Reefs in trouble – The real root cause

Yellow band disease

Dr. Stephen Jameson recently published a provocative essay in the Marine Pollution Bulletin that has stimulated considerable debate among reef scientists and conservationists, especially on the coral list server.  His goal was to drill down to the ultimate social/political cause of reef decline, beneath the  proximate environmental causes reef scientists study:

The real root cause of coral reef decline is not carbon dioxide emissions, rising sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, coral disease, over fishing, destructive fishing techniques, eutrophication, sedimentation, sewage, herbicides, pesticides, African dust, increasing human populations or any of the other individual or synergistic combinations of stressors affecting coral reefs locally,regionally or globally – these are only symptoms of much bigger and more profound problem.  At its core, the real root cause of coral reef decline, when objectively looking at the evidence, seems to be attributable to innate human species behavior characteristics determined by how we are genetically hard-wired.

Dr. Jameson said, “I wrote it in response to the International Year of the Reef/Science Magazine issue “Reefs in Trouble” (14 Dec 2007) that, in my opinion, missed a golden opportunity to address the “real” root cause of “Reefs in Trouble””.  And what he is really trying to get at is whether large groups of humans are capable of cooperatively managing a complex system like a reef.  “Do we really have the capability, when operating as a very large group such as a nation or group of nations, to govern ourselves effectively and live sustainably with our environment?”  There is lots of evidence that we can do so when in small, communal groups, but why when we organize as nations do things seem to go awry?

Our every day experience in the United States (and in many other countries) informs us that the state of our governance, where wealthy business and special interests use campaign financing, lobbying, and media control to manipulate government policy and public perceptions is not a viable system for conserving coral reefs or for sustainable living because it is predicated on the fact that; ‘‘He who owns the political trump card wins”

It is a great system for creating corporate profit and socializing expense at global cost, but it does not produce clean air and water in natural environments or enhance biodiversity.

Stephen is also asking: can a social, cultural community consciousness evolve into a global consciousness? There are several layers to the answer.  As he argues, there may be genetically or socially based behavioral limitations that have and will preclude the development of a new form of global altruism.  There are also complex competing forces that have designed a governance system incompatible with the conservation of species and ecosystems half way around the world.  But I think a very deep perception gap is another key problem.  Even in wealthy nations, where we have the luxury of worrying about such matters, I am struck by how few people recognize that their actions can affect other people in far away nations.  Many people I talk to in the US are aware of climate change and the decline of coral reefs, but have a hard time comprehending that their choices and behaviors could actually be causing problems for people and corals in the south Pacific.  Making people, especially policy makers, aware of the striking effects we are having on all the world’s oceans, including ocean chemistry and temperature, will be a critical battle in the broader campaign to address the real root cause.


Jameson SC (2008) Guest editorial: Reefs in trouble ­ the real root cause. Marine Pollution Bulletin 56(9):1513-1514

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