Pornography on the Net
As Dick Thornburgh and Herbert Lin note in “Youth, Pornography, and the Internet” (Issues, Winter 2004), the Supreme Court took an important step in the legal fight to protect children from online pornography with its 2003 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a federal law that requires public libraries that rely on federal funds for Internet use to install filtering devices on library computers to protect children from the darker side of the Internet–pornography and obscenity.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority, clearly understood the responsibility that the government has in protecting the interests of our children. “Especially because public libraries have traditionally excluded pornographic material from their collections, Congress could reasonably impose a parallel limitation on its Internet assistance program,” he wrote. In other words, if a child cannot walk up to a librarian and request a copy of Hustler magazine, taxpayer dollars should not be used to fund a library’s Internet program that enables a child to access Hustler-like material (or worse) online.
Now the Supreme Court is considering another critical law designed to protect young people from online porn. At issue is the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), passed by Congress in 1998 and the subject of legal challenges ever since its inception. Simply put, the measure would require operators of commercial Internet sites to use credit cards or some form of adults-only screening system to ensure that children cannot see material deemed harmful to them. If operators don’t comply, they could face fines and jail time.
We filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of 13 members of Congress–including one of the cosponsors of COPA–asking the court to overturn a federal appeals court decision declaring COPA unconstitutional. COPA does not pose a constitutional crisis but merely represents a careful and sound response by Congress in addressing this egregious problem.
The requirements imposed by COPA will not destroy the Internet and do not infringe on the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. COPA simply places a reasonable restriction on access to commercially marketed indecency to prevent access to such materials by minors. In approving COPA, Congress sought to ward off a threat once recognized by Franklin D. Roosevelt: “the nation that destroys its soul destroys itself.”
The Supreme Court applied logic and common sense last year when it upheld the constitutionality of CIPA. Opinion-makers coast-to-coast understood the important ramifications of that decision. One editorial concluded that, “protecting children from filth is the correct and conscientious thing to do. Filth is filth. It does not become any more acceptable, it does not gain any value, simply because it arrives electronically.”
It is our hope that the Supreme Court will now follow in its own footsteps and find COPA to be constitutional as well, delivering a powerful one-two punch in the legal fight to provide online protection for our children.
I commend H. Spencer Banzhaf’s analysis of the numerous benefits of establishing a Bureau of Environmental Statistics within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (“Establishing a Bureau of Environmental Statistics,” Issues, Winter 2004). For the past 30 years, EPA has continued its role as a regulatory agency without the benefit of such a statistical bureau. Many federal agencies use statistical bureaus as a basis for policy decisions and to track performance results mandated by the Government Performance and Results Act. Without valid statistical data on the state of the environment, EPA cannot determine whether its regulatory efforts are producing environmental results. I agree with Banzhaf that the use of environmental statistics is long overdue. I will continue my efforts to pass H.R. 2138, elevate EPA to a department, and establish a Bureau of Environmental Statistics.
H. Spencer Banzhaf eloquently articulates the rationale for an expanded and well-focused national commitment to reporting on the condition of the environment. The Heinz Center’s 2002 State of the Nation’s Ecosystems report () is based on a similar conclusion: that the nation needs periodic, high-quality, nonpartisan reporting on the condition and use of our lands, waters, and living resources. Unfortunately, we found that it was not possible to provide national-level data for nearly half of a suite of carefully chosen indicators, and there were important gaps in what could be reported for nearly a quarter more. Banzhaf’s article highlights deficiencies in air and water pollution information; our work also identified important gaps in ecological information, such as the condition of the nation’s freshwater habitats; the amount of carbon stored in our forests, farms, and rangelands; the spread of non-native species; the size of the “dead zones” in our coastal waters; the amount of farmland affected by excess salinity; and the fraction of our nation’s aquifers declining because of overuse. Filling such gaps should be a key national priority.
