Nancy Knowlton: The Importance of Earth Optimism

Whilst it might seem like little guys like this don’t have much to smile about these days, being optimistic about the state of the environment is more important than ever, according to Nancy Knowlton (Image Credit: Rosalyn Davis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

At the very beginning of my PhD, I was in the audience at the STARMUS Festival when American reef biologist Nancy Knowlton gave a talk about Earth Optimism. It came just after the American President had withdrawn his support for the Paris climate agreement, and smiles regarding the state of the planet were hard to come by. So seeing an esteemed member of the scientific community give a reminder that there was hope for one of the earth’s most vulnerable ecosystem was inspiring.

At this year’s International Barcode of Life Conference in Trondheim, I had the chance to sit down with Nancy and talk about why optimism is so important in the face of the many ongoing problems that the planet faces.

Sam Perrin (SP): Why is optimism about the state of the planet so important?

Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NK): Doom and gloom without any solutions tends to lead to apathy and inaction. Social scientists have known for a really long time that if you give people large problems, but don’t present them with ways of coping with them or addressing them then they tend to not care.

I think environmental scientists have done a really good job at alerting people to the many very serious problems the earth faces. And Earth Optimism efforts, they’re not trying to diminish the urgency or gravity of these problems. But what we’re trying to do is also shine a spotlight on what’s working and why it’s working so that those approaches will be picked up by others, replicated, and increased in scale. We can make people realize that starting their own conservation projects is not hopeless, because there’s already a community of people out there who are getting things done. That’s the basic reason why Ocean Optimism was started. It started as a twitter campaign to flag examples of positive success stories in ocean conservation.

SP: You’re a reef biologist by trade, but these days you devote a lot of time to growing the Ocean Optimism movement, and more broadly that of Earth Optimism. Was there a turning point or a moment of clarity when you realized how important environmental optimism was?

NK: I worked in Jamaica in the 1980s. First there was a major hurricane, then two big epidemics that swept through and killed off critically important coral, as well as a very important species of grazing sea urchin which kept the seaweed under control. So I watched the reefs in Jamaica go from about 70% cover to about 5% cover over the course of less than 5 years. It became clear that the Caribbean as a whole was really going downhill. And then other people in other parts of the world started documenting really serious problems in the western Pacific, which is where the epicenter of biodiversity is. It became pretty obvious by the 1990s that reefs were in trouble.

For a long time I would give talks about the decline of reef ecosystems, about how they were the canary in the environmental coalmine. After I moved to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1998, we got funding to run an introductory intensive summer course on marine biodiversity and conservation for students from a variety of disciplines, not just biology. And there was something about teaching the students in that course that I lectured in that made me realise that we were missing the boat. I mean the course was a great success. But we were only talking about the problems. And I started thinking about how we had to talk about solutions too – what was working as well as what wasn’t.

So I started organizing symposia with my husband called Beyond the Obituaries: Success Stories in Ocean Conservation. The name came from thinking of the intensive course as medical school for the ocean, but in medical school you don’t train your students just to write obituaries for your patients. We held a symposium at the Smithsonian, one at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The one at the Smithsonian was an all day meeting for the first International Marine Conservation Congress. What was interesting was that initially one person wrote me and said how can you have a whole day meeting of conservation success in the ocean when there’s so little to talk about. In the end, we had so many submissions that we had to limit them to 6 minutes each. It was like speed dating for marine conservationists.

Then a women named Elin Kelsey contacted me. She writes children’s books and she’s very interested in the ocean, as well as young children and their response to environmental crises.

She called me and suggested a meeting, and from that we with a few others decided to create a very small workshop on telling positive stories about the ocean. We didn’t have much of a budget, but we brought people together on the outskirts of London for a weekend in 2014. Some were scientists, some were journalists, some were in related fields. We decided to start a twitter campaign at the end of the workshop, and we called it #OceanOptimism. We launched it for World Oceans Day that year, asking people to share stories of conservation success with the hashtag, and somehow I think the fact that people are so hungry for evidence of something they can do that it just took off.

SP: How has the movement spread since then?

NK: A couple of years later, when the conservation community at the Smithsonian was trying to launch the Conservation Commons, the first thing they did was expand on the concept and start plans to hold a big Earth Optimism Summit. Ultimately 1500 people registered, with talks on everything from saving elephants to green energy, it was very diverse. And it was immensely successful, it actually really shaped what the Smithsonian thought was possible, I think it really opened some eyes and doors within the Smithsonian. And making an impression on something as large as the Smithsonian is hard.

In addition, I had given a talk at Cambridge University in England for the Cambridge Student Conference on Conservation Science, where I talked about the plans for the Summit, and our Cambridge colleagues also hosted an Earth Optimism summit. Somebody from Oxford who had been in the audience at Cambridge decided to host a Conservation Optimism summit as well. There is also increasing recognition of the importance of talking about success. For example, Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now is essentially a large essay on the importance of recognizing what’s working.

SP: It’s crazy to think that optimism could be seen as controversial in our field, but do you get pushback?

NK: Absolutely. People ask me how I can talk about what’s working, when there are so many catastrophes out there. There are two arguments. One is that you’ll make people apathetic because they’ll think we’re fine. The other is that you’ll give evidence to the dark side, people who are against any kind of conservation anyway, they’ll use your efforts to say we don’t need to do anything. Every time we give a talk I would say somebody in the audience raises an issue more or less related to one of those arguments.

