THE BLOG
02/13/2011 09:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fish Don't Rebel (So We Should)

Former Wall Street Journal editor Frank Allen once pointed out that environmental stories don't break, they ooze.

The thing about breaking news like Egypt's people power revolution is its immediacy.

Wars, revolutions and natural disasters provide vivid portraits of humanity at the extreme, bringing out the best and the worst in some people, taking others lives or altering them profoundly in the snap of a bullet, the shattering of a Molotov, the dull crack of a truncheon hitting bone.

This can make working or reporting on environmental issues pale by comparison, seem as pale as bleached coral or dead fish. The impact of things like fossil-fuel fired climate change to which, according to the scientific cant, no single (dramatic) weather event can be attributed, the collapse of marine wildlife due to industrial overfishing, that is disguised for many by the imported or farmed fish they can still buy, even the scourge of ocean acidification that you can't taste or feel in the water, are by definition "long term problems." They have few emotionally jarring images or tragic/scary moments to provide that jolt of fight-or-flight adrenaline that drives most news stories, be they reported by the new or old media.

In reporting on ozone depletion in the 1990s that posed an increased risk of skin cancer, TV networks quickly created a visual shorthand by showing women in bikinis sunbathing on beaches. I don't doubt that helped drive the policy agenda. Still, it was a problem now being fixed not as a result of public outrage, but a UN treaty signed in Montreal, Canada, banning a class of chemical refrigerants called CFCs. While this kind of rational policy decision-making sometimes works, it becomes much harder to enact when the problems are much larger and complex like how to wean the world off fossil-fuels when the largest and richest industrial combines in human history are fossil-fuel companies whose annual profits make Hosni Mubarak's family seem middle-class. And while they may support autocratic kings and dictators that need to be overthrown, big oil is equally willing to buy off political parties and politicians in parliamentary democracies. Their global operations also seem impervious to mass protest except when the injuries they inflict are localized and personal (like Chevron in Ecuador, Shell in Nigeria, or BP in southern Louisiana).

The truth is we're hard wired by evolution to respond to the most immediate threats (secret police and Tsunamis), not the broad long-term challenges such as climate disruption, population, consumption and loss of biodiversity, even if these are the planetary "game-changers."

That means if we can't find ways to put our instincts in the service of our future by linking our immediate aspirations to our long-term interests we're going to get into even deeper trouble.

The other challenge is an experiential one: what may seem a long term issue to a 19-year-old tweeting on the next protest demonstration (or party) seems far more immediate to me. In the blink of an eye in which I've lived my life over the last half century, the reefs of Florida, where I first witnessed the living splendor of a colorful vibrant coral community at the age of 15, have gone from 90 percent live coral cover to less than 10 percent. Globally a third of the world's tropical coral reefs have died due to human impacts ranging from water pollution to overfishing to climate change. And its poor countries such as Egypt, Cuba and Fiji that are most in need of healthy reefs for fish, for tourist revenues and as coastal storm barriers.

In travels to places as diverse as El Salvador and Tunisia I've come to believe that democracy and democratic revolutions are a necessary precursor to the kind of sustained environmental reforms we need in order to thrive and survive but are not a guarantee that we'll do the right thing. The only guarantee will be individual and collective action.

While we celebrate historic moments of change and freedom like the people power movements of Tunisia and Egypt its important to remember that history is also the choices we make every day.