[Coral-List] Dennis' musings on Gene's wise rants...Coral-List Digest, Vol 66, Issue 8

Kaufman, Leslie S lesk at bu.edu
Mon Feb 10 14:46:17 EST 2014

Hi all.  Just back from Cambodia where, curiously, I co-lead ecosystem service modeling (the new dark side) for an inland project, on the Great Lake Tonle Sap.   Sidebar: my personal joy in being in Cambodia was all about the fishes- I've been totally geeking out on carps, who claim but two vaguely coral reef-ish cousins (and distant ones at that), the milkfish and beaked salmons.  Professionally the joy of the Cambodia project lay in the respect my colleagues shared for natural history (we did a lot of just looking around this trip, with discoveries and epiphanies to show for it), and their very healthy attitude toward both modeling, and the role of human well-being as a guiding factor in our science.

To that end, Dennis, and Gene, I may be more optimistic than you about coral reef science.   Though we're all swaying in the funding breezes, I find coral reef colleagues to be on the whole very fine naturalists, with open eyes, open minds, and a good sense of humor.  We do need to worry about the upcoming generations, though.  Methodological overload and over-reliance on second-hand knowledge is cutting deeply into their skills as field scientists.  Field work is in danger of becoming a chore, like going to the supermarket, merely to collect samples for the real work back at the bench.  Gene's right about that.

The work on climate adaptation not surprisingly reveals that living things can adapt up to a point.  Sometimes a surprising point.  We'll probably keep finding taxa or holobiont pairings here and there that have what it takes to deal physiologically with ocean acidification, warming, sea-level rise, psychotic weather, and cumulative local human impacts.   However, given that their entire biophysical context definitely will be changing in any event, the fact that they can survive a few harsh physical insults may be irrelevant.   We have entered the realm of no-analog communities.  An amineralized scleractinian is not the same animal as a hard coral despite being genetically identical, and scattered sherbet-scoops of Porites lobata that we currently see around CO2 vents can not be expected to function or react to people's activities in the same way as the speciose coral assemblages that they may soon give way to adaptable poritids over vast areas.

The conservation paradigms of population connectivity, large protected areas, and durable systems (however biologically depauperate) carry some wisdom, but they can not be the entire story.  Hoping to achieve conservation by focusing first on human well-being, and relying upon ecosystem valuation, incentive structures and investment portfolios to motivate people to be more conservation-minded- this is all good, but it is not enough, and it is certainly not working as a one-for-one replacement for our original plan of just focusing on stopping anthropogenic mass extinction (which was also, in its own way, way too single-minded).

The battle for coral reefs is a battle for values.  These are deep values, not about money, and they are not up for grabs or bickering over what they're really worth.  Unless coral reefs are deemed sacred, they will be lost.  Anything that is not sacred is being destroyed.   A few things that have been declared sacred, have actually survived.  For example, short of venturing deep into the Cardamoms, the last place to see mature hardwood trees in all of Cambodia, is on the grounds of ancient Buddhist temples.  Concepts like adaptability, ecological economics, and the larger infant science of coupled human and natural systems- these are all intellectual tools that can better enable science and society to mesh smoothly.  They can especially help the poor and marginalized to survive in developing countries without eating down too far into what's left of the natural capital.  They are needed, but they are not the answer.  The answer lies exclusively in the part of our mind that we paradoxically refer to as our heart.  The destruction of the natural world is a heartless activity.  It is also stupid, but that does not carry much weight.  If enough people adopt the notion that coral reefs are sacred and their destruction deemed a sacrilege, then those who remain will not wish to bear the embarrassment of being called out as defilers.  Peer pressure is all.


Les Kaufman
Professor of Biology cousins
Boston University Marine Program
Marine Conservation Fellow
Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Ecosystem Science and Economics
Conservation International
lesk at bu.edu<mailto:lesk at bu.edu>

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