My teachers were real survivors

In the field, the lab, the library or the classroom, or a few times on a flower-festooned cliff overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean, I learned about marine biology from professors, colleagues and friends in New York, California, Baja California and Sonora (Mexico), Florida, Jamaica, Panama, Colombia, Curacao, Iowa, Washington DC and the state of Washington.  I learned about marine biology from the books and journals in libraries I used to inhabit.  But most of all, I learned about marine biology from crabs, fishes, corals, kelps and their ilk.  They were my most important teachers because I could see them with my own eyes rather than through the eyes of others.  As a biologist, I love what people’s spoken or printed words give me, but I love even more the lessons life gives directly.  Life unfiltered through the lens of any human.  Life speaking to me its humming, clicking, pulsing message: I am life.

I wish I had seen with my own eyes this lagoon in the Bahamas, 2013 (photo by Canadian Space Station astronaut Chris Hadfield).

As a person and a biologist, my greatest reward is the moment when nature reveals herself to me in some way for the first time.  What some people (too dryly) call the moment of discovery.  The Aha! moment.  Eureka!  Epiphany.  But to me it’s the moment when I first see nature’s beauty.

Sometimes that means seeing something for the first time.
Perhaps more often (because I can be overwhelmed when I see something for the first time), it means seeing a new insight about something I’d already seen one or more times in the past.
Nature is something many people ignore and many more fear.   But to a biologist, nature is to be understood and (in many cases, although not all) celebrated and loved.  For those who love to understand life, the rare occasions when life seems to choose us to bestow an insight are the best of the best, the epitome, the apogee.  For someone like me, nothing feels better.  I only wish that I could thank all of the people who allowed me to have those remarkable experiences in oceans and fields, forests and deserts.  I could never have had much insight about life without their kindness.
I’m a lucky person.  I get to do what I believe is the noblest thing on Earth: working to save the diversity of genes, species and ecosystems.  I do it for several reasons.
The smallest of reasons is that this is what I do for a living.  I’m fortunate enough to make my living as a conservationist.  Many people who care about conserving life are not as fortunate in that regard.  Making my living doing what feels right to me is an honor I must always strive to deserve.
More important is that people need other living things.  The other living things of this world—the things whose services keep us alive—don’t need us.  Do you know the number of species that would disappear if humans disappeared?  Far fewer than we are now driving to extinction.  But people need these other species for our food, for our water, for our breath, for our weather.  We need life for those.  Our lives depend on other life, some domesticated, but life nonetheless.  And some wild life (wildlife).
Indeed (please accept this assertion for now, but we should return to it at a later date), humankind is clearly unready to depend only on domesticated life.  We need wildlife because we don’t understand biology well enough to cast the fate of our human species to the wind.  We need wild ecosystems to save us from our own errors.  Nature is not kind to those who don’t understand the components of life, the intricacies of their interactions and how much more complex things become when they connected.  Wild ecosystems have the complex functioning living components that, together, have a long track record of surviving in an unpredictable world in comparison to the simplified, impoverished ecosystems humans construct.  Wild ecosystems are much more sustainable in the unstable world we’ve constructed from the better-tested design we think we own.
Nature is not kind to those who don’t understand the components of life.  One of my teachers was a big swimming crab with attitude, the aptly named Callinectes bellicosus, Puerto Peñsaco, Sonora, Mexico, 1974 (EAN photo)

This follows from the brilliant observations in Pauly (1995).  Daniel saw that we humans delude ourselves about the abundance of fish populations because our thinking tends to go back only so far as the time we as individuals first experienced something.  That’s a big problem because humans have been affecting the Earth a lot longer than our own individual experience.  What we saw when we saw first is not necessarily how nature operated tens, hundreds, thousands or millions of years ago.  Our baselines keep shifting… in one direction.  We keep lowering our expectations.

Blinding ourselves to the intricacies of nature by lowering our expectations hasn’t been good for conservation any more than blindness is good for shooting baskets.  If people want to survive, it behooves us to see farther and more clearly than we do.  Because surprises are coming our way, and we really need friends that know how to survive change.
The astounding diversity in bat stars, (Patiria miniata, photo by Richard Herrman)

Of course, I have more reasons for wanting to work in conservation, not the least of which is that life is beautiful.

Elliott Norse, Founder and Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Institute
Pauly, D. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.  Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10(10): 430


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