[Coral-List] Striking a balance

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Sun Dec 16 14:17:36 EST 2012

Hi all:

Dean Jacobson asked me a couple of thoughtful questions off-line about how
to balance honest pessimism with enough hope so our students (and the
public) don't just get totally discouraged and argue that, if we can't
really do anything about it, we might just as well "eat, drink and be
merry." He draws on some of David Orr's discussions on this issue. As
someone who struggles with this in my classes all the time, I thought it
might be useful to share some ideas with the larger group (Dean - feel free
to jump in here if I've misrepresented your questions or points).

I have the benefit of some of the brightest and most inquisitive students
in the world...... we turned Steven Jay Gould down as an undergraduate, so
I feel a lot better knowing I'm teachingat a school I probably couldn't
have gotten into. I also have the good fortune of David Orr being in the
next building and having been able to play curmudgeon to his optimist on a
regular basis.

Not a class goes by that the students don't ask two questions. First, why
are reefs so much more important than anything else.... and how badly would
the world suffer from their loss relative to other systems as we have to
make hard decisions about where to invest our physical and intellectual
capital. Its been over a decade now and I still don't have a good answer
for them. I can cite statistics on reef tourism's percent of GDP, wax
eloquently on the values of biodiversity and toss out that over-used
comparison to rainforests that we all get nauseated by every time we see it
at the start of a paper. However, in the end, it comes down to I have a
soft spot having spent most of my adult life trying to understand reefs.
I'm biased.... so what? But, do I have a good and really onjective ansewer
- no.

The other one is basically, "if nobody can agree on what to fix and how to
fix it (yep, they've already caught on that we endlessly argue that our
favorite control is supreme and everyone else is a total Bozo for
disagreeing), what do we do? In truth, I don't think my answer has been the
same for any two classes. If there is a commonality, its to suggest using
strategies that have collateral advantages that will still be valuable if
we're wrong. If it turns out that our ties to climate change aren't as
significant as many of us think (I've been wrong before.... plus I tell my
students that science can't prove anything, only disprove them, so.....),
cutting emissions still isn't a bad thing. And, of all the things we argue
are contributing to temperature rise, that's the only one we have any
significant control over. So.... even if we are totally vindicated in 30
years, reduced carbon emissions will have resulted in longer-lasting
reserves, a lower overall footprint and a host of advantages from curbing
our appetites for energy-intensive activities. On other fronts, reducing
unnecessary fishing or targeting species that we think are more critical
will probably result in greater diversity - and watching the reactions of
reefs to higher fish abundance might help us better understand the impacts
of top-down issues (and the fishing boats in Key West might even bring in
something larger than a fresh-water catfish). Finally, if we stop dumping
materials like fertilizers, sediments, sewage, etc. I don't really see a
down side. Personally, I'm perfectly comfortable with possibly being in a
position down the line where I have to say, "Gee we weren't nearly as big a
cause as we all thought. The water and the air are cleaner and we're using
resources more slowly. Gosh, don't I feel stupid!!!!"

So, we can spend our time beating each other up and arguing among ourselves
while the rest of the world makes up their minds without us, or we can
figure out a way to make this issue seem more relevant to the public -
before a state-of-emergency makes it obvious and it's probably too late to
do anything about it.

There is an interesting parallel in discussions about the existence of God
in the 17th century. Pascal argued that the choice was binary... there
either was a god or there wasn't. The outcomes of each choice were likely
binary.... you were right or you were wrong. However, the repercussions
were markedly asymmetric. If you said "yes" and were correct, you gained
"eternal joy". If you argued no and were correct, your rewards were more
limited but you still had a great time while it lasted. The really big
issue is the cost of being wrong. If you said "yes" and God was just a
human construct, then you and the world suffered only from what Pascal
described as "an excess of morality". However, the fourth combination
resulted in "eternal damnation". Any bet weighs the odds against the
stakes, and Pascal argued that a rational betting man would vote in favor
of God.

Whether we are talking about climate change or other large-scale
environmental issues, this argument still seems relevant. Those who
offhandedly reject human impacts as they relate to our own well being and
argue that fixing them is too costly until we have proven a relationship
risk the "eternal damnation" of future generations. I would argue that the
"uncertainty" that is too often tossed around should be used the other
way..... until we are absolutely sure we have no impact, we should assume
that we do because the cost of fixing it will be immensely greater than
what it would have been to not break it in the first place. If we use the
concept of "discounting" as is common practice in economic circles, we
also have to realize that inflation will probably increase the eventual
cost more than interest on money not spent reducing our impacts now will

So, if you're a less government/more private sector guy, we'd be a lot
better off reducing our environmental footprint before the federal
government screws up the process... and we'd have greater net profits! I
understand that some might see the environment as just another hedge-fund
investment and realize that you'll be fired for the higher business costs
now and some other slob will reap all the rewards from lower costs later
on. As my daughter is fond of saying, "sucks to be you".


Dennis Hubbard
Dept of Geology-Oberlin College Oberlin OH 44074
(440) 775-8346

* "When you get on the wrong train.... every stop is the wrong stop"*
 Benjamin Stein: "*Ludes, A Ballad of the Drug and the Dream*"

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