Readers should be aware of two ongoing studies that will help policymakers understand the dimensions of the resources needed for improved reporting. The first, currently under way at the Heinz Center, will provide estimates of the costs of filling the data gaps identified in our 2002 report, along with information on which of these are seen by environmental practitioners as most important to fill first. The second, being undertaken by the General Accounting Office, will examine a wide range of environmental information sources and will ascertain whether these data sources appear to be stable or whether there are indications that scientific, technical, budgetary, or other mid- to long-term challenges may erode current reporting capabilities.
I also heartily endorse Banzhaf’s recognition that external input to such reporting efforts is vital. In any such effort, both the choice of what to report and the way in which the data are presented must be unassailably above suspicion of political or partisan influence. Experts from the business and environmental advocacy communities, academia, and government agencies worked together to produce, not simply advise on or endorse, the State of the Nation’s Ecosystems report. Broad involvement and transparency are crucial to any effort to institutionalize environmental and ecosystem reporting.
Finally, I would like to emphasize the importance–and not minimize the difficulty–of interagency and intergovernmental coordination in environmental reporting. Environmental and ecological data are collected by multiple federal agencies, by states and local governments, and by nongovernmental organizations. Ensuring that these entities “play well together” requires careful attention to the question of why any organization should modify its behavior to meet another organization’s goals. Improving the nation’s reporting capabilities will require careful attention to incentives, organizational imperatives, and (last but not least) money.
Climate change policy
Richard B. Stewart and Jonathan B. Wiener (“Practical Climate Change Policy,” Issues, Winter 2004) provide some interesting thoughts on moving beyond the Kyoto impasse. I agree with their recommendation that we need to take a comprehensive approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions in order to enhance both environmental and cost effectiveness. I also share their view on the importance of finding ways to bring the United States on board. Stewart and Wiener suggest joint accession by the United States and China as a way forward. Their proposal does have the merit of enhancing the environmental effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol and helping stabilize the price of permits on the international carbon market. It is certainly in the interest of the United States, because the participation of China would substantially reduce U.S. compliance costs and increase environmental effectiveness. But I doubt the prospects for this proposal for the following reasons.
First, although broad discussions and cooperation in the field of climate change continue between China and the United States, it is doubtful that China would be willing to discuss joint cap-and-trade arrangements. For historical reasons, China attributes great importance to maintaining unity of the Group of 77, and engaging in discussions on joint cap-and-trade arrangements with the United States may well be perceived as a threat to the solidarity of that group. Developing countries, including China, insist that industrialized countries should take the lead in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions before developing countries even consider taking on such commitments. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and a very low scale of overall emissions reductions in the industrialized countries during the first commitment period, it is unclear whether developing countries would regard their wealthy counterparts as having taken the lead by the beginning of the second commitment period.
When it comes to negotiating developing-country commitments, it is in the interest of China to join with other developing countries and negotiate developing-country commitments under the climate convention. This will give China much more clout in the final collective bargaining to determine its emissions commitments. International climate negotiations in Bonn and Marrakech clearly demonstrate China’s devotion to the Kyoto Protocol. A comparison of China’s original positions and the final decisions in the Marrakech Accords clearly shows that China is willing to give on many issues in order to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive and that China continues to aspire to be recognized as a responsible member of the international community.
Second, the legitimacy of the U.S. insistence that it will rejoin the Kyoto Protocol or a follow-up regime only if major developing countries join as well is questionable. Given that the United States is the world’s largest economy and emitter of greenhouse gases, it has both the responsibility for the global climate problem and the ability to contribute to solving it. To have a significant long-term effect on global greenhouse gas emissions, a global climate regime eventually must include substantial participation by developing countries. But unless the United States has made sensible commitments itself, it does not have the moral right to persuade developing countries to take meaningful abatement actions.
Third, developing countries have been sensitive to commitment issues, and the U.S. position in the New Delhi climate conference makes the launching of a dialogue on broadening future commitments difficult. At Kyoto, the United States called for stronger action by developing countries, but in New Delhi declared such discussion about developing-country commitments premature. This would have long-term implications, because developing countries would defend their position using this argument in the future when being asked to take on commitments. This certainly complicates initiating discussions on joint accession by the United States and China.
