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Save a Reef; Use a Condom


At a time when ethical behavior seems thoroughly old-fashioned and un-rewarding, when selfish greed appears to rule the day, an ethical argument could capture attention and galvanize action to save coral reefs.

It was July 2008, a long time ago now.  I and a couple thousand coral reef researchers and managers were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the 8th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) – a solid week of back-to-back talks, 10 or so taking place simultaneously, all coffee breaks, lunches and evenings filled with meetings, workshops and the conversations that scientists get into when they have a chance to get together.  Being quintessential nerds, scientists work harder at our conferences than do many other professions (think Medicine, Dentistry, golf courses, casinos), although we do squeeze in a remarkable amount of socializing around the edges.

I gave a paper in what was termed ‘mini-symposium 23’ on coral reef management.  Just 15 minutes, one of thousands given that week.  And being extra nerdy, I tinkered with my Powerpoint presentation right up until I gave it, adding one crucial slide at the end.  My talk was on a theme I have talked about many times before and since, and written about as well.  It’s title was “The management of coral reefs – where have we gone wrong and what can we do about it?

My theme was as follows: We are damaging reefs in many different ways, simultaneously, and the extent of our damage has expanded greatly with the size of our population and our global economy.  We need to recognize that we are the problem.  Then we need to work for a solution that begins with deciding whether we want to have reefs on this planet in the future.  BECAUSE IT REALLY IS OUR CHOICE.  I then discussed some of the impediments to effective management, including administrative/structural obstacles, and the fact that up-to-date science was not being transferred to managers efficiently.

In the printed abstract of my talk, I put it this way:

“Managers, when they have moved beyond the wishful thinking of paper parks and public awareness campaigns, have put undue faith in the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas while ignoring both the lack of scientific underpinning of many management practices and the elephant which is rampant and growing over-exploitation of reef resources.  The result is a sad history of progressive decline.  Reefs suffer a diversity of often synergistic stresses.  There is a way forward if we first decide that we really want to have sustainable coral reef systems in our future.  This path requires that we firmly embrace the precautionary principle, that we recognize and reduce over-exploitation, and that we vigorously apply the science we have in hand to improve management now.  Along the way, we need to develop new science to provide a basis for more sophisticated management than is now possible.  There is hope for a future for coral reefs, but only if scientists and managers act now to reduce controllable stresses, freeing these ecosystems to better cope with less manageable pressures of climate change.  Achieving this future will require far more effective demonstration than yet achieved of the value of coral reefs to coastal populations.”

I subsequently published a commentary in Marine Pollution Bulletin, setting out this thesis and expanding on it.  It was not a bad talk, but, in truth I was not breaking much new ground.  Many of us were recognizing the seriousness of our demands on coral reefs, and the grim future that seemed to lie ahead.  Spring forward eight years, and it is doubtful whether many of the people present at that conference remember what I said.  Except for one comment.  That final slide I added at the last minute.

I said we needed some way to galvanize attention and enthusiasm to act.  To build political will.  Because it is easy to keep on doing what you are doing, including giving talks at conferences, while watching the slow decline – that’s what most of the coral reef community had been doing prior to 2008 and continue to do.  We are rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.  I said we needed a campaign slogan, one that could be put onto tee-shirts and bumper stickers and spread across the web.  And then I put my proposed slogan up on screen.

save reef use condom

For the remainder of the conference, I kept having people I did not know come running up to me to comment on that slide.  Some told me of their own decisions regarding number of children (not really my business), but all agreed that we did need to face the fact that we were the real problem.  Too damn many of us, using too much of what the Earth provides, and using it too quickly.

In Honolulu, in 2016, at the 13th ICRS, several people came up to me to reminisce about 2008, and that slogan.  I have no idea if the behavior of coral reef scientists has changed in any significant way, but the message I wanted to convey was certainly received.  My tongue-in-cheek ‘campaign slogan’ was an effective hook to get my audience captured by my message.  And the message remained with some people for eight years.  I guess sex really sells.

