Life Finds a Way, But Needs Our Help

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Carl Safina is a MacArthur fellow, Pew fellow, and Guggenheim fellow, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, and president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include among others Song for the Blue Ocean,The View From Lazy Point, and his book about the 2010 Gulf blowout, A Sea in Flames. He is host of “Saving the Ocean,” on PBS television. Safina was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2011. Keep up with him and his work at

can’t remember who dragged me to see the movie Jurassic Park, but one resonant
line in that movie was worth the price of admission, this unforgettable sentence:
“Life finds a way.” It popped out at me because it so economically summed up a
truth behind all of nature’s stunning diversity and the continuity of the
living adventure of Life on Earth.

Australian ecologist Roger Bradbury has recently asserted that coral reefs are doomed, living-dead, “zombie ecosystems” that
will inevitably–and soon–utterly collapse under the multiple fatal blows of
overfishing, pollution and the ocean acidification and warming resulting from
the global buildup of carbon dioxide. (See his New York Times op-ed, “A World Without Coral Reefs.”)

says we should give up. Any hope for reefs, he says, is a delusion. (Andy
Revkin collected a few responses from scientists at his New York TimesDot Earth blog.)

that really be so? Certainly things die, lineages go extinct–and coral reefs
are in a world of hurt. All true. Also true is the existence of heat-tolerant
corals, corals that are regularly exposed to (and routinely survive) the
extreme stress of finding themselves out in the tropical air at low tide, and
many ocean organisms that live through large swings in pH through tidal cycles.

Yes many coral reefs are degraded. Yes it doesn’t look good. But sometimes
living diversity supplies marginal adaptations that suddenly fit perfectly into
new conditions. Someone (not Darwin) called it “survival of the fittest.”
That’s what the phrase means; not survival of the strongest but of the ones who
find themselves in the right place at the right time as conditions change to
suddenly suit them. Look around; it works. 

Agreed, it is past due to raise the alarm that coral reefs in many areas have
largely collapsed, and that their future looks bleak. As an anguished lover of
reefs and living things generally, and as an ecologist by profession, I cannot
picture what it will take for coral reef systems to survive and thrive. But I
also cannot picture a world in which no reef corals adapt, persist, and
flourish, simply because it’s true: Life finds a way.

Bradbury suggests giving up and spending money on what to replace the values
(for example, fish) that coral reefs have provided to humans. But what would
giving up look like? Overfishing is old news, and plenty of people are, in
fact, spending money trying to raise fish. Some are making money.
Overpopulation: also old news and crucial to everything from water supplies to
prospects for peace. One doesn’t need to certify future coral reef destruction
to realize that overpopulation is bad for human health and dignity, not to mention
a catastrophe for wild living systems. These problems have caused the losses to
date and they continue. Warming and ocean acidification are also building.

But to accept that reefs are doomed implies that the best response is to give
up hope, thus give up effort. That means we give up on curbing overfishing and
allowing rebuilding (yet these two goals are in fact are increasingly working
in many places, specifically because people have not given up, and because
letting fish recover can work). It means we give up on controlling pollution
(in the U.S., the Clean Water Act brought great improvement to rivers so
polluted that they actually caught fire multiple times; developing nations
deserve to do no less for themselves). It means we give up on population, whose
most effective solving strategy is to teach girls to read and write.

Giving up, while reefs still flourish in many places, means accepting what is
unacceptable, and abandoning work on situations that can likely be improved. It
means deciding to be hopeless. It means giving up on the reefs, the fishes, and
the people, who need all the combined efforts of those who both know the
science best–and who, while life exists, won’t give up.

The science is clear that reefs are in many places degraded and in serious
trouble. But no science has, or likely can, determine that reefs and all their
associated non-coral creatures are unequivocally, equally and everywhere,
completely doomed to total non-existence. In fact, much science suggests they
will persist in some lesser form. Bleak prospects have been part of many
dramatic turnarounds, and, who knows, life may, as usual–with our best
efforts–find a way.     

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