Marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle has led more than 100 expeditions, logged over 7,000 hours underwater, and has authored more than 190 scientific, technical, and popular articles. As former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and founder of Mission Blue, she wants everyone to know that the life in our oceans holds way more value than the creatures we pull out of it.
As a girl, Dr. Sylvia Earle couldn’t comprehend the destruction of nature and wildlife around her. “Why is the seagrass meadow I love to explore being torn up with dredgers?” she recalls asking her parents when they lived on the Florida coast. Despite the plentiful availability of land away from the sea edge, condominiums needed to be as close as possible to the ocean because they fetched a higher price. In a bizarre reversal of this logic, you’ll find a brass plaque in the financial district of San Francisco marking the original shoreline in 1852. The seagrass meadows that once filled central San Francisco were filled in and the ocean pushed back hundreds of yards to create more land. In this case, pushing the ocean further away was seen as economically beneficial. This love-hate relationship with the ocean has been going on for centuries, and yet the crucial role it plays in our survival as a species has been lost on many except scientists and ocean explorers — and Dr. Sylvia Earle.
Since childhood, Earle, now a world-renowned marine biologist, has been for the oceans for most of her life. She wants people to realize the crucial role that our oceans play in supporting life on Earth and giving us the oxygen we need to breathe. “Any astronaut will tell you to learn everything you can about your life-support system and do everything you can to take care of it,” she says.
“We’ve had a wakeup call,” says Earle, now 86 years old. “Breathing air and the Earth’s atmosphere has pretty much been taken for granted. What is air? Astronauts have shown us images of the extremely thin atmospheric envelope that separates us from nothingness, and we now know that air is generated by the life found on the planet beneath. We’re also more than just rocks and water — everything is alive.”
According to Searle??, our lack of respect for the environment, and for other humans, has gotten us into the mess we see today. The bad news is that our existence as a species is precarious — but there is good news too. “We know things today that I couldn’t have known as a child,” she explains. “Knowledge has advanced at an exceptional rate — especially since the middle of the 20th century — and we’ve never been more informed or aware in our history than we are today. In addition, we have hard evidence of the environmental problems around us. What you know, you can fix.”
Earle, a supporter of the 30X30 movement (which is working to protect 30% of seawaters by 2030), asks us to imagine a scenario where we didn’t know about climate change; that the atmosphere was finite; or that the entire planet was interconnected in a biological, physical, and chemical sense. That is a more dangerous scenario as our ignorance would excuse our inaction. But we do know that the health of humans is directly connected to the health of the planet. “What we do anywhere affects everywhere,” says Earle. “Whether positive or negative, we’re all suffering from the consequences of our actions. Taking care of the natural world — the basic functions that make Earth exceptional — should be our No. 1 priority in a universe that is very unfriendly to us.”
Over 100 million years ago, even Earth was not friendly to human life. The air was mostly carbon dioxide, much like Mars is today. “But it seems as if we’re doing our best to turn Earth into Mars, while some bright sparks are thinking how they can make Mars more Earth-like. What are we thinking?” asks Earle.
We’ve historically thought that wild places need to be “fixed” or that we “upgrade” an area when we cut down trees and replace them with a house or farm. “When humans move in, realize that the original inhabitants, who may have been living there for thousands of years, need to move out,” Earle reminds us. “Realistically, we do need to modify our natural surroundings for food and housing if we are to accommodate 8 billion people on a small planet, but we can’t destroy all of it or our life-support system will fail. We need to restore much of what has already been lost. There are large, vested interests in business and governments that are hell-bent on turning nature into money and products. But nature is not free.”
Earle compares the Earth to a big bank account. “We must do proper accounting when it comes to the environment. You would never run a business the same way we currently treat nature. We’ve been given an endowment, but instead of caring for it and saving, we’ve been spending, spending, spending throughout history. We’re now at a point where these natural assets aren’t rebounding fast enough to keep up with our spending. Anyone can understand this idea, even a kid with a piggy bank. Ninety-five percent of the old growth forest in North America is gone. Some may say, ‘Oh, we have trees, and we can simply plant more.’ But they’re missing the point. Trees are not just for producing boards and lumber; they exist to yield a planet that works in our favor — carbon captured, oxygen released, the complex diversity of life made possible by their existence.”
Earle notes that it’s taken a very long time to put the right ingredients together to enable life on Earth, yet humans continue to squander it. “We keep hearing about clever entrepreneurs with ideas on how to draw carbon from the atmosphere, but at the same time, we’re destroying the natural carbon-capturing systems that already exist,” she says. “No human-engineered system can replicate what nature has developed over hundreds of millions of years. We need to treat nature with respect, as an asset.”
According to Earle, our biggest hope is our children. If older generations are blinded by the past and narrow worldviews of their heyday, children today and future generations will not be constrained by a lack of knowledge. “They will grow up knowing what Earth looks like from space, with an awareness that Earth is in trouble, and therefore, so are we,” she says.