Fast forward to the present

It’s now 2017.  The longest-duration el Niño since records began in 1950 (late 2014 to mid-2016) ended last summer, and weak la Niña conditions began in October.  These conditions prevailed into January 2017, but NOAA reports that situation will likely end by February, with neutral conditions through the northern summer when el Niño conditions will be again likely.  Widespread coral bleaching occurred as the ocean warmed above local thresholds in each reef location, and has continued to occur, despite the abatement of el Niño conditions, up until the present.  The ocean has just been too warm.  Bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef was particularly severe, and also well documented, with a major scientific survey that will provide some of the best estimates of extent of bleaching and of subsequent coral mortality.  News to date has not been good.

And as I write this, NOAA and NASA have just teamed up to report what we all expected; 2016 has been the warmest year on record, globally – the third year in a row to hold that title.  (2016 may get to keep its title longer than 2014 or 2015 did, but only if the el Niño expected to commence later in 2017 is not a big one.)  USA Today ran the news under the most catchy headline, advising that the world had not been this warm for 125000 years.  NASA provided a catchy animation revealing just how much warmer our planet has become.  And this image from the media release says it all (in a less animated way):


Nearly a full degree warmer than the 1901 – 2000 average (and 1.1oC above temperatures in 1880), 2016 was one warm year.  The el Niño pushed temperatures to a record that will probably not be met in 2017, although this year is still expected to be warm.  The likelihood of some further coral bleaching this year should not be discounted.

So, it is difficult to not be aware that coral reefs around the world are being damaged by a warming ocean.  This is not just information to be shared amongst reef scientists.  It is in the media all the time.  And if you search, there are plenty of media accounts that report it accurately, while also referencing the other things we are doing to reefs, and discussing the potential economic and other losses that eventuate as reefs decline.  Many people know about what is happening to reefs.  Mostly, they think of it as a ‘reef story’ or an ‘environmental issue’; it’s something happening on a coral reef far, far away.  Not vitally important.  So why don’t people care more than they do?

In my talk to reef scientists and managers eight years ago, I managed to get them to realize (and remember) that the real problem for reefs was us.  The wider public has not yet gotten that message.  I’ve written in previous posts about some of the reasons for our failure to connect.  Reefs may be too beautiful.  They are certainly too remote from most of our lives for people to make a real connection with them.  Maybe we have focused too much on making the science accurate, and not enough on our passion for keeping reefs with us.  In any event, the idea, so obvious to so many reef scientists, that reefs are like canaries in a mine, telling us, as loud as they can, that we are doing unimaginable harm to this world that sustains us, has simply not got through.

Getting the real message across

A tongue-in-cheek slogan is not the answer.  But I don’t think we have yet found the message that will resonate, capturing interest, engagement and commitment.  What is that message?  I can tell you a couple of possible messages that won’t work.

First, let’s be frank.  The world can survive without coral reefs, and we can survive without them as well.  To claim otherwise is ridiculous.  On the other hand, coral reefs are more than a frivolity that we should watch disappear without caring.  And, while reefs are exquisitely sensitive to environmental change, and therefore being hard hit by the stresses we are creating, no one should be naïve enough to think that reefs and only reefs are being seriously altered by our actions.

Ever since the first rugose and tabulate coral reefs of the mid-Ordovician (~460 million years ago) corals of some type have been present on this planet.  But unlike corals, coral reefs have had a more intermittent presence.  There have been several long periods of time in the past (10s of millions of years) when ocean conditions were not suitable for the formation of extensive reefs.  Low pH, high temperature, low oxygen levels, high levels of coastal siltation all have played a role in keeping the world free of reefs from time to time.  And each such interval has been followed by the development of flourishing reefs as large as any at present alive.  Sometimes the extinct reefs are near, or even under, present-day reefs; sometimes they are in what are now terrestrial deserts.  Each such ancient reef was a wonderful construction, built up over thousands of years, and supporting an abundant and diverse reef community.  During the periods without reefs, the ocean was a less diverse, less spectacular place, but it was still a functional marine ecosystem.  We cannot be truthful and argue that the biosphere has to include coral reefs.

