[Coral-List] Is it Ocean Optimism or Toxic Positivity?

sealab at earthlink.net sealab at earthlink.net
Tue Aug 25 16:09:19 UTC 2020

Hi Steve,

I actually agree with you that we have lots to gain through restoration efforts. All of the scientific research involved

is fantastic and we should most definitely soldier on. But let’s talk about how we can tie all these advancements together to help “the cause” (assuming that we have the same “cause” in mind). I believe that everyone involved in coral reef science wants to see improvements in the natural ecological balance that would contribute to providing coral reefs with the best chance for long-term survival. And you are spot on to insist that “the solution” has to be a multifaceted one. What I struggle with is messaging, that in my view, sends signals that are counterproductive to that end.

Consider what the takeaway is from public outreach campaigns (related to restoration projects) that suggests that coral reefs can be restored in current conditions without mentioning the need to address local and global stressors. How does the general public view such proclamations and how does this affect that much-needed multifaceted approach? Since I come from the diving industry, what is the average diver going to deduce from efforts that assert that they are helping to save coral reefs by outplanting alone? And more importantly, why would a bona fide coral restoration project NOT want to emphasize the importance of addressing water quality issues, over-fishing and climate change? I’ve asked a few and they say something along the lines that those other facets are just not a part of “their mission”. So, what exactly is their mission? Coral restoration in a vacuum?

I’m aware of a number of outstanding restoration projects that go out of their way to point out the fact that we need a multifaceted approach, in fact they make it a point to emphasize that a solution will elude us without it.

What I find upsetting is those that don’t.

Sincere regards,

Steve Mussman

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On 8/24/20, 12:12 PM, Steve Gittings - NOAA Federal <steve.gittings at noaa.gov> wrote:


lt doesn't matter to me whether people feel optimistic or pessimistic. Both can be motivating. Regardless, we all have inherent leanings toward one or the other. All that matters is that we keep trying and don't let negativity cause people to fold their tents. No intelligent person believes that there is a single solution to the coral reef problem, regardless of the way scientific studies and scientists are portrayed in the media. It will take all those things you mentioned and more. I think it's fantastic that someone can still get outplants to spawn. That's part of the solution, and could be an important one in the long run, so they should be encouraged to press on. And so should those trying to understand the genetics of corals, those controlling invasive species, those working to improve water quality, those managing fisheries on reefs, and those trying to control climate change. We all need to do what we do best to help the cause. How we feel shouldn't dictate whether we give up or soldier on.

On Mon, Aug 24, 2020 at 10:50 AM Steve via Coral-List <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov (mailto:coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov)> wrote:

Dear Coral-Listers,

I recently came across an article in The Washington Post entitled Time To Ditch Toxic Positivity, Experts Say - It’s Okay Not To Be Okay. Although it was primarily referring to how people choose to deal with COVID19 and widespread social unrest, I saw a direct connection to the ways in which we choose to cope with our growing consternation over the unceasing demise of the world’s coral reefs.


We all know that when faced with adversity it can be beneficial to frame things in a way designed to keep spirits high, but can too much forced positivity be toxic? Could this somehow apply to coral science today? If we don’t put proper emphasis on what we know is killing coral reefs and instead choose to promote short-term successes, are we “shutting out the possibility for further contemplation”?

It seems that almost every day now I’m being bombarded by public outreach efforts that suggest that there are good reasons to believe that outplanting of genetically modified corals might be the solution to the coral reef crisis. As when forced to deal with negative emotions about the pandemic, everyone prefers to exude optimism, but psychologists warn that it can be problematic when people profess positivity in situations where it’s not natural or realistic (like when coral reefs are dying worldwide) or when there are problems that legitimately need to be addressed (like water quality; over-fishing; and climate change) and you choose instead to deflect attention away from major stressors onto something more rosy (like our outplanted corals are spawning!).

So, I’m wondering, is anybody else concerned that this form of ocean optimism, though comforting and reassuring, may prove counterproductive in that it could delay the development of real solutions for the most critical issues at hand, or, is this just an indication that I have morphed into a dispirited old curmudgeon?


Steve Mussman

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