“Children get it,” continues Earle. “They don’t start out as killers in life — but we teach them to kill. Children are naturally curious, but they don’t naturally go out looking to stamp on an earthworm; they want to pick it up and look at it. Until the end of elementary school, children are not looking to shoot a bird or kill a fish — , unless, of course, they are hungry. But there are other ways to feed ourselves instead of killing wildlife, and we need to ask ourselves how much nature we can transform to suit our purposes before we’ve gone too far.”
Earle points out that even though the Industrial Revolution was 200 years ago, consuming nature has been the main reason we’ve developed as a species over thousands of years — turning trees, animals, and resources in the ground into things we needed for survival. Today, it’s less about survival and more about plundering our natural resources for luxury goods and to feed our endless desire for consumer goods. “We should look at all forms of life as precious and miraculous,” she says. “We only need to look at the other barren planets in our universe to realize that there’s no other place like our own blue home. Treating our oceans with disrespect, as if they are an endless source of free goods — a grocery store where you take but don’t have to pay — is not a sustainable solution.”
Since the mid-20th century, we’ve developed a commercial mindset that has encouraged us to exploit our natural resources on a massive scale, aided by technology and machines now capable of hauling hundreds of millions of creatures from the sea. And while we all hail the latest mobile phone as a wonder of technology, this rapid advancement in knowledge has also helped humans devour and destroy.
“We’ve never exploited the oceans on such a great scale before because our oceans have historically been protected by their inaccessibility,” explains Earle. “But advances in technology have changed all that. Viewing our oceans as a free resource, with an attitude of ‘Well, if I don’t grab it, somebody else will,’ must change.”
In many ways, despite the massive exploitation, we can no longer plead ignorance about the plight of our oceans. We have access and transparency like never before. We can see it, measure it, watch it online, even create graphs that show the comparative numbers of fish from the 1970s to today.
The Census of Marine Life concluded as far back as 2010, that 90% of large fish are gone, primarily because of overfishing. “Even decimating stocks of smaller fish is hugely problematic, as they are the food source of the larger fish,” says Earle. “The big fish are looking for their groceries in a fast-emptying supermarket. Humans don’t need those smaller fish because we have plenty of options. We eat them as a luxury choice, but for the big fish, it’s a life-or-death situation.”
For example, nobody really needs to eat tuna, according to Earle, other than some island communities that have fewer choices than those living in developed countries. “When I was a child, tuna was something you fed to the dogs,” she recalls. “It was sold for pennies per pound. In 2020, a single bluefin tuna sold for $1.8 million at Tokyo’s Toyosu fish market. Some people have a lot of money, but in the end we’re all paying for the exploitation of our natural assets.”
The International Monetary Fund created a study on the value of whales in 2019 and discovered that whales — especially the great whales — play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. The carbon capture potential of whales is truly amazing. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.
The IMF’s conservative estimate put the value of the average great whale at more than $2 million and easily over $1 trillion for the current stock of great whales. Up until the 1970s, many whales were simply ground up for pet food. One conservation strategy that might work for business is showing that the benefits of protecting them far exceed the cost of hunting and killing them.
“Now that we’ve established the true value of whales, how about doing the math on tuna, shrimp, or even krill in the Arctic waters?” asks Earle. “Instead of selling these creatures on the market, how about looking at their wider value? Ultimately, what’s it worth to be alive? An insurance company will easily give you a value on your life, so why can’t we apply this thinking to the natural world? We need to get to a point when even the most steely-eyed businessperson will say, ‘My life, that of my children, and the future of civilization is worth something.’ It’s time we realized that the environmental degradation we see around us stems from choices we made 50–100 years ago, ideas that seemed good at the time. This shouldn’t be too hard — business leaders ditch old ideas all the time.”
“With a billion or even a trillion dollars, you couldn’t create a tree from scratch,” continues Earle, “yet we price trees per yard as lumber. Consider the true cost of an unhealthy environment against the cost of healthcare for billions of people affected by unclean water and air. Business leaders should stop looking at narrow, short-term benefits and unlock a much larger value in which there is still huge, untapped entrepreneurial potential. It requires a shift in thinking around what the value of natural resources really are.”
“Imagine going back 50 years in time,” says Earle. “What decisions would you have made to give us a chance at a better world? Well, what’s to stop you from making those decisions today, the choices that will benefit your grandchildren 50 years from now?”
When Earle began deep sea explorations in the 1980s by establishingDeep Ocean Engineering with then husband Graham Hawkes, it was with a desire to go where no one had been before. Likewise, she thinks that business leaders today must push themselves into uncharted territories to create a mindset for groundbreaking innovation and new opportunities.
Key to this is feeling it, rather than just thinking it, according to Earle. “When you get emotional about the importance of looking after nature as you would your own body, then real progress can be made. Start in your own backyard. Ask, ‘What can I do to be kind to the birds, the butterflies, and the creatures that have lived here long before humans took over and displaced the natural order of things?’ To be kind to birds, you’ll need to consider insects too — their main source of food — so consider the sprays and insecticides that destroy this vital source of nourishment. Instead of killing nature, learn to live with it. When you visit a supermarket, you’ll find entire aisles devoted to chemicals that you’re encouraged to spray everywhere to kill insects or make your room smell better, and these are poisoning our world. Listen to the science and to those who have devoted their careers to hard evidence; they can guide products and services toward a more responsible environmental solution.”
