Hero for Troubled Waters: A Q&A with Sylvia Earle

September 29, 2009
  • Eva Dienel

    Former Associate Director, Communications, BSR

The ringtone for renowned ocean explorer Sylvia Earle’s royal blue mobile phone is the hollow ping of a sonar device, a constant but unnecessary reminder to its owner that the world is mostly ocean, what Earle calls our planet’s “life-support system.” Earle, a 2009 TED Prize winner who will be speaking at the BSR Conference 2009, recently sat down to talk with us about her new book, The World Is Blue (released today by National Geographic Books), and why business should put nature—and especially the world’s water resources—on the balance sheet.

The title of your new book reflects a theme that without blue, there is no green. Why is that idea so important to you?

Earth is what it is because we have an ocean. It’s the water; without water, there is no life as far as we understand what life is. Take away the ocean, and you have a planet a lot like mars. It’s so simple. No blue, no green.

You write that it has taken about 4 billion years to build our current “Eden” from the “lifeless ingredients of early Earth,” and less than 100 years for us to “destabilize those ancient rhythms.” What are the implications of those changes?

We are dependent on the living systems that have, over the ages, made the world function, shaped it in a direction that makes the world habitable for us. Every creature has a role. It has changed since the time life began, but what has emerged after 4.5 billion years is a planet that works for us. It doesn’t make sense that we should either deliberately or inadvertently, through ignorance, compromise our life-support system. But that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.

Are these changes reversible?

The good news is that natural systems are resilient. The air we breathe still has essentially 20 percent oxygen and 80 percent nitrogen, with just enough carbon dioxide to drive photosynthesis, which continues to generate oxygen and create food for the creatures that are not photosynthetic, including us.

But when you look at how quickly the excess carbon dioxide has built up in the atmosphere, how quickly we were able to alter the ozone layer, how quickly we have changed the chemistry of the ocean through pollution—that should be a big wake-up call. If we really take these trends seriously, we have the power to take action that can stabilize and reverse them. But we so far are missing the will to do so.

Your TED wish is for people to “to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” What is the role for business in that wish?

Oh, heavens, it’s profound. Corporations all have a potential way to make a difference here, as does every individual. Whether it is in terms of looking at energy alternatives—that ties into the wish because it will take the pressure off global warming, which will take the pressure off the ocean—or reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, which translates directly into protecting the ocean, protecting natural systems, and reversing the troubling trends we’re facing.

It is the same for a corporation that it is for an individual: Look at what you do. Where are your talents? Where is your power? Use it.

This could be a fundamental shift in how some people, and corporations, think.

The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. And that’s the way it is. We just need to recalibrate our thinking on every front. So if the corporation is looking to establish a new business somewhere, they should go from the outset to say, “How can I have a gentle footprint wherever I go?” There is no way you’re not going to have some cost to the environment. Every creature, even an earthworm, displaces things as it goes about its business. But we have exceeded all other creatures that have ever existed on the planet in our capacity to alter the way the world works.

If we are so smart—half as smart, a fraction as smart as we think we are—we’ll get it. We’ll understand that this is our spacecraft, and the living systems hold us together, and we shouldn’t lose any of the nuts and bolts. We shouldn’t disrupt the engine that drives us through the universe. It’s a living engine. We, in our self-centeredness, somehow have chosen to ignore that.

Let’s talk about ocean exploitation. Your book targets the fishing industry as one of the major threats to the ocean.

Fishing is destroying vast parts of the ocean. When I say destroying, I mean destroying, really obliterating entire ecosystems, setting them back not just a few years, not just a few decades, but for centuries. Permanently changing them. It’s like clear-cutting a forest. It grows back, but it never grows back the same.

Would you say that fishing is the biggest threat?