Fourth, the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol does nothing but erode trust and reinforce the stalemate between the North and the South, and it is difficult to imagine that China and India would assume emissions targets before U.S. reentry into the Kyoto regime or a follow-up regime. Doing so would be perceived as rewarding the United States for disregarding the protocol.
Stewart and Wiener suggest that emissions targets and pathways be set in such a way as to minimize the sum of climate damage and abatements costs over time. This approach sounds very appealing theoretically. But the problem is that abating greenhouse gas emissions involves costs today, but benefits are delayed until the far distant future. This, combined with great uncertainty over estimates of climate damage, would prevent the approach from being implemented in practice.
Richard B. Stewart and Jonathan B. Wiener proceed from sound premises: Climate change is a problem urgently requiring action; an emissions cap-and-trade system offers the best chance for obtaining broad international participation; and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limits should be comprehensive, covering all sources and sinks. The authors are spot-on in proposing to attract large-emitting developing nations by offering an emissions premium: an emissions cap set with headroom for development. This idea, pioneered well before the 1997 Kyoto conference, has not much entered the international discussions. It should. Stewart and Wiener also rightly emphasize the importance of engaging the United States in near-term domestic emissions reductions efforts such as the Climate Stewardship Act proposed by Sens. McCain and Lieberman. Without domestic U.S. action, it is unlikely that large-emitting developing nations would adopt emissions caps even with a premium.
The authors justly criticize intensity targets and technology subsidies, neither of which has any significant potential to reduce emissions or entice serious participation. They properly eschew taxes. (Policymakers should resist the temptation to convert cap-and-trade into a tax, as the so-called “safety valve” would do by simply allowing emitters to bust the cap for a fee.)
Although they argue that maximizing net benefits provides a ready guidepost for target-setting and on that basis deem the Kyoto targets arbitrary, the picture changes when seen through the prism of the objective of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The treaty’s objective, recently reaffirmed by President George W. Bush, is stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs at a level, and in a time frame, that avoids dangerous interference with the climate system. In the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto conference, top U.S. scientists had warned President Clinton that more than one degree of warming over the next century [stabilization of carbon dioxide at levels above 450 parts per million (ppm)] could be dangerous to vulnerable ecosystems. European scientists had proposed a “safe corridor” for the climate, suggesting that to avoid danger, warming should be limited to two degrees and a concentration target of 550 ppm. These analyses informed the negotiations, indicating to policymakers the importance of Kyoto-sized reductions in keeping stabilization options open.
If future targets are to be guided not only by the practical precepts put forward by Stewart and Wiener but also by the UNFCCC’s objective, optimization alone will not be an adequate tool for setting global targets. At a minimum, regional views differ. Regions that are economically dependent on coral reefs or other vulnerable ecosystems, or that face uncertain but potentially disastrous consequences from abrupt changes such as the possible shutdown of the Gulf Stream or disruption of water transport systems, are making the optimization calculus differently than others. Their scales are tipping in favor of bringing Kyoto and like measures into force as a first and precautionary measure. Although Stewart and Wiener’s recommendations mark an important step, they will need to be refracted through the objective of the UNFCCC if they are to provide not only a practical but an effective starting point for crafting future climate policy.
Laura Kahn’s “Viral Trade and Global Public Health” (Issues, Winter 2004) raises important concerns about the age of our current international health regulatory structure in light of emerging infections. She correctly points out the need to modernize the regulations and argues for more global standardization of the legal framework. She argues that this is necessary if we are going to successfully control infectious threats in an environment of rapid change.
