conservation issues consistently take a back seat to other global priorities. How bad do things have to get before we decide to act at an appropriate scale?

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

Then (1989): Jane’s Addiction, The Smiths, The Cure. Now: Thievery Corporation, Meat Beat Manifesto, the Cowboy Junkies.

What are you happy about right now?

Right now, it is our two sons that bring the most happiness to my wife and me. I never expected how wonderful and rewarding being a parent would be. It has grounded me and given my life meaning in such a deep way that I never imagined possible. It permeates every moment, every thought with joy.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Grow some of your own food … and smile more. (Oops, that’s two!)

Parks answers these questions as an individual, not as an official representative of NOAA or the U.S. government.

Swimming With Parks

John Emory Parks of NOAA.

What specific actions would you recommend for a family with four kids who really want to make a positive difference in their environment?    — Debbie Potts, Perry Hall, Md.

Here are several minor things that we do at home with our kids, Debbie. While they are minor, they all really add up! I should mention that they are also things I did growing up.

  • Plant and care for a vegetable garden.
  • Compost all year long.
  • Reduce waste and reuse packaging materials creatively.
  • Recycle what you can.
  • Plant native trees.
  • If you have a backyard, learn about how to create habitat that will attract native critters; when they show up, watch them and learn about them together through field guides and other family-friendly books.
  • Do family activities outside, all year long; create enjoyable family traditions around being outdoors that become routine and predictable.
  • Go hiking frequently, at least once each season; talk about the changes you see happening.
  • Go camping, if possible and interested; start in your own backyard or neighborhood.
  • Eat meals outside when possible.
  • Go canoeing or kayaking as a family.

To take things up a step, here are some additional actions one can do as a family:

  • For those of you who are fortunate enough to own a home, set up a water catchment system using your rain gutters and use this water for outdoor watering of the garden or lawn.
  • If possible, install solar panels on your home/apartment and reap the rewards of the sun (we’ve been doing this for over four years now, and it’s well worth the time and investment to do it).
  • Start a community garden in your neighborhood, or join one and get active.
  • Start a neighborhood enviro group, and take local action frequently, even if it is only on minor issues or scope.
  • Offer to organize and sponsor chaperoned nature field trips for youngsters who otherwise might not be able to go on them.
  • Offer to organize (invite guest speakers) or give lectures on environmental topics once a month at your community center.
  • Get involved in local Earth Day event planning every year, particularly in schools.
  • Volunteer to serve on or get involved in your local community government/council; found a committee to address environmental issues locally.
  • Volunteer at your local botanical garden or arboretum.
  • Volunteer your time to researchers who must regularly collect field data.
  • Volunteer some of your weekend time and energies to a nonprofit organization that you believe in and that makes you feel good to be a part of; get involved with a zoo or aquarium.
  • Learn how and found a nonprofit conservation organization that acts locally.
  • Learn about, contact, and volunteer how you can with your local, state, and federal agencies that are responsible for natural-resource management and parks.

If you have any questions on these or would like additional suggestions, just let me know. The fact that you are asking and your kids are willing means that you are 90 percent ahead of most.

Since it can be both a blessing and a curse, what role do you see aquaculture playing in the conservation of our ocean resources, and how best can it be used?    — Robert Freudenberg, New York, N.Y.

About one-fifth of the world’s population relies exclusively on fish as its main source for dietary protein and balanced nutrition. Whereas 30 years ago, the developed countries of the North consumed much of the fish caught in the world, today it is the developing South that is increasingly both producing and consuming much of global fishery resources, a trend projected to continue.

At the same time, global production of fish has hit a plateau. We have rapidly exhausted the world supply of wild fish stocks, despite a rising global human population and increasing food-consumption needs.

These factors suggest that, like the agricultural revolution that took place on land, humanity has no choice but to depend on aquaculture to supply food for the growing number of hungry mouths in the world, both poor and affluent. As this shift toward culture and away from wild harvest occurs, many people are asking the question that Robert has posed: How can we make aquaculture work for conservation, and not against it?

I am not certain the answer will be what we are hoping for. For aquaculture to offset, as opposed to merely supplement, the wild harvest of marine resources, at a minimum it will need to be economically more attractive than wild harvest (i.e., return higher profit margins) while also being effectively marketable to consumers. The consumer side may be less of an issue in the hungry South than in the affluent North, where there has been much attention and (sometimes erroneous) speculation that a refined palate will not choose farm-raised fish over wild. But even if aquaculture technologies and the science of fish husbandry become highly refined and competitive business operations (as, in some cases, they already have) that generate products consumers will buy over wild-caught options, the environmental impacts of such efforts may be as bad as, or even worse than, wild harvests.