It’s something we can do something about now. There’s nothing in our biology that requires that we eat fish, let alone deep-sea fish that may be 200 years old. It’s an easy thing to give up. Nobody has to eat orange roughy. Nobody has to eat Chilean sea bass. Nobody has to eat monkfish, for heaven’s sakes. Or sharks. They haven’t been on our menu during all preceding history. Tunas were rare on the human menu until about half a century ago. Even shrimp, as common as it is now in restaurants all over the world, it was uncommon until the latter part of the 21st century.

It’s not a bad thing to consider taking wildlife from the sea in modest amounts, but there’s nothing small about our appetite for ocean wildlife. I think part of the great insult to the sea is taking tons of wild fish and grinding them up for cattle food, chicken food, and pig food. Grinding them up for oil. Grinding them up to make fertilizer, on a scale that now has depleted populations of menhaden—populations of many of the small fish that people tend not to eat directly but that have been used industrially.

In the process, they’re taking food from creatures that developed over millions of years with these small fish as a critical part of their diet. The food chains in the ocean are very long and complex, as compared to the land, where generally they’re short, with carnivores eating grazers that eat plants. In the ocean, there can be 10 or 20 or 30 stages to get to a top predator.

Is there a sustainable role for business to use the ocean as a resource?

Absolutely. There are ways to use the ocean without using it up.

Which industries do you think could have a positive impact on the ocean?

One of the biggest industries on the planet is tourism. People will go to great lengths to carve out a piece of their lives and go play. It’s a huge opportunity.

One of the big themes in your book is about the connection between climate change and the ocean. What are your concerns about climate change?

I’m concerned about the carbon-dioxide projections. The whole world is alerted to them, but the consequences are not really widely appreciated. The goal of trying to stabilize at 450 parts per million is way too much; even 350 is beyond what we know the natural systems rely on. We know this works, and we’re letting it get broken.

My dad used to say, “If you don’t know how to fix it, don’t break it.” And we don’t know how to fix “it,” the Earth. My dad was talking about the toys, the things I used to take apart to see how they worked, but I didn’t always know how to put them back together.

And you should keep all the pieces, by the way. We’re not keeping all the pieces. We’re allowing ecosystems to disintegrate. We’re allowing species to disappear. Will the big machine work the same without all those pieces? It certainly won’t work the same as when we arrived on the planet. Nature is resilient, things will reassemble. The engine may continue to function, but what are the critical pieces?

In addition to being a scientist, you’re also an entrepreneur. Did your perspective change after you started your own companies?

I learned a lot about accounting. I learned that the environment and a sound economy run on parallel courses. “Eco” is the same root word for ecology and economics. You need to balance the books, whether you’re looking at an ecosystem or a company. Every ecologist should start a company, and every corporate leader should go out and learn about how systems work in nature, because there isn’t much difference. You have to be a bean counter on both sides and realize that small ripples in one part of the system flow through to affect the whole system. Seemingly small things have big consequences. Details, details, details.

Last question: If you could give the business community one message, what would it be?

I hope that businesses will step out ahead of governments because they have the power to act instantly. It’s not really a big change. It’s just recognizing a reality that our economy is dependent on the environment, and the environment is in trouble.

If we are to succeed with our companies—with our economy—we have to take nature into account in ways that we have not in the past: a real accounting of what water costs, of displacing any natural system, of having a lighter footprint, of working with nature and not imposing ourselves as if nature doesn’t matter. Every dollar you take in is connected to some aspect of the big bank account, the natural assets that we have been drawing down throughout the history of our species. It’s only now that we can see the big picture, using the benefits that our businesses, our industries, our engineering, our use of the assets has gotten us.

We are in this trap of quarterly returns, of shareholder value. We need to do a better job of communicating with shareholders and sharing with them the vision of something that goes beyond the quarterly return. I know that’s what you’re talking about [with the BSR Conference 2009 theme]: to recalculate, reset, recalibrate. When you can, get your shareholders to think and plan with you, and educate them about what you’re trying to do. In the same way, the shareholders should be educating the businesses, saying, “Look, of course I like getting the quarterly dividend, but I’m really more concerned about having a life dividend.”

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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