The Marine Scientist on a Mission to Cure the Oceans
A scuba diver feeds a manta ray at AquaRio, South America's largest aquarium, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg)

The Marine Scientist on a Mission to Cure the Oceans

Never start with the numbers. That’s the advice marine biologist Enric Sala has for talking about science and the natural world to people who hardly ever think about it. The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence’s new book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, is a high-spirited romp through the ecosystem science that humankind depends on but rarely acknowledges. Sala spoke with Bloomberg Green’s Laura Millan and Eric Roston.

You say,  never start an argument about nature with data. Why? 

When I was an academic at the University of California, San Diego, I thought that having data, having information, facts, was all that decision-makers needed to make rational decisions. But of course, we know that this is not the way the world works. We make multiple decisions based on emotional impulses.

So the first thing is to make them fall in love with these places. Then, we come with science and economics to answer the questions. It's first the heart, and then the brain.

In The Nature of Nature you conjure the image of the finance minister who says: “What’s in it for us?” What’s the balance between heart and brain?

We need to change the myth that conservation of nature is a hindrance to the economy, that it’s a luxury and doesn't really contribute to the economy.

We come with the economic data showing that all society, all the economy, all the financial markets we're worried about, would not exist if there wasn't a biological basis that supports everything. Investing in protecting 70% of the planet would not only cost less than what the governments of the world spend now to subsidize the activities that destroy nature, but also provide benefits.

The Marine Scientist on a Mission to Cure the Oceans

You’ve said you never wanted to write “the obituary of marine life.” What would you say you are doing? 

In academia I felt like the doctor who's telling you how you're going to die, but not offering the cure. Now I'm working on the cure. We do science. We do media and we use this to empower local communities and inspire leaders to protect these places. So that's the cure. That's what I'm working on now.

You started National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project in 2008 to explore and protect the oceans. Have perceptions changed?

Things are definitely changing. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report in January, five of the top ten long-term risks were loss of nature and climate-related.

This pandemic is a loud wake-up call. It has shown that the emperor has no clothes, that our economic system had very shaky foundations that we had built on hyper-leverage, unfettered growth, without regard to the cost. We were not building for resilience, clearly. I think that leaders—many leaders, not everyone—realize that propping up the industries of the past is only going to perpetuate the problem.

You have been critical of using gross domestic product to measure growth. Can you tell us a bit more about the Environmental Maturity Index? How close is that to being a practical index that people can use?

GDP is the modern golden idol that we have been taught to worship, and our reliance on it has not changed. To be very honest with you, I never thought about a substitute until my editor asked me: So if you don't like it, what do you propose?

I thought about a metric that captures how well we cohabitate, how well we live with the natural world. In that context an Environmental Maturity Index would be an interesting idea. I have not gone through the work of actually measuring and quantifying it. But some of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon would have a much higher score than people in Chinese cities.

How can you quantify the protection of nature?

Today, less than 3% of the ocean is fully protected from fishing. So we have 97% of the ocean, which is like a bank account where everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit.

These protected areas, where fishing and other damaging activities are banned, are our investment accounts. The principle is set aside and produces growth with compound interest.

Fish there live longer lives, they grow larger. They have much more sex. They produce a disproportionately larger number of eggs, which together with the spillover of adult fish or lobsters helps rebounding.

How fast can oceans recover? 

The ocean has an ability to bounce back that is much greater than the land. I have seen how marine life recovers. When you protect marine areas there's a 600% increase in environmental abundance. There are animals that are completely gone, some species will have a hard time because of the warming and the acidification of the ocean, but many more species will be able to recover. The ocean ecosystems that we see in the future are going to be different from those of the past. But they're going to be much healthier, much more productive and much more beneficial to us if we give them the space.

In your book you talk about Biosphere 2, a failed experiment to recreate life on Earth in isolated ponds to find out whether people could live on other planets. Having dived in so many places on the planet, would you volunteer for an “Aquasphere 2” experiment to try out life underwater? 

No, I would love to be a seaweed farmer, but I still need the sun. I love diving, and that is one of the things I'm missing the most during the pandemic. But as much as I love it, we humans are not an aquatic species, we do need to come back to the surface to breathe. 

I'd love to continue being in this boundary between the two worlds, coming in and out and enjoying the best of both.

Eric Roston and Laura Millan write the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

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