Devonian reef at Geikie George WA 002570-786

This sheer cliff is part of an immense Devonian barrier reef, now 400 km inland at Geikie Gorge in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.  Reef were common at many times in the past, but there were also lengthy periods in Earth’s history when reefs were absent everywhere.
© WA Parks and Wildlife

Second, while reefs as we knew them in the mid-20th century are disappearing, the rocky structure will remain, so we must be clear about that.  If the degradation of coral reefs continues the current trend, shallow-water reefs up to 50m deep, or so, will cease to exist.  The rock will remain, but it will no longer have its living veneer of corals.  The rocky reef will still be occupied by numerous reef creatures, but there will be a significant loss of diversity – how much is unclear, because we do not know the full extent to which reef creatures are dependent on presence of living corals, but it won’t be 25% of all marine species.  The reef will be dominated by algae, relatively less topographically complex, and less productive of fishery species.  It will also be slowly eroding away, rather than growing.  So, the planet and the biosphere do not require reefs to be present, and the rocky structure will persist for a time.  There is also every reason to believe that some coral species will persist perhaps in deeper water, and that reefs could flourish again in the distant future.  Our argument for why we must not lose reefs cannot be based on a suggestion reefs are necessary to maintain the integrity of the biosphere (whatever that might mean).

If we do not bring climate change under control that future recovery of reefs could be very far off – far enough into the future that there is no guarantee that our species would be around to see them come back.  This points us in the right direction:  Our argument for protecting coral reefs has to be about people rather than about the reefs or the corals.  For example, in a world of continuing CO2 emissions, lack of growth of dead reefs may turn out to be the single most important change from a human perspective, because the algae-dominated reef will not keep up with rising sea level, and will provide less and less protection for nearby shorelines and our growing coastal populations as sea level rises.

The importance of coral reefs

What does humanity lose if the reefs disappear?  Coastal populations will have rocky reefs that are less productive of fishery species and provide reduced shoreline protection.  Life in coastal villages will be harsher, and reef fisheries will be less valuable.  Tropical coastal tourism may take a hit, because these coasts will no longer offer the spectacular dive sites they have offered before.  But most tourists do not dive, and countries that have reefs now, will likely still have hotels, beaches, and sunsets to continue luring tourists.  Also, divers who have grown up never seeing a rich coral reef will find eroded algal reefs a fascinating seascape to explore.  In other words, to use a specific example, while the Great Barrier Reef is credited with generating over $5 billion in tourism revenues each year, an all dead Lesser Barrier Reef would still bring tourists to Australia.  It would be a different tropical coastline, but still one worth visiting (unless the more severe weather that is predicted with continuing climate change turns out to be very extreme).  Old people would lament what had been lost, but the rest would mostly get on with enjoying their lives.

In my view, however, while the loss of coral reefs will lead to measurable, even substantial, losses in biodiversity, in fishery production, in coastal protection, and in tourism revenues, these changes will not be total, and tropical coastlines will potentially remain attractive environments in which to live and play – just not quite as wonderful as today.  The reality, of course, is that reefs are not going to disappear while the rest of the natural world remains vibrant, diverse and healthy.  In addition to the economic and quality of life losses that disappearance of coral reefs would bring, there will be economic and lifestyle losses due to the degradation of other ecosystems across the globe.  This total cost could be substantial, even existential if it seriously impedes our ability to grow food.  But as an argument for saving coral reefs… no.  This is far too abstract: be concerned about coral reef degradation because we may find it difficult to grow food when other ecosystems also degrade.

If we want to make an argument that will capture people and commit them to the necessity to save reefs, “economics plus quality of life” is not a good candidate.  Because the losses are not that enormous unless focus is directed away from reefs towards overshoot of planetary boundaries.

Ethics and Risk

I suggest there are two arguments which, properly framed, could move people to action.  One is ethical; the other pleads self-interest but as risk aversion.

The more I think about it, the real loss, if we allow reefs to disappear, is not an ecological or an economic one; the real loss is a loss of the ability to hold our heads high, confident that we are a benign presence, or even a force for good on this planet.  I say this, because I believe we have an ethical responsibility to sustain the biosphere.  We can decide now to behave ethically, and work hard to reduce the human footprint on reefs directly, and on the planet generally, knowing that only by reducing our impacts can we prevent the disappearance of coral reefs, and a lot more besides.  This is an ethical path because it honors the value in the lives of other parts of the biosphere, and recognizes that we do not have the right to knowingly cause the disappearance of an entire ecosystem from this planet.  Many people may not buy into this view.  The idea that the rest of the biosphere has rights and that we should be ethical in our interactions with other creatures is codified in few legal systems, and the inverse of the broadly held view that other creatures are resources available for our use.  Still, it is a view that seems to be gaining increasing support, and it should certainly motivate those who accept it.  The alternative to acting to sustain the biosphere is to decide not to change our present behavior.  We would then watch as our footprint increases, as we damage the biosphere in many ways, and as coral reefs disappear, all the while knowing that we are causing the changes, changes that did not have to happen.  In my view, that is not behaving ethically, and if we continue down that path we will not be ethical beings.


