Science, Politics & Religion

Mako shark

A Proposal from Carl Safina: Merge Knowledge and Devotion to Stabilize Nature

When I was in high school, DDT and other pesticides had so thinned their eggshells that they could not bear their parents’ weight. I was a senior when the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled, “Death Comes To The Peregrine Falcon.” In grief, I saved the article.

I’d never seen a Peregrine Falcon. All that was left of Ospreys in our region was the huge stick nests the last survivors had abandoned. I’d just missed them. Bald Eagles, same problem; I was sure I’d never see an eagle, either.
But the obituary was premature.

During the 1980s, I ran a hawk-banding station where my job for one month each autumn was to count and to tag Peregrine Falcons migrating along the Fire Island beach. The first year, I saw 3 Peregrines in the whole month. Ten years later, I saw 29 in one day.

It’s been 31 years since I saw 3 Peregrines in a month. The other day, in just two hours I saw seven. The birders keeping count were complaining the day was “slow.”

Death once stalked the Peregrine. But so did people who would not see it die. The birds have certainly returned, lighting up the autumn coast and nesting on various New York City structures.

At the beach the other day, one of the falcons I saw was heading seaward; it had taken a break from migrating—to hunt.

A glimpse of a Peregrine Falcon in a dive—the fastest living thing—is thrilling to behold. So I put that bird square in my binoculars and waited.

The wind was coming from the south, off the ocean, and I watched that bird cross the surf and ramp itself into the ocean breeze, fluttering higher and higher, farther and farther out to sea. Then it just held in the wind, stationary but quite high, hundreds of feet up. I knew what it was thinking.

In this season, when many shorebirds and even many land-birds are migrating across open water, the falcon had gone to sea to ambush a flying bird from its greatest vantage-point. I’ve seen woodpeckers 30 miles at sea. And while a woodpecker at sea has nowhere to hide, a Peregrine at sea has every advantage.

For about 10 minutes, I was glued to that falcon far above the ocean horizon. I confess, I wanted action. But we both did.

Yet the Peregrine could not invent a bird to chase where there wasn’t any. There are no politics as such in nature, no assertions about how things are and what should be possible. There’s only what’s possible, and what isn’t. One of the things I love about watching animals is that their world makes so much sense, is so real; and they confront it perhaps not with their own internal logic, but in ways that are logical.

I find it immensely soothing that, parallel to the world of human chaos and violence and so much political and religious inanity and insanity, there also exists the beautiful intellectual beacon of a wild and sensible world.

And so the falcon pushed farther into its reality, until, finally, it was gone from my view, seeking a more advantageous command, and what it needed.
I had, in a sense, traveled over the ocean with it. Its disappearance left me stuck, stranded, while it penetrated deeper into its cleaner—and more logical—world. Leaving me to contend with mine.

Yeats extended the thought in his great poem, The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
… and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

I used to think that what unites us ocean-lovers is our passion. Don’t we love nature? Don’t we wish to save the ocean? Isn’t the problem that others just don’t care? But there are other people equally driven, and full of passionate intensity, yet opposed. And sometimes, they’re more motivated to act.

Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys and Bald Eagles are no longer endangered; they re-populate our coasts and New York City itself.

I’d also like to tell you that I think what we’ve been hearing about the climate changing, and how those changes are being caused by us burning fossil fuels—is wrong.

If the climate were changing as climate scientists claim, plankton populations throughout the oceans would be dropping, weakening links throughout the whole food-chain. Shellfish and corals would be growing slower, and would likely stop growing by mid-century. Our great grandchildren would face the possibility of a world without seashells.

If the climate were changing as climate scientists claim, agriculture would be facing declining yields in coming decades, throwing more people into poverty and conflict over land, water, and food.

If sea levels really were rising, coasts would be eroding and coastal cities and even whole island nations would be threatened with inundation and displacement of hundreds of millions of people.

If the climate were changing as climate scientists claim, it would threaten everything I hold dear. It would make dealing with other problems much harder. It would make peace more elusive.

