Known to many as Her Deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle, 77, a researcher, author, and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, is widely regarded as one of the most distinguished and accomplished women of science. With nearly 7,000 underwater hours under her weight belt, she once walked along the ocean seafloor, untethered, deeper than any human before. And those who know her well are quick to point out that she is still, with fists pumping, an aqua babe.
I spoke with Dr. Earle at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, California, this past September. In addition to showcasing outstanding ocean and environmental films, leading scientists, explorers, and filmmakers congregated to not just revel in amazing achievements, such as James Cameron’s nearly seven-mile-deep mini-submarine dive into the Mariana Trench abyss, but also to take action to protect the heart of this planet: the blue ocean.
Dan Linehan: This is the third Blue Ocean Film Festival. What’s it like this year?
Sylvia Earle: This has been far and away the most successful of the three events to bring the community together: scientists, communicators, artists, poets, policymakers, kids, people of all ages, and those who care about the ocean in one way or another. It’s been like a big blue magnet to draw people together from various disciplines, many of whom rarely talk to one another. But here, [participants connect] over a glass of wine, bumping into each other on the street corner, applauding a film that makes them laugh, standing in front of one of these amazing images, or going out to admire the submarines that have been brought here to demonstrate to people that we have transportation to go into places that people have not been able to get to before. [They see] it’s coming: new insights and new technologies to measure and to see what’s happening to the ocean.
DL: What’s one of the best parts of the festival for you?
SE: I’m so excited about new technologies like Jim Cameron’s bold venture to the deepest place in the sea. It’s my dream to be able to go and take others along. He was celebrated here while celebrating the spirit of exploration and honoring Don Walsh, who made that great descent fifty-two years ago in 1960.
The spotlight put on these individuals and what they’re doing maybe will inspire other individuals and the kids to say, “If they can do it, maybe I can do something as meaningful as that with my life.”
DL: The festival provided so much inspiration. Beyond it, what now inspires you the most?
SE: The opportunity that is unique [to our] time is what inspires me to do everything I can to move things forward. This is the first time that we have the capacity to understand our place in the greater scheme of things to the extent that we do.
I mean, humans have always wondered the big questions, “Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going?” It’s part of human nature. It’s perhaps the underpinnings of religion. It’s the social structure, the basic framework that relates back to those questions. Not only who am I, but who are we? And where are we going? It’s the “we.” It’s the social connections that are special to human beings.
DL: But we’re not the only social creatures on the planet?
SE: Ants, bees, wasps, special shrimp that live in the sea are some. But no creature on Earth ever has organized themselves in ways that we have, with the capacity to alter the nature of nature the way we have.
The only other creatures I can think of that have had more impact on the nature of the world are certain microbes. Photosynthetic ones, for example, that changed the atmosphere to something that has a big percentage of oxygen. That was a big deal. It took a long time.
It’s taken us a short time to change the nature of nature. In my lifetime, more change than during all preceding human history put together.
DL: What drives and motivates you?
SE: It’s recognizing that never before have we known what we know. Never again will we have this good a chance as we now have to find an enduring place for ourselves within the natural systems that keep us alive. It’s a sweet spot in history. That’s why this is such a critical time.
DL: How did we reach this confluence, or nexus, in time?
SE: Ironically the very energy, the very basis of how we know what we know, has been reliant on having an energy source [necessary] to build rockets to go to the moon and Mars, to support airplanes that fly, and satellites to give us our communication. Burning fossil fuels has given us the gift of seeing ourselves in new ways. But that very gift now enables us to see we’ve got to change our ways.
DL: In what ways must we make a change?
SE: We’ve got to alter our fossil fuel dependence and go to other energy sources. We couldn’t go to the moon on whale oil. We don’t have the capacity yet to consider doing such things as harnessing current sunlight. We’re burning ancient sunlight in order to get us to where we now are. But it’s costly.
When you think about the real cost of so-called cheap energy that has driven our prosperity to unprecedented levels, for some of us, to our horror, we’ve realized that this has the potential for burning brightly and then snuffing out. The very energy sources that have gotten us to where we are now are also, if we continue doing what we’re doing, a shortcut to the end of all that we hold near and dear.
DL: Some say this is an overreaction or insincere or just melodramatic.
