Dr. Carl Safina has dedicated his life to speaking up for our planet’s wildlife. There are few people who are more qualified to speak towards how our oceans are changing and who are as engaging and insightful. We were thrilled to hear then, just a couple weeks ago, that Dr. Safina was interested in speaking with us on our Speak Up for Blue podcast. Today’s episode is our interview with Carl, where he spoke with Andrew about his early life in New York, the lessons he’s learned spending a lifetime dedicated to protecting wildlife, the role of science in politics, and how best to communicate a message of responsible consumption and sustainability to an ever-expanding audience. While I’ve done my best to recount this fantastic interview, I highly encourage all our readers to listen to the actual session below. Grab some tea or coffee, find a comfy chair, and enjoy!
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, on the Long Island Coast, Dr. Safina became fascinated with shorebirds and the marine ecosystem at an early age. He pursued this fascination by receiving a Ph.D. in ecology at Rutgers University. Early in his career, Dr. Safina noticed that many marine animals were not commonly thought of as “wildlife,” and therefore received very little protection. This lack of protection led Dr. Safina to the realm of policy, where he spent many years working towards protecting and sustainably managing our marine wildlife. His shift from academia to public policy was a result of his desire to make a difference. Though he thoroughly enjoyed the work that goes into scientific research, he was frustrated by the general lack of access to and appreciation of scientific research by those outside of academia. While his research on shorebirds in coastal systems was well received by colleagues in his field, he noticed that it did not address a need within our larger, global community, saying “I loved the work, but I didn’t like that the result didn’t do anything.”
Conversely, though the process of developing and implementing policy changes that directly protect our wildlife can be quite exhausting, political, and drawn out, the positive impact that these protective measures can have on our ecosystems and our society can be quite rewarding. Though Dr. Safina “hated the work,“ he liked that “the difference that you could make is monumental in some cases. There was a lot at stake, and we won a few things and we lost a few things, but the things we won have continued to make a huge difference.”
Dr. Safina wrote his first book, “Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World’s Coasts and Beneath the Seas”, in 1998. He has since followed with six other books, his latest of which is entitled Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. And though becoming a best-selling author may seem like a career shift for most academics and conservationists, Dr. Safina never saw it as separate from his previous work. He claims that he always had an interest in putting out a body of work, something that could hopefully reach and inspire more people than his scientific publications did. With some small financial support from the professional network he built during his time working on policy, Dr. Safina was able to publish a work which communicated the “enormous problems and issues” that are facing our marine wildlife. That work was “Song for the Blue Ocean,” an illustration of the dire state of our oceans that The New York Times called an “engrossing and illuminating journey.”
Though Dr. Safina acknowledges that public acceptance of climate change seems to be at a better state than it was ten or twenty years ago, he also stresses that the opposite is true for acceptance of science in American politics. He explains that “up until George W. Bush, science was the arbiter of facts; pretty much everybody agreed and accepted science’s power to detect trends and measure things and understand what was really going on as the best thing we have to understand what’s really going on. And then people would argue over what to do about the facts…It was never ‘we just don’t believe the science’ or ‘science is just another special interest.’” However, the national political debates surrounding the validity of scientific research has made it all the more important that this science is communicated to the nation’s citizens in an accurate and engaging way. And with the rising influence of social media in our society, massive audiences are more accessible than ever before.
During the podcast, Dr. Safina recounts his experience traveling the coast of British Columbia with fellow researchers Mary and John Theberge, Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild, members of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais First Nation, and musician Miley Cyrus. The trip was meant to bring awareness to the plight of the Great Bear Rainforest’s wolf population, which was facing a cull by the local government. What surprised Dr. Safina the most about his encounter with Miley was how intelligent and delightful she was. Her passion for the plight of these wolves was subsequently shared with over 26 million people through various postings and photos of the trip on her Facebook page. The excursion received 37,000 likes and was shared 563 times. Whatever your personal views on Miley may be, the incredible influence that celebrities like her have on communicating societal issues such as climate change and habitat degradation should be appreciated.
Though the advances in technology have made it easier to share information, it can also at times make real communication difficult. Dr. Safina’s suggestion, though, is simple. Keep at it. “I think everybody who is perceived as successful has pushed through a lot of tremendous disappointment. If you believe in what you’re doing and you just keep at it, it can take a long time but eventually it usually finds a lot of traction and really works.”
And for Dr. Safina, who started off as just a curious boy from Brooklyn, it has worked. He has become one the leading voices for conservationists around the world and has helped facilitate what is now a global debate on how best we can protect our planet’s incredible and diverse wildlife. He has done this by simply providing an informative and thoughtful message that speaks on behalf of our nonhuman neighbors. And for him, this method of communication brings him back to his early days on the Long Island Coast. “To me it’s more like flycasting. You just keep casting, in a likely spot, and every now and then you attract something that likes what you are presenting. [With] my books, for instance, I kind of feel like I’m trying to set a very interesting banquet for people with words. And everyone is invited.”
Enjoy the Podcast!