When a scientist changes their mind based on the emergence of new evidence, don’t see this as proof that they were wrong all along, she reminds us. Instead, see this as further proof that they are unmoved by emotion and public sentiment and more likely to be trusted because they align with hard truth and not theory. “We have more knowledge now than at any time in civilization, so let’s use it,” says Earle. “All the greatest discoveries on Earth happened because someone asked themselves ‘Why are things this way?’ Business leaders, too, must ask themselves a question and then seek an answer.”
To find answers or be suitably moved by what you’ve seen or heard, CEOs need to get out more, she says. Earle started Deep Ocean Exploration and Research in 1992 to democratize access to the sea. You cannot change what you don’t see, she points out, and when you’re tackling environmental or climate issues, seeing is believing. A great many people can afford a cheap air ticket to go 30,000 feet above the Earth, and close to 700 people have now been to space. Yet only a dozen people have been to the deepest part of our ocean, and that has mostly taken place in the last three years.
“We’re at the edge of one of the greatest eras of exploration in human history,” says Earle. “There are layers of life deep below the ocean that we’ve known about since the late 1800s — billions of little fish, shrimp, squid, and jelly fish that migrate up and down depending on the time of day — from the surface to depths of up to 3,000 feet. According to the Smithsonian, by releasing massive amounts of mucus and waste or sinking to the bottom themselves, jellyfish alone sequester an estimated 2 billion metric tons of carbon to the ocean’s depths each year, equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by one-third of U.S. citizens in the same timeframe.
This layer of sea life is so dense that military submarines hide beneath it to avoid detection by sonar sensors from enemy ships on the surface. Yet despite this layer playing a critical role in the health of our planet, the exploitative nature of humans has once again kicked into high gear.
“For the past few years,” says Earle, “Norway and a few Asian countries have looked at this phenomenon and thought, ‘Wow,that’s a lot of protein out there. We don’t have names for many of these creatures yet, but I bet if we grind them up and feed them to farm animals, we could make some money.’ And that’s exactly what they’re doing, spending billions of dollars to dismember this vital link in the carbon cycle and Earth’s life-support system. Some people will become very rich by doing this — but once again — we will all pay.”
Earle holds the record for deepest solo ocean walk — 1,250 feet below the surface — and has experienced the same sense of wonder and emotion as astronauts do when seeing the fragility of Earth from space for the first time. “Her Deepness,” as she is affectionately known, has seen things that very few people have. In fact, when she spoke with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, they discovered they’d each spent exactly 2.5 hours exploring new worlds. The difference was that Earle discovered new life; Aldrin a giant, dusty rock.
“I went into the depths and saw these innocent creatures that mean us no harm,” she says. “These include sharks, which many people think are out to get us, which is completely false. Humans are not on a shark’s menu, but they are on ours. It stuns me to see how innocent these fish are — they just wanted to check me out. They came up to the window of my diving craft to look. Compare that to a human walking into a forest, where all the animals and birds run the other way — they have learned not to trust us. The creatures in the sea do not see us as cause for alarm yet.”
Earle particularly loves “the amazing diversity” she sees when traveling the world. “The distinctive cultures, languages, art, music and the habits are what make us human. Of course, you’ll find disagreement between people too, even within a family, but everyone can agree that we need a planet that is favorable to our existence. Do you want a planet where you can live well, or just scrape by? Do you want prosperity, or the endless anguish of not knowing what crisis will happen next? Everyone likes to breathe, and you can’t count your money holding your breath. It’s such a basic idea that it gives me hope that we can, as a unified species, become aware of what’s causing the decline of Earth’s natural resilience. We must pull together on what we know needs to be done — to protect the diversity of life that is now in freefall — and to rebuild the resilience that keeps this planet habitable. Remember that we’re not only doing this for the environment and animals, but for us. When we get over the fact that Earth is only here for our benefit, we will start this process of healing.”
Some of the brightest minds on the planet right now are trying to figure out solutions to the dilemma of balancing our needs against those of the natural world. “Collaboration is crucial, or we’re done,” says Earle. “To make peace with nature, we first must make peace among ourselves. Whether you’re a CEO, a farmer, or a kid, look in the mirror and ask yourself what power you have and how you can apply it to a turning point that drives us toward an alternative way of living. Let’s not wait until we’re at the cliff edge. There are plenty of companies, organizations, and even countries that are showing a better way — research them and learn the knowledge that already exists.”
“Life is a miracle, and you need to savor every moment,” she sums up. “Why not use your life in a way that will make a difference? Giving back is part of what makes us human. Together, we’ve built civilization to unprecedented levels of prosperity and accomplishment. Do we really want to lose it all because we failed to look at the foundation of what keeps us alive? Change your mindset from ‘take all I can, while I can,’ to ‘what can I give back while I can.’ It will give you a more fulfilling life, inspire more innovative ideas for business, and keep you and your grandchildren breathing freely for generations to come.”