Carl Safina's Sea Change: 'Nature and Human Dignity Require Each Other.'

Feb 10, 2011· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.
The long-range view from Carl Safina&39;s &39;Lazy Point&39; on Long Island. (Photo courtesy of Carl Safina)

A storyteller who is reporting on a life’s passion walks a tricky line between astute observation and raw outrage—especially when the subject is as important as how we treat the ocean. To witness the damage humans inflict upon the marine world, and to write about both the beauty and environmental messes in a tone more elegant than seething, requires balance and smarts.

My friend and colleague Carl Safina continually achieves that balance. His new book—The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World (Henry Holt and Co., 2011)—is nominally set on his Long Island front porch, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, where for much of his life he has resided and fished and observed. But Safina's 416-page tour of the ocean and its health takes readers from the Arctic to Antarctica, the Caribbean to the South Pacific.

Carl Safina. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

Carl somewhat hesitantly sent me an email heavy with highlights of the incredible reviews for this, his fourth book. (The previous three—Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross and Voyage of the Sea Turtle—have combined to gain a MacArthur "genius" grant, the Lannan Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and many other accolades. A fifth book, about the Gulf Spill, will be out in April. While writing and traveling, Safina is also president of the Long Island-based Blue Ocean Institute.

“What a pleasure it is to be asked to stop rushing about and take time to think, to grapple with fundamental questions, and to find such an enlightening, provocative companion for walking and talking,” wrote the New York Times.

“Reminiscent of Thoreau’s Walden, but thoroughly Safina,” said the Miami Herald.

Safina is both critical and admiring of the state of the ocean today. “I’ve come to see that the geometry of human progress is an expanding circle of compassion,” he says, “and that—if the word sacred means anything at all—the world exists as the one truly sacred place.”

Excerpts from a lengthy interview at

Mongabay: Of the many crises facing oceans—overfishing, pollution, acidification—which do you see as the most pressing?

Carl Safina: Depends how you define pressing. Fishing is designed to kill and remove large quantities of ocean wildlife, and it’s very good at that. There’s been a lot of overfishing—catching fish faster than they can breed—so we have deep depletions of fish populations nearly everywhere in the world. Fishing is the biggest agent of change in the oceans so far. We all commission it when we eat seafood.

Carl Safina&39;s latest book. Photo courtesy of Carl Safina.

A good source of info regarding sustainable seafood is available at or with our free FishPhone iphone app. Pollution is acute in places, and includes toxic chemicals, fertilizers, gender-bending hormones (from birth control pills and estrogen-mimicking chemicals), plastics, mercury from burning coal—many things. Perhaps worse than those kinds of pollution, one might argue, is the carbon dioxide that results from burning fossil fuels. Its effects include changing the whole planet’s heat balance and acidifying the ocean. Because of it, polar sea-ice systems are melting, sea levels are rising (by melting glaciers and land-based ice sheets), and more-acidic seawater is already dissolving young shellfish in some regions (for instance the West Coast of the U.S., where it is killing oyster larvae in hatcheries) and slowing and thinning the growth of corals. Overfishing could be stopped tomorrow.

But we’ve barely begun to end the dominance of fossil fuels. So those problems caused by carbon dioxide seem to me to loom much larger as drivers of major, long-term ocean change that can’t be put back into the bottle very easily. The fact is, these different problems all need improvement and require change.

Mongabay: Much of the news about the ocean is grim. What have been some positive developments?

Carl Safina: Where people have backed off of the pressures that have been killing wildlife—everything from banning DDT to ending overfishing in parts of the U.S.’s coastal waters— wildlife tends to recover.

That’s as true for the once-rare falcons and Ospreys that we now see commonly around Lazy Point as for certain fish like striped bass that responded to fishing limits by surging back. Another positive thing is that many more people care about these issues now. And in some countries, human population spikes have tapered off or even turned downward, as people have gotten better educations and desired smaller families. So it’s easy to both envision success and also to point at good examples around the world.

It turns out that if you’re concerned with nature conservation, one of the most important things is teaching girls in developing countries to read and write. That’s part of what I mean when I say that nature and human dignity require each other.

For the rest of the Safina interview go to

jon_bowermasterA six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.