How Coral Researchers Are Coping With the Death of Reefs
November 21, 2017 10:50 AM   Subscribe

The drumbeat of devastating news can take its toll on the mental health of people who have devoted their lives to coral.

The continuing desecration has taken an immense toll on the mental health of people like Colton who have devoted their lives to studying and saving these ecosystems. How do you get up and go to work every day when every day brings fresh news of loss? When everything you are working to save is collapsing, how do you stop yourself from collapsing, too? Maybe everything isn’t going to be fine, after all. Maybe we can’t do this. “Are we going to lose an entire ecosystem on my watch? It’s demoralizing. It’s been really hard to find the optimism,” she says.
posted by poffin boffin (23 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Seriously, I feel for these people. Watching the inevitable death of our oceans, and therefore humanity itself, happening before their eyes. Absolutely gut-wrenching.
posted by agregoli at 11:07 AM on November 21, 2017 [7 favorites]


previously: “I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan is quoted saying in the National Wildlife Federation’s 2012 report, “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is Not Adequately Prepared.” “It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again,” she says, referring to an ocean reef she has studied since 2002, “because I just know I’m going to see more and more of it dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae.”

People are trying to build support groups and work out therapeutic approaches for dealing with climate anxiety/climate depression.
posted by halation at 11:13 AM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]


Years ago I was talking with my therapist about some things I was feeling depressed about. Most were personal issues, but one was a particularly pessimistic news story I’d read about climate change. When she asked me how I felt about that I said “Well, in this case it doesn’t really matter how I *feel*, does it?”
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:30 AM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]


Sad to say, bad news is taking the toll on EVERYONE'S mental health nowadays.
posted by Samizdata at 11:30 AM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]


I brought my therapist a few summary articles -- Oceans; Erosion; Extinctions; Diseases -- and the next session she admitted that she hadn't thought through how bad it was already getting and we just sat with the sad for a while.
posted by clew at 11:59 AM on November 21, 2017 [8 favorites]


Back in 2013, I posted a depressing article (The irresistible rise of an arguably unstoppable creature) about how jellyfish were taking over our oceans. This comment by The Whelk stuck with me:
If you never want to feel good about anything again, just talk to a marine biologist about the state of the oceans.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:59 AM on November 21, 2017 [12 favorites]


My elementary school age son was learning about coral reefs in class earlier in the year, and spent a few weeks eagerly drawing and talking about them on his own at home. I didn't have the courage to tell him that there won't be any left by the time he's my age. Raising a kid in an era where the future looks so unrelenting bleak is definitely taking a toll on my mental health.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:11 PM on November 21, 2017 [12 favorites]


I struggle, as an avid reader of all things, to get my teenage son to read books. He doesn't really like fanstasy because everything is fantasy these days, he doesn't really love narrative fiction or even sci-fi because he'd rather play halo where he's part of the story, part of the action. He's liked some nonfiction, so , having recently finished Elizabeth Kolbert's the Sixth Extinction , i though he might find it interesting reading about how some serious science is done. It's really quite interesting how many types of research are going on at the species level, and how many different factors, beyond simply "it's warmer"are playing a part in the current changes being seen.

From the perspective of geological time, the fact that life has survived 5 previous mass extinctions, and is quite varied and resilient at the moment, actually made me a little bit hopeful by the end of the book (not necessarily for any one species or even human-kind, but hey, it's something). But I might have made a mistake in exposing him to the realities of his future.

We've had several discussions about the book as he's making his way through it (it's not exactly light reading for a teenager) and he does enjoy the paleontology and sciencey research bits, but he's also depressed as hell about the future and feeling hopeless about what he can do.

Last year we were in Sri Lanka, and went snorkeling off of Pigeon Island, a small national park whose reef survived the Banda Aceh tsunami of 2004. It's a nice little piece of living reef and we enjoyed the wide variety of corals and fish species, but it was clear that human activity was still having an impact and that parts of the reef were pretty abused. We talked about this as well but i didn't have the heart to go on about other reefs I had seen in my lifetime and how diminished the world had become of these precious, ancient ecosystems.

I am certain that a hundred years ago, when the world was fully at war, parents had to carefully talk to their children about the world that they had created, and about how to move into the future. Some of those children grew up to care about the planet (lots of people do) and some still wage endless war.
Hopefully the children we raise today can act in ways that we have been unable to, in order to give their children hope that we and ours are starting to lose.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:37 PM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]


Song to go with the general mood here: No Such Thing by Kathy Mar. (I'm sorry.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:53 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


We can't get back what we've lost but nature is very resilient. If we stop poisoning them, one day the oceans will be beautiful and full of amazing life no matter how bad things get beforehand.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:07 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


This is why I got my dive cert recently; I know the reefs aren't likely to be around much longer, or certainly not in their current state. I walk or bike to places whenever it's feasible, I avoid using plastic straws and whatnot when I can, I switched my Amazon donation to the CRF, but I know they're overwhelmingly likely to be cooked to death in the next thirty years at the outside no matter what I do, so I'd better see them now. I'm trying to persuade some of my friends to go with me, too; if we're going to be the last generation who can see the beauty in these underwater cathedrals, then I want as many of us to see it as possible before it just exists on screens and in aquariums.
posted by tautological at 1:43 PM on November 21, 2017