SE: The thing is we’re not making this up. Scientists aren’t just doom and gloom. They’re just pointing to what has now become obvious. We have the capacity to alter the nature of nature. No, we don’t have just the capacity—we are altering the nature of nature, the natural systems that cause the planet to function in our favor.
We have an atmosphere that is roughly 21% oxygen. The rest of it is largely nitrogen. There’s just enough carbon dioxide (CO2) to drive photosynthesis. That has been, throughout the history of our species, pretty stable. Until recently.
The burning of fossil fuels has altered the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere so rapidly and so abundantly that now, we are driving not just the warming trend, not just the sea level rise that is a consequence of the warming trend that is melting polar ice and alpine ice, but also [ocean acidification].
DL: In the face of mountains of evidence, why are people so unaware or unconvinced of the seriousness of these issues?
SE: We woke up some years ago about the consequences of ozone depletion, the hole in the atmosphere. You can’t see it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it. But now we do regard that as a key issue. It’s a scientific finding.
It’s baffling why the issues relating to climate change—[which] have far more obvious and tangible and much more clear-cut evidence about the cause—have been slower for people to accept as a given.
DL: What do you think explains this disconnect between the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and public acceptance of the facts about climate change?
SE: I think it’s because there is a campaign, well-funded, by those for whom it’s advantageous to cast doubt on the scientific evidence about climate change and about the cause of the accelerated rate of change.
The climate has been changing. Of course it [has]. Evidence throughout history, [which] we can assess, especially during human history, shows there have been ups and downs. But the last ten thousand years have been relatively stable compared to now.
When you get well-funded sources to have a disinformation campaign to attack the scientific integrity of people who are providing evidence, it’s hard. It’s the same techniques that worked to cloud people’s minds about, “Is tobacco harmful?” There’s a vested interest in trying to keep people smoking cigarettes. There’s a vested interest in trying to keep people wedded to fossil fuels.
There is not a well-funded campaign among scientists to say, “Look, here’s the evidence. You can read it yourself. Here are the facts. We’re not making this up.”
DL: What makes you, during this time, feel vulnerable?
SE: What makes me feel frustrated is that given the evidence, the public at large hasn’t responded to the circumstances that truly are urgent. It’s happening but it’s happening slowly. We’re still under the weight of this impression that the ocean is too big to fail, that the planet is too big to fail.
DL: We’ve taken a lot of things for granted.
SE: Throughout all of human history we’ve enjoyed certain benign circumstances: an envelope of atmosphere, an envelope of temperature. A kind of resilience that if you cut down trees, then they’ll grow back. You take fish, they recover. You put stuff into the atmosphere that you know is not good for us, but we can still breathe. We haven’t awakened, generally, to the sense of urgency that does exist.
DL: This goes back to what you said before about now being the time for action.
SE: There is this sweet spot in time when we have an opportunity to stop killing sharks and tunas and swordfish and other wildlife in the sea before it’s too late.
We’re down to 10%, or in some cases 3%, in other cases 1%, of the numbers that were there when I was a child. And yet we still have them in restaurants. We still have them in supermarkets. We still have the illusion that the ocean will recover. That even if we do have to lose sharks, people don’t understand why this matters. The evidence is in front of us, and we fail to take it in and say, “Now I get it. Now I understand.”
DL: Sometimes people just get used to the same old way of doing things and don’t want to change even if it’s in their long-term best interest.
SE: We have the power to abstain from destructive behavior. But so far, even our rules and regulations, our laws, our policies, favor the destructive nature of taking too much from the ocean and using techniques that are horribly destructive. We know they don’t work. We know it’s not sustainable. But we want to believe that we can continue doing what we’ve done for the past thousand years and not worry about the consequences coming back to us.
DL: There’s an awful lot at stake.
SE: I’ve heard CEOs of major corporations say, “I’m not going to worry about my kids. They’ll figure it out. I had to figure it out in my time. They’ll figure it out in theirs. Doesn’t matter what I leave for them.”
That attitude of arrogance, that attitude of “It’s all about me. It’s all about what I can get out of life now”—well, I’m personally driven by wanting to get out of my life the best I can achieve as a gift for those who come after me.
Dan Linehan is a freelancer with a science and engineering background but writes in many modes to pursue his environmental passions. He’s authored two books about New Space and has written for Sea Studios. Writing has transported Dan from Antarctica to the Middle East to underwater in a yellow submarine. Dan writes poetry and is finishing a novel based on his Antarctica travels.