In the end, I think that aquaculture is an inevitability that marine managers will increasingly be asked to integrate into their existing wild-area and wildlife management duties. In some cases, fish farming will be a benefit to management efforts and support conservation aims. In other cases, it will not.

Could you comment more on how you think becoming more “media-savvy” will help the environmental movement?    — Robert Freudenberg, New York, N.Y.

In the same way that conservative Republican interests have been carefully, methodically, and successfully integrated into American values and public interests, so too must environmental interests, most often characterized as liberal. Despite the overwhelming facts, the environment was not even a key issue for swing voters in the recent presidential election.

A long-term, strategic public communications focus (similar to what was initiated 10 years ago by conservatives) is needed immediately if the environmental reforms and management actions necessary to encourage an ecologically and environmentally sustainable future are to come to pass. A major piece of this public outreach strategy will hinge on the effective and systematic use of mass media vehicles to “get the message out” and change public opinion and priorities.

George Lakoff, enviro-communications buff and U.C. Berkeley linguistics professor extraordinaire, has written and spoken much on this topic. As he likes to say, “words matter.” That is, how we say it and how it is heard is just as important as what we say. You can read more about these ideas in a provocative pre-election interview he gave to Sierra magazine.

Is it enough to provide the public with the facts about the environment and the dangers it faces, or do we really need to start earlier and focus on critical-thinking abilities? Do you think quality time spent in nature is necessary to acquiring an environmental ethic?     — Carolyn Heath, Newport Beach, Calif.

No, I don’t think it is enough to simply present the facts to the public. If it were, our country’s top priority would be abating the suite of human-made threats currently contributing to the annihilation of some organisms and ecosystems. Beyond strategic communications and the effective use of mass media (see above), we do indeed need to deliberately and consistently engender a conservation ethic in our youth. Educators will need to facilitate hands-on engagement with nature.

However, I don’t think one has to have spent significant childhood time in nature or wilderness settings to gain an appreciation for the environment. In fact, social research is telling us that in some cases, such exposure is not necessarily predictive of one’s environmental beliefs or attitudes.

Given that the environmental movement has not enjoyed decisive success as a liberal cause, how do we disconnect from ideological agendas to better communicate with a broader portion of the population? Put another way, is the fact that the environmental movement is seen as a liberal issue an obstruction to more decisive success?    — Eileen Eva, Silver Spring, Md.

As a community, environmentalists need to move the discussion out of the academic context and into the living rooms of all Americans. This will require a departure from the traditional liberal home base of environmental thought and practice, and into new territory across the broad spectrum of American ideology and political disposition. If environmentalism remains a liberal issue discussed largely by a (perceived) educated elite, I fear much will be lost before a broad and diverse coalition comes together to act.

To challenge yourself to think more about this issue, I encourage you to read “The Death of Environmentalism” [PDF], by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

I have spent the last three months studying in India, Nepal, and Chinese-occupied Tibet. The environment is my passion, but all my efforts of finding environmental activism, or even awareness, in these parts of Asia have come up short. In your work in Asia, do you find that the majority of the environmental work comes from outside influences, or is there any sort of homegrown action? How, as a student and traveler, would I be able to positively influence this?    — Breanna Trygg, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

My philosophy in my work is simple: The most effective solutions come from integration rather than assimilation. In addition to patience and time, this approach requires two things: (1) a firm belief in and commitment to participatory problem-solving and management; and (2) the ability to consciously set aside, or at least be keenly aware of controlling, one’s own agenda and interests until invited to present them.

A good literature resource for facilitating “homegrown action” with an educational spin can be found in the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Participatory Learning and Action series (formally PLA Notes), which I frequently cite and from which I draw inspiration. You can learn more about PLA theory and techniques at the IIED’s website.

Where is this well you dip into when the things you care most about are dying? I need it. You sound so sane and balanced.    — L.D., Warrenville, Ill.

I think that through some careful, internal listening on a regular basis, each of us can find a mechanism or place that can help us refill, get centered, and make us believe in the world again. For some people, faith has this effect. For others, it is meditation. I believe that this is a personal determination, one that must be discovered individually.

As much as being human is to feel pain and suffer, it is also to have hope. Next to love, hope is what seems to me most noble and special about being human. It distinguishes us from the rest of nature. It allows us to better ourselves, as well as the world around us. I guess it’s not so much about remaining sane or balanced as it is about seeking out and finding hope, and then fighting to hold onto it.