Whether or not we stop poisoning them, one day the oceans will be beautiful and full of amazing life. The question is whether that life will be compatible with a human population on the land parts of the planet.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:46 PM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


The issue is not whether things will go back to being beautiful, the issue is that because of human-caused climate change, we are hastening the extinction of entire ecosystems that did not need to go extinct.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:05 PM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]


If the oceans are beautiful and full of life even 5000 years from now (a very short time), it will be because humans are long gone.
posted by agregoli at 2:09 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]


The issue is not whether things will go back to being beautiful, the issue is that because of human-caused climate change, we are hastening the extinction of entire ecosystems that did not need to go extinct.
posted by ChuraChura


...did not need to go extinct yet. Everything goes extinct eventually.
posted by agregoli at 2:11 PM on November 21, 2017


Reef evolution over the last 600 million years (the Phanerozoic era - gr. "visible life") can be divided into three cycles, each separated by a significant extinction event. All reef extinctions appear to coinicide with mass marine extinctions.
An excerpt from a lecture on The Past, Present and Future of Coral Reefs from Columbia University. The presentation goes on to cover a myriad of impacts (most human-based) to the coral reefs of today, which greatly dampens any hope you might have from knowing that past reef systems also faced mass extinction
posted by filthy light thief at 2:14 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]


I largely can't read or otherwise absorb this kind of material any more, same way as I defocus my eyes whenever I accidentally scroll past something to do with animal cruelty, or, quite honestly, Australian, UK, and US politics.

I've done the best I can, lacking any kind of formal science qualifications, by doing what I hope is good work within the government department I work for, which is partially responsible for Great Barrier Reef "damage mitigation". Given my budget and circumstances, I am consciously making decisions to move away from using disposable plastics as much as possible, and eat as ethically as possible, and use public transport as much as possible, and decrease energy usage as much as possible, and sow native wildflowers as much as possible, and voting properly, and having all my super in a legitimately ethical fund, and a whole host of similar things. But, it's nothing. It's pissing against a tsunami.

I can't speak to the majority of my family any more, because they have gone so far down the rabbit hole of hard-right fuckery that I honestly get sick just thinking about them sometimes. I was a member of my local Greens for a while, all good and well-meaning people, but the Greens just flail around with too much populist non-policy and don't stick to solid plans or stay on-message. All I can do is let my world shrink smaller and smaller and get angrier and more hateful and intolerant.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:42 PM on November 21, 2017 [20 favorites]


Is one really depressed, in the sense of psychological health, if the object of contemplation is genuinely depressing?
posted by Construction Concern at 4:09 PM on November 21, 2017 [7 favorites]


I once visited an island resort in a marine reserve, they weren't allowed to build on the beach, and the boat could not get to shore, so we jumped off the boat into chest high water and waded to land with our clothes in bags over our heads. It was spectacular, corals, fish, seahorses, shark, in just waist high water next to our huts. Huge grouper fish and corals the size of small cars. At night our footprints in the wet sand by the gently crashing waves glowed blue with bioluminiscent algae. The water was so clear it looked like bleach solution, I have never seen such clear water, not even in the best swimming pools. The reef seemed to me in the pink of health: not a single sick or dying coral to be seen, and bountiful shoals of neon colored fish.

I asked our tour guide why he did not bring swimming gear and he said it's depressing compared to how it was 10 years back so he doesn't get into the water. I have no idea what he would have seen 10 years before. This was all 25 years ago and I don't dare return. I believe him, I visited a popular island destination (uninhabited, about an hour away from nearest land) about 10-15 years apart and the level of degradation was incredible, it was just miles of dead coral in a sandy desert almost devoid of fish. I don't really think there's anything we can do directly at a local level, as it affects even locations far from humans: it's large macro level issues like warming and the agricultural revolution (fertilizer runoff).
posted by xdvesper at 7:42 PM on November 21, 2017 [7 favorites]


Is one really depressed, in the sense of psychological health, if the object of contemplation is genuinely depressing?

I believe the mental-health professions are struggling with this very question. I recall reading about a proposed new DSM category – my Google skills aren't up to finding the correct reference on a phone at the moment, sorry – called something like "reality-induced existential depression." It was intended to reflect the idea that a crippling level of sorrow is an entirely rational response to the accumulating evidence of our own species-suicide.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:49 AM on November 22, 2017 [12 favorites]


Well, the invisible hand of the free market has determined that an Partially Adequate Barrier Reef is optimal.
posted by acb at 7:21 AM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


I recall reading about a proposed new DSM category – my Google skills aren't up to finding the correct reference on a phone at the moment, sorry – called something like "reality-induced existential depression." It was intended to reflect the idea that a crippling level of sorrow is an entirely rational response to the accumulating evidence of our own species-suicide.

I've seen the assertion that, were humans completely rational, we would all commit suicide out of existential despair at the human condition, and it is only an evolutionarily hard-wired irrational optimism (that and parasitic memes such as religions, political ideologies and such) that makes a species capable of introspection biologically viable. Now that that original biological survival mechanism is breaking down in the anthropocene, perhaps we'll need to augment it, as we have done with our immune systems. This could take the form of antidepressants being declinicalised and introduced into the normal diet, if not the water supply alongside fluoride.
posted by acb at 7:27 AM on November 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


yeah i very deliberately didn't make any claims about whether the human race will survive. but we can only destroy ourselves, we're not going to end biological life.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:32 PM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


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