I used to think it would wear off—the rush I feel each time I return to Santa Barbara, Calif., where I have lived for 14 years. But it has only grown. The excitement clearly stems in part from the beautiful natural setting: the Santa Ynez Mountains spilling into the Pacific Ocean, waters teaming with whales and wildlife, beautiful beaches and the Channel Islands just offshore. But the rush also comes from being part of the vibrant community so closely tied to these coastal and ocean resources. Fishermen haul up local white sea bass, motorboats of all sorts dart into and out of a bustling harbor, and beachgoers and surfers dot the coastline most of the day. Quite simply, Santa Barbara feels healthy.
"Healthy" is a curious word to use when describing a place, however. It means different things to different people. To many, a natural place can only be healthy if it is pristine, with no sign of human impact. Must a healthy ocean really be devoid of people? In the past I might have said yes. But I have come to realize—and public policy and conservation organizations around the world are rapidly converging on this same view—that people are now fundamentally integrated into every ecosystem on Earth. As such, nature not only includes people but also must address the needs of those people.
This perspective is quite controversial, in part because it represents a radical departure from the goal that has driven ocean and land conservation efforts for centuries—to protect or return nature to a pristine state. In the 21st century, an era that many are calling the Anthropocene, that goal is impossible, and even counterproductive. Humankind has so dramatically altered the planet that it is difficult to even know what pristine looks like, let alone try to achieve it globally or even regionally. For conservation and management to be successful, we need to change our relationship with nature, from trying to lock it away to using and enjoying it in a practical but necessarily sustainable way. We must reconcile purely conservation-focused goals with the many other values people have for nature.
Practical, not idealistic
For me, this shift in perspective grew out of a project I led over the last few years to develop the Ocean Health Index. The index explicitly addresses the needs of both nature and people when assessing the "health" of the oceans adjacent to 171 countries and territories. It is measured along 10 widely held goals for healthy, productive coasts and seas. Each goal is assessed for how it is doing today compared with a clearly defined value for where we would like to be as well as how it is likely to be doing in the near future. Each goal is rated as a percentage of its optimal value. Each country's overall score is then the average of its 10 goal scores, and it rewards sustainable behavior now and in the future.
From a practical point of view this formulation makes sense. It focuses on the diversity of values people hold for coasts and oceans. But for people witnessing the rapid decline of the environment in their own backyards, in their country and around the globe—and who are struggling against that tide to protect what remains—such a practical view can be quite disturbing.
I say this from experience. The researchers who developed and rolled out the index—from a cross section of disciplines and institutions, including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis where I work—came face to face with this controversy. We got push-back from the general public, from other scientists who peer-reviewed our research and even from within our own research team. When we first met, many on our team assumed we were going to develop an index of "pristine-ness," and they struggled to make the mental shift to a human-centric view of health. One researcher even quit when the project committed to defining ocean health by the benefits provided to people. During the peer-review process one of our papers was rejected because it was not conservation-focused enough. For another paper we battled for months with scientific reviewers about whether benefits to people should really be bundled with an assessment of the condition of an ecosystem itself. And as we rolled out the global results to public and scientific audiences, we heard complaints that we had set reference points too high or too low for particular goals, creating bias for or against human use of the ocean.