With the rights of nature enshrined in the Law of Mother Earth (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra), Bolivia is one of few countries to have formally recognized the right of nature to exist.  Image of Pachamama, revered by native cultures of the high Andes.

But it is not just ethics; it is also about risk

Human civilization began with the invention of agriculture 8000 years ago.  The entire history of human civilization has taken place during the Holocene, an amazingly stable time climatically.  Yes, there have been ripples – the medieval warm period, the little ice age – but none of these have seen changes as pronounced as those in the last 50 years.  Our civilizations and our economies have evolved in a time when climate was remarkably dependable, sea level was essentially constant, and monsoon rains came in the expected seasons.  Our civilizations and our economies depend upon this predictability.  Growth in the abundance of humans, and the size of our economy is now causing great changes, and there is a real risk that we will push planetary systems beyond the boundaries that have governed their behavior during the Holocene.  That’s why there is a move to call our present time a new Epoch, following the Holocene – the Anthropocene.  Our declining coral reefs are evidence of these changes.

If we can believe the many books and movies, future worlds that follow societal or environmental collapse are not nice places.  When a complex, integrated system is stressed beyond its limits, it is taken apart haphazardly; what gets left behind is an unintegrated mess of bits and pieces that don’t work the way they used to.  It becomes not nice.  Living in such a dystopian world, and remembering, or reading about, the past, can erode confidence in human abilities to build, to create, to imagine.  And this happens at a time when the environmental and societal changes taking place strip away the technical expertise, knowledge, infrastructure and wealth needed to deal with a much riskier environment.  In a case where we are the cause of the collapse, the corrosive effect of memories must be severe.  How else to explain the way in which the collapse of a culture so often leaves descendants who are dispirited and seemingly unmotivated for many generations?

The kinds of changes we are causing on this planet can lead to conditions that are inimical to our own societies’ continued well-being.  It is not difficult to imagine situations in which civilizations degrade, strife among human populations increases, and natural disasters of various types hammer us back to a technologically simpler, socially rougher way of life.  Some of this might even be happening already in some parts of the world.  Collapses of past civilizations reveal a common pattern – the trigger for collapse often turns out to be a relatively modest environmental or climatic change.  The dramatic changes taking place on coral reefs tell us that the planetary changes we are causing are becoming severe; it is both reasonable and prudent to anticipate possible global collapse in our near-term future.  Acting to reduce our impacts on the natural world then becomes sensible, prudent behavior – acting to minimize perceived risks.


If our future still holds reefs like these, it will likely be a good one for humans too.  Photo of reef at Gulf of Eilat, at Wikipedia Commons.

There we have it.  Two arguments that use the deterioration of coral reefs as sign of a more general set of environmental changes we are causing; changes that alter the ways in which ecological systems operate; changes that make our way of life more difficult to sustain.  One appeals to our ethical sense.  The other to pragmatic self-interest in protecting our individual investments (both property and progeny) in the future.

We can watch the reefs degrade, and see our lives going downhill.  Or we can use the status of coral reefs as the measuring stick for how well we are doing in struggling to bring our footprint down to a size that is sustainable on this amazing planet.  Reefs of the 1950s could become our target, our star to sail by.  If we work hard to keep reefs from degrading further, and even harder attempting to bring them back to 1950, we will have to adjust our global footprint in many ways – less CO2, less pollution, less over-harvest of many kinds, less collateral environmental damage as we build infrastructure.  And the reefs will tell us how well we are doing.  Maybe we will fail, and a reef-free dystopia will come anyway.  While I’d much prefer the future in which we succeed, and reefs prosper again, I’d prefer the failure that comes despite our best efforts, rather than the failure that arrives because, like so many cud-chewing cows, we stood there watching as our actions continue to degrade our only home, and we did nothing.