The Power of Dismissal


I celebrated my 46th birthday last week by going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. It was bittersweet. I’ve been trying to process the experience, and I think I’ve found a measure of peace, but little comfort.

I’m in the midst of a few weeks in Australia on vacation with my family – 100% pure vacation, aside from a few brief stolen moments of work (such as this one). Among the variety of spectacular things we’ve been up to, I was ever so happy to share the amazingness of the Reef with the people most important to me.  We showed up knowing about the mass bleaching events in recent years, and in many places, the reef is a shadow of what it was. Coral reefs are facing long odds because of climate change and ocean acidification, which is wholly the fault of our own species.

I wanted to share the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone. I’m not sure whether we were successful.

We went with one of the many outfits that will take you to the outer reef for a morning of snorkeling, a nice lunch, and an afternoon of snorkeling. (We visited Saxon Reef and Hastings Reef, for those who are more in the know than ourselves). It was a beautiful day, we saw lots of amazing biodiversity, and the environment was extraordinarily pleasant. Also: the first reef we went to was almost entirely bleached, and the second reef only had some a few patches that were a little better. We were treated to a brilliant array of colorful fish, dancing around the pale skeleton that remains their home. Their persistence was beautiful and heartbreaking.

The entire trip was surreal. Coral bleaching wasn’t mentioned by any of the passengers on the boat. The crew acted as if the reef was at its best ever. If you went on this trip and had never heard of coral bleaching, based on everybody’s behavior, you would have thought that nothing was wrong and that things are just as beautiful as ever. (The biologist on board did describe what happens when bleaching occurs to a small group of us at one point, but there was nary a hint that the future of the reef is at risk.)

All members of the crew were unquestioning cheerleaders for the beauty of the reef, and all of us paying customers were accomplices. Of course, on a scale of not surprising to shocking, this clocks in at entirely not surprising. If word were to get out that the bleached coral reef isn’t so spectacular anymore, then tour operators would (legitimately) fear for the short-term success of their business. Of course, taking measures to advocate for the protection of the reef would be great for long-term interests, but that’s rarely how people manage their businesses.

Somehow, we have a group of tourists who are enjoying the Great Barrier Reef as they always have, even though it’s clearly not as spectacular of a thing to enjoy as it was not long ago. I am not sure if this is an admirable feat of resilience, or a dangerous dismissal of reality.

Twenty years ago, I had the chance to visit the Reef for the first time (when I was a grad student attending the big conference of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects). My spouse came out, and we traveled as much as we could manage to afford, including a day snorkeling on the reef. Floating above the reef was like piloting a glider just above a rainforest, with every species of tree a different color, and they had transparent canopies filled with creatures of every kind imaginable, and then a few you couldn’t even imagine. This spiritual experience became an engine of wonder, and is still why I’m attracted to working in places with massive species richness. Just four years ago, I had an excuse to visit the same place (for a pair of conferences), and I went snorkeling again. It was just as full of wonder as before.

I knew it would be different on my third trip to the reef last week. I’m shocked at how it was different, and how it was not. The experience for everybody on the boat seemed to be entirely the same. Even though the reef was not. I’m just reeled by the human capacity to accept a business-as-usual scenario, even though this is a trajectory towards disaster.

I am reminded of another tourist experience from my first visit to Australia. My spouse and I took a backpacker bus trip to visit Uluru. This is the biggest rock in the world, in the middle of the outback, that white folks took to calling Ayers Rock. At this point in time, the Australian government had returned some pieces of land back to the traditional landowners, including a number of national parks. When we visited Uluru, we were guests on Aboriginal land. It was impossible to avoid the requests from the Anangu landowners that visitors not climb Uluru, as this is a sacred site. When you paid your entry fee, there was a big sign asking you to not climb. When you arrive at the rock, there is a big sign asking you to not climb.

When we were on our cheap-as-it-can-get bus tour, our guide made a point to address this concern about climbing the rock and the sacred practices of the landowners. She said that some people choose to climb the rock, and some people choose not to – and everybody is welcome to walk around its perimeter. She said that it’s a matter of personal choice. Someone in the tour asked her if she had climbed the rock – and she said that she climbed it once, but doesn’t climb it anymore.

On the ride back from the rock, folks were chatting about their experiences. Nearly everybody on the tour climbed. When our guide found out we didn’t climb (maybe we were being sanctimonious about it, otherwise how would it have come up?), she privately mentioned that, in fact, she had never climbed Uluru. She said that the tour company required its guides to say they had climbed the rock, if asked, because to say otherwise would be bad for business.

My Uluru experience with the guide-who-lied-for-their-bosses and the Great Barrier Reef experience with the guides-who-lied-by-omission-for-their bosses are twenty years apart. I’ve squared in my mind how a tour guide could have lied about climbing the rock. I don’t yet know how to feel what it’s like to love the Great Barrier Reef but to pretend that it’s not in danger.

I have no idea what will remain of the reef in twenty years. But there is more sanguine news for the Anangu, as next year, tourists will no longer be allowed to climb Uluru. This is heartening. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect everybody to respect the cultural traditions of first peoples, but we can still choose to enact policies that do not facilitate active disrespect. Maybe there is some hope that in future years, we can evolve to a point where there are scant rewards for dismissal of threats associated with climate change?

If we can’t collectively force action to limit carbon emissions, we are no different than the fish that I saw on the Great Barrier Reef, clinging to a mass of bleached coral hoping that things might magically turn for the better.