But we’ve done such a good job of alarming people and such a poor job of giving people a sense of what responses might be possible. So I think that despite the continuing torrent of bad news about the environment, there’s also a growing recognition that there are some things that are moving in the right direction, and you have to pay attention to those things as well. I keep track of the bad news and what’s not working, and I’ll remember the evidence if I need to cite it, but I’m not going to dwell on it, I’d rather focus on what’s working. It helps me to make a difference.

SP: Optimism is important, but it of course means that people have to be aware of the trouble the earth is in. How do we inspire action without making the situation seem too dire?

NK: We need to of course provide the context for why progress is important, but then show people what has been accomplished as well. And that goes for every different cause. Some people are interested in saving species, some people want to reverse climate change. Different groups of people are interested in different things. But all across the board there are examples of things moving the right direction. So use the urgency and scale of the crisis as your backdrop, but then focus on what’s moving in the right direction.

Most environmental films drive me crazy because they’re 90% about the problems, and then they usually tack on some words in the last 5 minutes to try and inspire hope and effort. The balance is wrong. I started off that way too, just giving bad news stories and not giving hope. Nowadays I usually just have one or two slides about the bad things. And then talk about what we’re doing to fix it. So I change the balance to focus on the positive and move forward.

As a reef biologist in the 80s and 90s, Nancy saw huge reef coral die-off in the Caribbean

As a reef biologist in the 80s and 90s, Nancy saw huge reef coral die-off in the Caribbean (Image Credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, CC BY 2.0)

SP: So back towards your reef biology. Let’s test the limits of your optimism. The Great Barrier Reef has experienced record levels of bleaching in the last few years, with massive coral die-off. How would you inspire optimism there?

NK: My original talks on reefs as the canary in the environmental coalmine, there’s still a certain truth to that term. They’re uniquely vulnerable to not only climate change, but over a slightly longer time period, ocean acidification. In the Caribbean a huge amount of damage was done by overfishing and pollution, and that’s true in some other places as well. So there’s also this whole local suite of threats to reefs. There’s actually almost nothing people do that isn’t bad for reefs essentially. They react very poorly to human pressures, and they’re probably the hardest thing to be optimistic about.

Climate change is perhaps the biggest problem, which isn’t something that’s going to be turned around instantly. So the key has to be releasing all the other pressures, and at the same time looking at out of the box strategies for improving coral reef resistance. There’s a lot of interesting research happening in that sphere. Studies on genetic variation that allows corals to be less vulnerable to temperature increases, for one.

Places like Jamaica suffered from huge amounts of overfishing, and when they lost that sea urchin grazer from disease, there weren’t any seaweed eating fishes to take over. The reefs went downhill very quickly. So protecting against overfishing and pollution is important. But there are some examples of coral reefs that are still pretty healthy. It’s definitely the case that coral reefs can come back. There are limits of course. The bleaching in Australia was catastrophic. The recovery process is going to be slow, and bleaching events keep piling up, so reefs never get a chance to recover. But there are certainly examples of places where bleaching occurred and recovery was possible because the reefs were otherwise in a pretty healthy condition.

SP: How about in a situation where local government seems to be apathetic about the effects of climate change?

NK: That’s more difficult. Take the situation in Australia. Looking in from the outside, you have an environment, the Great Barrier Reef, that’s kind of iconic, and yet you have policies that are clearly not supportive of reducing climate change, which is an existential threat to reefs. It’s hard to understand. But at the same time, it’s also important to recognize that in lots of countries, government policies don’t necessarily reflect the will of the people per se, and even if they do reflect it, it’s a pretty divided people. There’s always large numbers of people who are unhappy with the environmental situation. There are certainly plenty of people in Australia who are concerned about climate change. They have to be, I mean forget the reefs, the people of Australia are vulnerable to climate change.

I think people will eventually vote in ways that reflect that. All political processes go up and down, certainly in the US, we’ve seen a drastic flip from the Obama era to the Trump era in terms of government policies. But there are still lots of people in the US who are very concerned about the environment. For a long time concern about climate change was decreasing, but it’s on the up again now because suddenly it’s so real. My husband always says that one of the biggest mistakes climate scientists made was to paint the picture of what was going to be happening in 2100. 2100 is simply too far away for must people to focus on or care about. Even those with kids and grandkids. I find it hard to understand but that’s the reality; people are more about the here and now than they are about something that’s 80 years in the future. But right now we’ve got heatwaves and wildfires and torrential floods and hurricanes, there’s evidence of climate change everywhere.

SP: Any final words on Earth Optimism?

NK: Michael Mann, a very prominent climate scientist, he had a post on twitter very recently saying that these days he is blocking more doomers than deniers. I thought that was really interesting. I think we’re moving away from an era where people are denying climate change. That’s becoming less of a problem. More of a problem are the people who say “yes, there’s climate change, but nothing I do matters”. That’s an arena where the whole earth optimism movement is really important, because it’s a direct contradiction to the argument that nothing can be done.

For climate change in particular, every step we make matters. Some people talk about the world falling off the edge of a cliff in 12 years, but the reality is every quarter of a degree of heating that we avoid comes with benefits. It is true that we want to avoid some sort of flip in the climate system which might be difficult to reverse, but it’s also true that we want to make the changes as slow as possible. That’s why I think the whole earth optimism thing is so important.

To read more about the state of the Great Barrier Reef, read our interview with GBR Researcher Sean Connolly here.

You can follow Ocean Optimism and Michael Mann on Twitter.

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