Reducing the threat of emerging infectious diseases will require a significant effort on a global scale, and improvements in public health law and regulations are an important step. In fact, the World Health Association is currently working with its member nations to update their international health regulations, which were last modified in 1981. When they are finally adopted, it is hoped that a more modern and effective regulatory structure will be in place. There is, however, a more pressing and important problem that must be addressed, otherwise current efforts to update these regulatory authorities will be ineffective. We need a strong public health infrastructure globally, nationally, and locally. It is our first
Public health infrastructure is generally defined as people, properly trained with the tools and resources necessary to improve the public’s health. The global infrastructure for public health, like that in the United States, has been challenged for decades. In many parts of the world, basic infrastructure is at best tenuous. In an environment where we are one plane ride away from an infectious disaster, investing in an adequate infrastructure is an essential step. Although ensuring the adequacy of the legal authority to perform this work is one important component of an effective system, the capacity to quickly identify a emerging or reemerging infectious threat, track it, and contain its spread is the best defense against global disaster. In today’s world, preventing the disease from becoming endemic must also be a goal. Effective and rapid communication and coordination like that which occurred during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 provides an operational framework to ensure success.
Virulent organisms do not know the rules of trade, diplomacy, or law. Properly crafted regulations are a small part of the solution. An adequate public health infrastructure is the key.
We have recently experienced several newly emerging viral infections around the world. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) claimed some 800 lives out of about 8,000 worldwide cases of SARS in the 2002-2003 outbreak. It is likely that people were infected with the SARS coronavirus, a causative agent of SARS, from exotic animals such as civet cats in Guangdong Province, China, at an early stage of the outbreak. The global outbreaks of SARS then occurred through human-to-human transmission.
In 1998-1999, there was an outbreak of mysterious encephalitis in Malaysia, claiming more than 100 lives. Nipah virus was identified as the causative agent. (Fortunately, no human-to-human transmission of Nipah virus has been reported.) We now know that the causative virus jumped from fruit bats, the true reservoirs, into a pig colony on a pig-breeding farm, resulting in an amplification of the virus in pigs. Then people with close contact with the farm contracted Nipah virus from the infected pigs. A transmission of monkeypox virus to prairie dogs in the United States from giant Gambian rats that were imported from West Africa as pets, a transmission of Marburg and Ebola viruses to nonhuman primates from still-unknown reservoirs, and a transmission of H5N1 influenza virus from migratory ducks to chicken colonies on farms were fundamental causes of outbreaks of these newly emerging viruses in humans.
All of these outbreaks have originated in developing countries. Deforestation, the destruction of nature, poor sanitary environments in animal colonies on farms, and high population density are associated not only with human economic activities but also with cultural, traditional, and recreational lifestyles. So many people depend on wood as an energy source. So many people hunt wild animals for food. These activities are considered to be fundamental origins of the emerging viral infections, so that these infections may be associated in part with problems of poverty.
In order to minimize the risk of the emergence of global viral infections in the future, there is no doubt that strict controls on animal trade and the establishment and enforcement of global health standards through incentives by the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization are needed. However, we also emphasize the importance of overcoming the so-called North-South problem, the economic disparity between developed and developing countries, as well. The process of combating the emerging viral infections is as difficult as the resolution process for the North-South problem.
John M. Logsdon’s “A Sustainable Rationale for Human Spaceflight” (Issues, Winter 2004) is an invitation to begin public discussions that can lead to a more successful space program that will be a source of the national pride he invokes.
The problem is that the declaration of President George W. Bush that Logsdon quotes in his first paragraph, “Our journey into space will go on,” has rallied few scientists, engineers, or laypeople. Many scientists still see no compelling reason for humans in space. (Even in the 1980s, the Nobel Laureate physicist Edward Purcell remarked to me that the energy needed to lift a person out of Earth’s gravitational well would feed him or her for a lifetime.)
