John Emory Parks, international marine expert, answers questions
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.
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.
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.
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.