That’s why I’d like to tell you that I think what we’ve been hearing about the climate changing, and how those changes are being caused by us burning fossil fuels—is wrong.

But I can’t tell you that. Because it’s all true.

I’m not one to shy from good news. Rather, as with the falcons, Ospreys, and eagles, as with Striped Bass, as with even Swordfish and cod for that matter, I don’t peddle pessimism. We celebrate good news and happy turnarounds. I want the problems to go away.

But like a falcon searching its ocean, we can’t live by wishful thinking; we will have to contend with what’s really there.

So why are so many people less logical and less realistic—than a bird? Even ostriches don’t really put their heads in the sand.

Yet even though climate changes affect so much of nature and human security—and even though evolution drives all life—we live in a country where public understanding is plummeting and public denial is both rising and emboldened. A country where a leading presidential contender can publicly pray for rain to end his state’s unprecedented heat-wave, while just as publicly dismissing climate warming as “a hoax.”

This fantasy-mongering isn’t just shameful. It’s dangerous. So, where to turn?

Religions should care about God’s creation. Not long ago, I met Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Georgia.

I’d recently written him expressing my dismay that our most publicly Christian politicians seem to ignore that Christianity, like most religions, calls people to compassion. He replied, “I too share your profound disgust with what passes for ‘Christian values’ in the public arena. I feel so deeply estranged from so many of my ‘co-religionists’ that I am not sure that we believe in the same God.”

But what about nature? He wrote, “Most people who step into a church on a Sunday do so in order to hear that God loves them… They want to hear that they are okay, that God is on their side… They don’t want to hear about biodiversity.”

Dr. Gushee concluded, “Science and religion may not succeed in saving the Creation because there are not enough human beings who actually love this distressed world.”

Well. If science can’t make biodiversity sufficiently sexy, and religion won’t step up to love, what’s left?

I propose a merger, but we can’t expect scientists or religious people to do the merging. It’s been tried, and I’ve tried it. It is up to all of us, as usual, to carry this water. In our private and civic lives, our religious places, and our business dealings we must all merge a scientific love of knowledge with a devotion as consistent and values-based as any religion.

Jacques Cousteau said, “We protect only what we love.” But to protect effectively, we must fuse head and heart. Then, we can’t just watch, and we can’t just wait; we must also do. The falcon must search the waves, but it also must focus on a target and execute the plunge.

The revolutionary, the conservationist, the reformer, is not the person who understands the problem. It’s the person who does something. But it’s far better when the reformer actually understands the problem. So we must deploy, create the message, support solutions, and do all we reasonably can.

The broader trick is to harness science’s ability to find out what is really happening, with religion’s tendency to ask, “What is right to do?” Both halves are necessary. Without understanding what is really happening, religious imperatives have barely budged since the Middle Ages. They focus on the Creator yet ignore the creation. And without asking, “What is the right thing to do with our knowledge?,” scientific knowledge counts for little.
But because science hurls powerful truths, certain political and economic forces seek to politicize and sideline science. We can’t afford that.

By asking, “What do we know, and what’s right to do?,” we can find our bearings even when, in so many ways, we are out to sea. If fully engaged by society, science would sweep our decks of the ignorance and shortsightedness that serve so many so well. It always has.

Understanding, love, and devotion, drives the work that convenes us all tonight. It must drive our lives.

New York is a city familiar with new mergers; this is the merger I’m proposing: We must all embody, three things: Passion in how we care. Cool-headedness in how we evaluate. Devotion in how we act.

We’ve seen with the Peregrines and Ospreys and eagles, and with seabirds and fishes, whales and turtles, that some magnificent animals have been recovering under protections our work over the years has won.

The creatures voyaging with us stand by us, ready if we give them the chance. And because it is one voyage, better not to sink the Ark, or we all go down.

And remember, we protect what we love, but not if the love burns us out. So in addition to working, we need to touch the beauty, and we need to have fun a goodly some of the time.