For a substantial number of remaining space enthusiasts–and I know them from academia and science fiction conventions alike–the president’s plans are a disappointing unfunded mandate. The demise of the troubled Space Shuttle program threatens to curtail the life of what most consider NASA’s greatest hit, the Hubble Space Telescope. Meanwhile, rank-and-file space researchers have grown cynical. One laid-off engineer recently e-mailed me, after I published a commentary on Columbia in the Washington Post: “I can assure you that NASA and the federal government do not want applicants. It is downsizing and makes sure people of any skill are made to stay unemployed.” And 62 percent of respondents to an ABC poll opposed the president’s plan.
Even among space advocates, exploration is an imperative in search of a rationale. For some, it is a showcase of civilian scientific and technical prowess, of national Promethean prestige. For others, it expresses the destiny of all humanity to transcend its earthly limits and spread through the cosmos, transforming the surfaces of the Moon and planets into economically productive habitable zones. And for still others, it is a scientific frontier; they in turn are divided on whether the presence of human investigators in space is worth the risks. Finally, in popular culture, both robotic and human initiatives are another new extreme sport, a cosmic Monster Garage.
Without being informed enough to recommend policies, I propose that scientists, engineers, lay enthusiasts, and other knowledgeable people finally debate openly what allocation of research money promises to yield the greatest benefits for human knowledge and well-being. The space budget should be considered along with the exploration of the deep sea and other frontiers. Hazards should be addressed openly but in themselves should not keep people from space; we owe our safe late-industrial society to the reckless entrepreneurs of the 19th century. And it was Jerome Lederer, father of NASA’s safety program, who established the agency’s initially admirable record by forthrightly calling his office Risk Management.
Critics of NASA should also be more aware of its positive unintended consequences: the unjustly trivialized spinoffs, strongly documented in a 1972 report by the University of Denver, Mission-Oriented R&D and the Advancement of Technology. A scientifically vibrant space program will make unexpected discoveries more likely by helping gifted researchers from many disciplines and nations talk to each other. This has been the pattern from the development of radar (and much else) in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s chaotic Building 20 to the breakthroughs in nonlinear science at IBM.
A reformed NASA remains one of the most constructive ways to show the flag. The sustainability of our society needs (among other things) the scientific and technological innovation that it can help provide. National pride, like individual self-esteem, should thus be an outcome rather than a reason.
Like the NASA worldview he represents, John M. Logsdon looks to the past in search of some rationale for further adventures in space. Just as NASA continues to invoke Christopher Columbus and President Bush invoked Lewis and Clark in his speech recommending Moon and Mars missions, so does Logsdon cite historical precedent, harkening back to the Cold War to recommend power and especially pride as reasons for sending humans to the Moon and Mars. For me, however, these missions evoke not pride but embarrassment, not power but dissipation. Wasting precious resources on stunts with no practical payoff smacks of a Roman circus, a public entertainment to amuse and distract.
We went to the Moon in the 1960s “for all mankind,” as the plaque we left there proclaimed. Presumably we would return to the Moon and fly on to Mars in the name of humanity as well. Then let the rest of humanity share the cost. The United States possesses about one-third of the world’s wealth. When the rest of the world is prepared to pay two-thirds of the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to send people to Mars, then the United States might argue that it was playing its proper role in a great human undertaking.
Until then, such an expedition by the United States looks more like potlatch than pride. Potlatch is the ritualistic behavior of some North American Indians tribes. The wealthiest and most powerful members of the tribes gather for occasional ceremonies in which they throw their most valued possessions into the fire. The winner is the one rich enough and secure enough to squander more of his possessions than any other. It is the native American version of what economist Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption. People affect tennis attire in their daily rounds to suggest that they are rich enough to play all day instead of work, and they wear designer clothes to suggest that they can afford to pay more for their raiment than it is worth. Sending humans to Mars with current and foreseeable technology is a way of saying that we have so much wealth we can afford to squander it on fabulously expensive adventures with no practical return on investment. Far from being proud of this public circus, I am chagrined by its self-absorption and waste.
GM food fight
Jerry Cayford’s “Breeding Sanity into the GM Food Debate” (Issues, Winter 2004) provides an insightful overview of the big-picture issues in the clash between critics and advocates of biotechnology.