Given the lack of consensus among the world’s countries on other environmental issues, how do you propose that conservation efforts be effective in dealing with the world’s vast waters? How do you see management policies being enacted on such a wide scale?    — Kate Semmens

The oceans are often viewed as “common property” — that is, shared and owned equally by all nations and peoples. This view is currently upheld in practice, both de facto (the high seas are notorious havens for largely uncontrolled natural resource extraction) and de jure (through toothless international law and agreements).

But times are changing. The days when the oceans were seen as limitless frontiers, teeming with boundless stocks of fish and other wildlife, are long gone. The crisis currently facing the world’s seas is being squarely shaped and defined as a human one. Whether it’s the overharvesting of fish stocks or marine pollution, as an individual species we are fundamentally altering the ability of the oceans to sustain life.

The old thinking about the ocean is slowly giving way to a new vision. “Privatization” would be too strong a word, but the issues facing our oceans today require a governance reconfiguration. A multinational, transboundary governance regime will be needed.

This might seem odd to some readers. But think of an American analogy: Even during colonial times, the lands west of the Mississippi were viewed by newcomers as a wild, limitless frontier. But slowly, those frontier lands were subjected to the effects of increasing human populations, economic growth, and technological advances. Eventually, the “frontier” disappeared. In its place now stands a highly convoluted system of private and public property, including local, state, and national parks and recreation areas.

The same will likely happen within our oceans. What was once an open ocean frontier is slowly being divided up among private (i.e., national) and public (transnational) interests. If you’d like to learn more about international oceans governance issues, I’ll offer the names of two colleagues who are experts on the topic here at NOAA: (1) for the U.S. perspective on these issues, contact Tom Laughlin; (2) for a global perspective, contact my boss, Bud Ehler.

If big conservation were to truly reflect the wants and needs of local resource-dependent communities, would they have to quit conservation and start building schools and health centers instead? What does your experience tell us?    — Cristina Balboa, New Haven, Conn.

You see what’s happening here, folks? Cristina is throwing me a curveball — but that’s okay, because she’s a good friend and a sharp thinker doing some very exciting doctoral research up at Yale on the accountability of nonprofit international conservation organizations. If you think Mac Chapin has a strong and thoughtful critique on this topic (see his World Watch article mentioned in my first set of answers), wait until you read the book Cristina is going to publish.

For me, conservation is largely a Western concept that does not necessarily apply or transfer to all cultures or nations. In many cases, “conservation” work ceases to be conservation once wheels touch down in a foreign country. My work often (but not always) becomes as much about identifying and negotiating mutual interests as it is about embracing Western ideological concepts or foreign policy.

In some cases, a community or national organization may be carrying out a conservation project that receives funding and/or technical support from the overseas group I represent. Often, there is an unspoken understanding that the conservation interests I represent are beneficial in that they also serve local development needs. Sometimes this negotiation of interests is explicit — for example, when a grant is given to protect valuable biodiversity while also generating local income and other, non-cash benefits. Other times, this negotiation is subtle, or even hidden — for example, when a conservation project is invited into a country to open up a steady flow of foreign aid revenues, even beyond the project itself. Either way, there are expectations on both sides of the overseas partnership that are, if not explicit, at least implied.

Participatory planning and management requires time and trust between the parties involved. Expectations, whether explicit or implied, can be raised, openly (even if indirectly) discussed, and fully vetted. It is a tool for encouraging equity in local management decisions and action. It may not be totally efficient or refined, but at least it encourages transparency. This issue, I believe, gets to the heart of why many international conservation efforts and organizations are coming under increasing public scrutiny.

“Conservation for whom?” is not an easy question for international professionals like me to ask ourselves. But we need to get better at doing it.

My burning question is: Can you surf in the Potomac River? If not, what are you doing to keep your skills sharp until you return to the Pacific?    — Matthew Klingle, Brunswick, Maine

Dear Professor Klingle, (note: like Cristina, Matt is a friend)

If you spent less time studying, teaching, and writing award-winning environmental history, and more time outside, you’d know that the Potomac River actually drains into a large, nearby body of water called the Atlantic Ocean. Being in Maine, you may have heard of it. The Atlantic Ocean is subject to, as with all of earth’s seas, tidal fluctuations caused by the gravity effects of the moon and the rotation of the earth. Combined with the transfer of heat, evaporation of sea surface water, and effects of wind, these tidal fluctuations help to make waves, even in the Atlantic. During the warmer months, this provides my family and I with ample opportunity to partake in surfing.

Put down the book, and come on down. I’ll take you out so you can get up on a board yourself. You’ll never look at the Maine coastline the same way again.

Parks answers these questions as an individual, not as an official representative of NOAA or the U.S. government.