The Kemp Ridley populations are returning to the Gulf of Mexico.
You seem to be one of the few positive voices in the environmental movement. Do you think we have a shot at changing the environmental scene at this point or are we left with trying to influence younger crowds? How do you see major changes coming, via policy makers or citizen action?
The connection between turtles and the wider environmental movement is clear. As you have said, they are charismatic animals, so it’s easy to get people excited and then talk about other issues like global warming, garbage or endangered species in general. And you can connect sea turtles with issues on land and in the water.
Changes happening now are pretty amazing on many different levels. I think of it as the ocean revolution. The media has become more interested in environmental issues and this is a reflection of people’s interest. Politicians will follow. I don’t expect policy to lead in making the changes possible; rather, it will follow because people demand it.
We need to make major policy shifts, major shifts in the way we do business and in how people live. This is much more likely to happen as people become more aware, and as people like you at E magazine and others, contribute to getting the word out. Every magazine has had a green issue this year. Last year wasn’t the same. CNN has major investments in programming on the environment and a number of films have come out. There is a movement in the right direction, with a lot of different strategies and angles.
It seems like visual media is the most effective way of getting to people. A combination of factors including undivided attention, movement and music, makes it the best media for getting to people’s feelings. Do you agree? And, do you think this strategy works equally in first and second world countries?
I agree that visual media is very important for the reasons you mentioned, but it is key that it lands on top of something. Really, a great environmental film alone won’t do the job. Media, conversations with officials, and other sorts of communication together, are the ones that can do the job.
My parents saw the film The 11th Hour, and, sure, they were pretty impacted and thought, "Well, that’s disturbing. What can we do?" but then said, "Let’s go get dinner," and forgot. I sent them articles, asked them questions, commented with them on the film, and then they began to make changes in their own lives. They also made changes around them. My father is the mayor of his town and he has now influenced the community and is making changes all the time. Multiple streams that support each other are needed. A film needs to be supported by print media, by neighbors talking about issues; connecting these sources is what creates impact and action. But this is a lot harder to do. In marketing it is well
known that for a product to do well, a marketing mix has to be pulled through. People need to see the product as part of the world and what is going on around them, and then they want to be part of it. And this is happening with the environment.
Celebrities and rock stars are talking about it and getting involved, magazines and newspapers are dealing with environmental issues; schools are including environmental issues in their programs. The environment is present in conversations with parents, and at work people chat about climate change. All these things add up to the social change we are hoping for. Also, there is now investment of money, of major capital, into green technologies and sustainable energy resources. This wasn’t happening before, and I think things will continue to move down this path.
I see separation between countries and communities as a major problem for conservation. Do you see a stronger collaborative movement between disciplines, communicators, scientists and managers in the marine world? Is the secretive scientist working in the lab on its way to extinction?
I’ve seen that change you are talking about happening. When I started doing field work, scientists frowned at the idea of spending time with fishermen. They were just interested in science, and didn’t understand why they would invite fishermen to the conversation table. The problem is that academia is driven by publications and it is very difficult to publish about cooperation initiatives to conservation in peer-reviewed journals, unless you are in social science. These social topics are wasted time in the scientific realm. It is challenging because that’s the currency of academia, to publish papers, not solving problems.
We need a hybrid approach involving the public, non-profit organizations, local communities, policy makers and academics. There is a role for academics. When you need scientific information, a scientist should do it, when you need to communicate results, a communicator should do it, when you need policy changing, the government officials should do it; and then we need people that can put all these together.
The team approach is important. We need people that know how to build teams and networks and solve problems. We shouldn’t expect scientists to become excellent communicators and policy makers; we need them to remain good at what they do. Underneath, there has to be willingness from everyone involved, to contribute and solve problems. This is happening more and more. People are figuring out how to work as a team and as a network. Again, building trust and respect is a key component.
Describe a normal day at the Ocean Conservancy, what exactly do you do?
There is really no typical day. Today, for example, I am here with Endangered Species Chocolate to give a talk and to thank them for their support to the Ocean Conservancy. Later on, I have a meeting with a board of trustees and then I travel home. Monday I am back at the office in Santa Cruz. So it’s really a mix of activities; making speeches, writing, going out on the ocean, taking people out on the ocean, talking to school groups, organizing events, writing scientific papers. It is a very hybrid position. My role in all of this is to build teams and to keep the connections going.
How to keep up with work load, juggle such multiple tasks and still have time for talks to local people? Where do you prioritize?
I work with great people who are great at what they do; day to day managers, great at managing, fishermen, students. My goal is to get the word out. I work with excellent journalists and filmmakers, and that’s part of the approach. I just have a general sense of what’s worthwhile and what’s not. But you never know, sometimes your best move was where you least expected it. I just go on my gut instinct and think out of the box. I try things other people are generally not interested in, like for example challenging the Pope to help protect sea turtles and working with chocolate companies.
Conservation should be a really good experience, like eating chocolate, watching a film, hanging out with your buddies, singing and dancing. We need to connect doing the right thing with feeling good; that’s how you get social change. We can’t rely just on bad news to motivate people. We are not going to solve issues in this way. Conservation efforts have to be combined with fun, like eating fair trade chocolate and knowing that it contributes to the communities where the chocolate comes from and to saving endangered species.
What does J stand for?It’s a secret
. Joseph. My father and grandfather had the same name and my mother didn’t like Wallace or Joseph, so she called me J.
CONTACTS: Wallace J. Nichol’s Blog; Ocean Conservancy; Grupo Tortuguero; Endangered Species Chocolate; IUCN Red List
KATHERINE CURE is an E intern and marine biologist from Colombia.