Cayford is exactly right in concluding that, for many critics of biotech, the central overriding issue is ownership and control, not food safety. But Cayford places too much emphasis, I think, on the patenting of plants as the single underlying issue at the heart of biotech industry control. Although not all biotech critics share our view, ETC Group has long opposed other forms of plant intellectual property monopoly such as plant breeders’ rights (known as plant variety protection in the United States) that also erode farmers’ rights and biodiversity and concentrate corporate power over plant breeding.
But intellectual property is not the only mechanism being used by corporate gene giants to achieve market monopolies and long-term control over new technologies. Industry is eager to develop post-patent monopolies: what ETC Group refers to as “New Enclosures.” The development of “Terminator” technology–genetic seed sterilization–is a prime example. Patents offer a legal mechanism to prevent farmers from saving and replanting proprietary seed. Terminator seeds, if commercialized, would offer a biological mechanism to prevent farmer seed-saving. Terminator technology is a stronger monopoly tool than patents; unlike patents, there’s no expiration date, no exemption for researchers, no discussion of compulsory licensing, and no need for lawyers. Those who believe that multinational seed corporations have abandoned their quest to develop suicide seeds are mistaken.
Given the emergence of new nanoscale technologies, we would argue that efforts to reform and resist intellectual property monopolies must go beyond “no patents on life.” Today, the capacity of scientists to manipulate matter is taking a giant step down, from genes to atoms. Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules, the building blocks of the entire natural world. Whereas biotechnology gave us the tools to break the species barrier (to transfer DNA to and from unrelated organisms), nanotechnology enables scientists to shatter the barrier between living and nonliving. Nanobiotechnology refers to the merging of the living and nonliving realms to make hybrid materials and organisms–to integrate biological building blocks with synthetic materials and devices.
Worldwide, public- and private-sector nanotech funding is currently between $5 and $6 billion per year worldwide, and it’s difficult to identify any Fortune 500 company that isn’t investing in nanotech R&D. With the rise of nanoscale technology, will we see sweeping patent claims on chemical elements and the products and processes related to atomic-level manufacturing? Will it be possible to patent new elements? Will it be possible to modify an element and then patent the process and the product? Clearly, societal concerns about control and ownership of powerful new technologies must extend beyond the patenting of life.
Biotech and other emerging technologies cannot be understood outside of their social, economic, and political context. I agree with Cayford that, at the most fundamental level, biotech activists seek to defend diversity, democracy, and human rights.
Permit me to applaud Bill Spencer’s thoughtful “New Challenges for U.S. Semiconductor In
First, I concur with Spencer that preserving a robust semiconductor industry is crucial to the U.S. economy. The continued strong industry presence of the United States, with its stable government, established industrial base, world-class universities, hard-working labor force, tradition of manufacturing know-how, and unique innovation capability, is indispensable to the future of the world semiconductor sector. We need every nation’s intellectual and productive capital in order to stay on the demanding development pathways defined by the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which seeks to maintain the historical trend of doubling chip power every two to three years.
Second, Spencer is insightful in observing that innovative partnerships between industry and regional governments are part of the solution for maintaining this country’s ability to compete. SEMATECH has been able to vastly extend its work in extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL), due to support from the State of New York in establishing our advanced EUV Program with Albany Nanotech and the University at Albany. More recently, the State of Texas opted to partner with SEMATECH and state universities by agreeing to help establish an Advanced Materials Research Center to investigate future electrical and interconnect materials for silicon chips. In collaborating with SEMATECH in these programs, both state governments recognize an important truth: that the semiconductor field is the precursor and enabler of tomorrow’s employment industries, including nanotechnology and biotechnology. These nascent industries are expected to generate trillions of dollars in revenues, fueling R&D budgets and manufacturing requirements that will reverberate throughout the economy.
Finally, Spencer’s article makes a cogent argument for appropriate federal funding in an industry that has shown enormous return on investment, both economically and in national defense. To preserve a star economic performer and retain U.S. access to the application-specific chips needed for advanced defense systems, it makes eminent sense for Washington to take a renewed financial interest in the domestic semiconductor industry.
