Carl Safina is not a happy man these days. In fact, he seems pretty glum.
The MacArthur Prize-winning scientist may have envisioned the nonprofit Blue Ocean Institute he helped create as a voice of hope and encouragement, but perhaps he's seen too much go wrong.
I caught up to him last week in Pittsburgh, where he was giving a talk at "World Water Day" conference, and I was attending a week-long environmental journalism workshop at Carnegie-Mellon University. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill was still spilling, with no assured end in sight. We sat in one of those nondescript conference rooms at the city convention center -- windowless, soundless, all but featureless, about as disconnected from nature as you could be -- and talked about what was happening.
Safina had been talking, talking, talking all day. It's what he's doing now. "The whole thing about this country is that we are able to speak out, for the most part without getting carted off to jail," he said. Except that most people don't. They don't exercise their right to free speech. "So I'm just trying to use mine a little bit. I don't think I have a lot to say that's much different from what a lot of people would have to say. I just am saying it. And I wish that a lot more people were saying the exact same thing, very loudly."
In fact, his minder for the day, a man who came from the corporate world, had been a little astonished at some of Safina's frank appraisals. But I like that sort of thing.
Mostly, Safina is talking about the Gulf oil spill and how our culture of deregulation shares a good part of the blame. "For 30 years, we have had a major era of taking out all the safeguards that had been put in, and really the destruction of government as the public watchdog," he said. "And the purpose of government is to protect most people from a few people. We still understand that with police ... but we have totally turned that upside down when it comes to corporate accountability, government oversight, the separation of the regulator and the regulated, and the need for safeguards. And that has resulted in a whole bunch of debacles and catastrophes."
Safina wore a nice suit and sat straight up in the chair, looking intent but also weary. I wished we could be out on a beach somewhere instead. A pretty one with no oil or trash. Just lots of birds and a healthy fishery offshore.
He's got a good bit of Jersey in him. Got his M.S. and Ph.D. from Rutgers and investigated toxic dumping sites for the state DEP. He's worked with sea birds and has tackled the complexities of fisheries management and broke into publishing with "Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas." It won a bunch of awards, and one reviewer described it as "a frightening, important book."
"Look what deregulation did to bring about the mortgage crisis and the bank collapses and the whole worldwide recession," he went on. "That has just incredibly hurt millions of people. And this blowout also is a result of a culture of deregulation, where the minerals and mining service was partying and doing drugs and having sex with people in the oil industry.
"I mean, this is a disgusting and shocking thing. In the worst, most corrupt country in the world, our jaws would drop if we heard such a thing. And that's what we had in this country." He said all this rather low-key. Not bombastic. So, somehow, it carried more weight as a result. And it was somehow invigorating. Back home, I played the tape for my husband.
Safina is definitely not a screamer, and that topic came up, too. Safina talked about how the airwaves now have "freak shows like Fox ... and now there are some liberal things trying to be the opposite, which I think is more entertaining but equally pathetic." Instead of fair and balanced, we now have "anything goes, and the loudest screamer wins. That is a total debacle of the public discourse and the idea that we're all Americans in one country."
I asked Safina what we're suppose to do at this point. How do we get out of this? Look to the president, the legislature, ourselves? "Yes," Safina said. All of the above. "That's what a democracy is supposed to be about. But unfortunately, there's an enormous force that hates government, there's an entire political party that hates government."
Which led him to talk of the Tea Partiers, who Safina regards as "nutty people. They hate government, they hate regulation of any kind, they don't want to pay any taxes. They should go live in a country that has no government, no regulation and no taxes. They should all move to Somalia."
He sees Tea Partiers on the corner in his Long Island town, "waving flags, as though they're the patriots. I think that they are treasonous. They hate the government of the United States. They don't even understand it. They march around on the corner every sat morning dressed up in Revolutionary dress like it's Halloween. These people are a political force? An ex-governor who quits halfway during her term to make millions of dollars is a political force? We have amazing problems in people who should be disgraced, but who are very influential somehow in a distorted public discourse."
Things seemed so gloomy that I forgot to ask about the hope part. But Safina gave me one anyway. He said that he hoped the spill would, at the very least, create "a move away from more and more riskier extraction of fossil fuel, and I hope that it chastens oil companies from trying to go deeper in more riskier ways, so that at the very least they spring for the best technology. And they're very clear that at the first sign of anything, you stop and reassess instead of telling people to hurry it up."
Safina has had much more to say on the spill, and you can catch up to a lot of it on his website. I went there just now to copy the address, and I wound up staring at his photo. A happier guy at the moment it was taken, for sure. He was probably out researching birds, not contemplating disaster in the Gulf.
Back in Pittsburgh, I looked at Safina's tie. It had sea turtles on it. Were they Kemp's Ridleys, I asked. Those are the ones that breed exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico. Another oceans group, Oceana, is releasing a report on Thursday, detailing the harm that oil can cause sea turtles, which are in decline already.
An Irish betting service has laid odds that the Kemp's Ridley will be the first species to go extinct as a result of the spill. I told Safina this, thinking it was so ridiculous it might be a little bit funny. But I think it depressed him even more.
He flipped up his tie to look. "No," he said, "Green turtles."