The semiconductor industry is evolutionary, complex, and increasingly global, but the nation that originated the technology should retain a firm presence in its future.
Coral reef protection
In “America’s Coral Reefs: Awash with Problems” (Issues, Winter 2004), Tundy Agardy argues persuasively that government needs to be smarter and more inclusive in its attempts to reverse serious declines in America’s coral reefs. From the Atlantic’s Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands to the Pacific’s Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands, the health and productivity of coral reefs have declined under steadily increasing pressure from overfishing and from land-based runoff of disease- and nutrient-laden silts and sewage. In more recent times, the decline has been exacerbated by increasingly severe summer heatwaves that have bleached and killed corals, symptomatic of global climate change. This degradation of coral reefs has already cost us dearly in terms of the quality of the experience we can have as snorkelers and divers, and in terms of the loss of ecosystem services such as fisheries, shoreline protection, tourism attractiveness, and opportunities for biodiscovery.
Agardy is deeply concerned that the policy and management response is simplistic and formulaic: map, monitor, and protect 20 percent of reefs in marine protected areas. She warns of the futility of developing configurations of protected areas on a basis of expedience rather than a proper regional diagnosis and a prescription of what is needed to achieve specified goals. Diagnosis and prescription may perhaps be guided by maps and monitoring–the sorts of things facilitated by the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. But they are by no means a sufficient basis for prescribing solutions, and hence Agardi’s call for the much broader range of perspectives that could be obtained by stronger engagement with scientists from universities and international institutions. Hence also the call for more buy-in by the private sector and better partnering with environmental organizations to take advantage of their proven abilities in public outreach.
Agardy’s article captures some critical aspects of the natural history of coral reefs that are not widely appreciated. Acre by acre, coral reefs are not all that productive in terms of usable protein for human consumption. The much-exploited predatory reef fishes that bring good prices as fillets, and astronomical prices alive, feed at the end of long food chains. In terms of production per acre, human consumption of reef fishes is extremely inefficient–akin to harvesting wolves instead of sheep or cattle. And the effect of each lost pound of top predator is magnified many times into ecological imbalances lower in the food chain. The solution of harvesting the grazing fishes themselves has been shown many times over to be catastrophic. Like pastures reverting to weeds when deprived of sheep or cattle, prime coral areas depleted of grazing reef species can revert to seaweed-choked piles of rubbleno longer the complex, rigid, three-dimensional matrix that so delights the human eye and so profusely supports the complex life of the reef.
Agardy sidesteps somewhat the somber implications of global climate change for coral reefs, and the potential benefits for reefs of the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. But she hits the mark in stressing the urgent need to address the foundations of ecological resilience in coral reefs. Hard as it may be, society must learn to value the functional roles of fishes on coral reefs at least as highly as we do the coral reef fish on the plate. Surely we’re smart enough to have our fish and eat it too. Let’s go for it!
Tundy Agardy writes eloquently of the continued degradation of American coral reefs. Despite the formation of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force and the development of the National Action Plan, too little is being done. There are bright spots: Some of the reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are now protected from the impacts of fishing, and efforts are being made to improve water quality impaired by decades of sewage and nonpoint source pollution. The spectacular and mostly pristine reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), which make up the majority of reefs under U.S. jurisdiction, were first protected by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. In 2000, with support from native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, fishers, scientists and environmentalists, these fragile ecosystems were afforded some further protections by a Clinton-era Executive Order. However, the lack of a sustained, consistent, conservation-oriented national policy on coral reefs poses a grave danger to these rich ocean nurseries and sources of food, livelihood, and delight.
Agardy suggests that the scientific community has not been sufficiently engaged in the work of raising public awareness of the plight of reefs, nor in the work of analyzing threats and devising effective solutions. Although greater engagement of scientists will enhance coral reef conservation, this shortcoming does not appear to be the major factor limiting an effective U.S. response to our coral reef crisis. In some cases, scientific consensus has been achieved and articulated. In other cases, the threats are obvious. When the abundance of exploited species is much higher in no-fishing areas than on commercial fishing grounds with similar habitat, as has been documented in dozens of scientific studies, it’s clear that fishing is depleting these populations. Similarly, when watersheds are poorly managed and reef waters are discolored with sediment and overenriched with nutrients, both the problems and the solutions are clear. Moreover, many actions that would benefit coral reefs the most would make sense even if they had no benefit for reefs. More sustainable fishing, farming, forestry, and land use practices have multiple economic, social, and environmental benefits in and of themselves.
When the problems and solutions are clear, yet no action is taken, the reason is usually a lack of political will. Consider the case of the NWHI. In 2003, more than 100 scientists met in Honolulu and identified threats to the NWHI. They also suggested management measures. But despite this scientific input and the urging of the NWHI Reserve Advisory Council, there are grave concerns about the adequacy of the political process to translate that input into robust protections.
Participation by scientists is vital. But the stewardship of national treasures comes down to political decisions. Yes, let’s encourage more scientific participation, but let’s also cultivate courage in our political leaders and keep up the pressure on the officials to whom we entrust the care of our coral reefs. This combined approach is the best path to the conservation-oriented national policy our coral reefs so vitally need.
Tundi Agardy sets forth a now familiar litany about the decline of global coral reefs. In my opinion, the reasons for the decline are not, as she suggests, “mysterious” but reasonably well understood. I like to call them the Big Three: (1) overfishing, (2) land-based pollution, and (3) global climate change. It is also understood that these human disturbances act in synergy and that future conservation and sustainable use of coral reef resources will require comprehensive management attention. Although coral reefs are enormously biologically diverse and their responses to disturbances are complex, it is important to remember that the Big Three have damaged nearly all coastal ecosystems in the world. Coral reefs, with their high profile and importance to the public, can be the “poster child” for coastal management solutions that will have general applications.
Clearly, there has been incomplete understanding of the problems, lack of understanding and application of the available science, lack of government coordination, and agency infighting. Nevertheless, there have been landmark coral reef management plans such as the 1997 management plan for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the 2000 National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. These were inspired by the pioneering 1979 management plan for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. Yet in spite of this attention, coral reefs have continued to decline. The reason is that the plan itself became the goal rather than implementation of the plan to reverse the trend of decline of coral reefs.
What can be done? Agardy suggests that we should hold our course, only do it better, particularly better integration of science and new technologies. I think that a new approach is needed. We must take as the management unit the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (from the shoreline to 200 nautical miles) surrounding each of our coral reefs. There is ample science supporting large ocean area management. Within these units–call them coral reef ecoregions–we can apply geographic information technologies to organize in accessible formats the huge amount of data and information that we already have. This will allow stakeholder visualization of the extent of the problems and the potential solutions, particularly the need for zoning to separate conflicting human activities, including recreational and commercial fishing, population centers, tourism, ship corridors, and critical conservation areas, to name a few.
By using this familiar land-use planning approach, the costs of the inevitable loss of freedom of access to the ocean are shared by all the stakeholders rather than, for example, a few disenfranchised fishers. Unlike land-use planning, seascape or ocean-use planning can be implemented on a trial basis, with the plan adjusted over time as new information becomes available. For example, after more than 20 years of management and monitoring, Australia recently rezoned the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park with international stakeholder participation, including increasing the area of fully protected marine reserves from less than 5 percent to 33 percent of the park.
Our coral reefs, no less than our coastal oceans, need comprehensive planning within ocean ecoregions in order to sustain future use. We have been nattering on, wringing our hands about coral reefs for almost two decades while their decline has deepened. We know what we must do and we must act quickly. If we don’t, future generations will be denied the demonstration of the power and beauty of nature and the lifting of the spirit that coral reefs so uniquely provide.