An Alumnus Makes a Watertight Argument

J Nichols believes we'll better understand the value of ocean conservation if we think about our emotional connection to the sea.
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December 11, 2015

On a Sunday afternoon this past March, Wallace J. Nichols took out a cloth drawstring bag and distributed its contents: oversized glass marbles the color of a tropical sea. “Hang on tight to your blue marble,” the tousle-haired marine biologist told the room full of adults celebrating Creek Week at the Durham County Library. “Don’t let it roll. Don’t drop it. Don’t throw them at the speaker or eat them.”

Nichols M.E.M. ’92, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, had flown in from his home in Northern California. He told the audience to hold their glass spheres at arm’s length. “That’s what we look like right now from a million miles away,” he said. “The single defining feature, at least on the surface of our planet, is our water. That makes us special in the universe—there aren’t as many water planets as you might imagine—which means everything we do relative to our water matters. Everything.”

But when it comes to safeguarding that water, Nichols continued, the environmental movement’s PR toolbox relies too heavily on guilt- and fear-based messages, which carry the risk of numbing rather than motivating. “Sometimes it feels like you’re being smacked on the face with a cold fish,” he said. “You’ve probably been the recipient of that smack, but perhaps even the giver.” On the library wall, he projected a photo of Elmo, the red Muppet, arms spread wide. “I’m going to add the Elmo hug to that toolbox. One way we do that, rather than the literal hug, is to share the blue marble.”

Nichols, whose friends call him J, wasn’t merely peddling a touchy-feely message of personal responsibility for protecting our natural resources. He believes, rather, that discussion around ocean conservation—along with the policies inspired by that discussion—is stunted because we rarely mention our species’ emotional connection to water. To that end, he has been fostering an interdisciplinary conversation—involving neuroscientists, geographers, health professionals, underwater explorers, land-use planners, and others—about the benefits of being near the sea.

“Generally, we have dangerously undervalued water in all of its forms by not including this conversation,” he says. “When undervalued, and not just in the financial sense, there’s a tendency to degrade.” One of the fruits of this dialogue is his 2014 book, Blue Mind, which hit The New York Times science and nonfiction best-seller lists and this past summer was re-released in paperback.

Nichols has been particularly keen to bring brain researchers into the conversation. He believes that better data from them about the benefits of being near the water could transform an environmental issue into a human-welfare one—in turn spurring lawmakers to protect marine environments. He calls this principle “neuroconservation.”

“When we adequately value nature—and not just for the extractive value and the jobs and ‘ecosystem services,’ but also the emotional services—that will have some policy outcomes that favor conservation,” he says. “That’s my hope.” The key, he says, is harnessing the science in a way that people can access it no matter what their political ideologies. “How do you [advocate] in an arena where there’s climate-change denial and plenty of people who consider themselves unscientific— proudly? Well, I think there’s a way that’s unifying rather than polarizing: Walk into the office of any public official and say, ‘What’s your water? Describe the moment you fell in love with your water. Who were you with? How old were you? Do you have any pictures?’ Now they’re on the same page. ‘What would you do to protect that water?’ ”

Nichols—who has spent most of his career working on sea-turtle research and conservation, and still continues that work part time—doesn’t draw a paycheck from the Academy. He’s been living on crowdfunded donations; book, speaking, and leadership-training income; and the occasional modeling gig. (At forty-eight, he commands the camera with eyes almost as blue as those marbles.) As idealistic as his approach might sound, and as Elmo-like his personal style, Nichols has nonetheless won high-powered fans. “We’re all connected to the sea no matter where on Earth we live—every drop of water we drink, every breath we take,” says the legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle A.M. ’56, Ph.D. ’66, Hon. ’93. “Through his Blue Mind work, J has the power to make people everywhere feel that connection and act to protect it.”

Nichols grew up splashing around in lakes, pools, and the ocean, only decamping for dry land, he says, when the adults called him home. His childhood affinity spurred him to become a marine biologist. After graduating from DePauw University in Indiana, he attended Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, where he earned a master’s degree in natural-resource economics and policy with a focus on ocean and coastal policy. There he found himself growing frustrated by the state of environmental economics—the use of economic principles to help manage natural resources.

“There were attempts to put value on nature, put value on something like an ocean view, by adding up what people spent to get there,” he says. “That’s understandable; that’s some of the data we have to work with. But it just fell so short. To put a number out there and say, ‘This is the value of nature,’ seemed dangerous.”

One way economists, scientists, and advocates think about natural resources is by quantifying the “ecosystem services” they deliver. Healthy marine and coastal environments, for example, provide seafood, fishing jobs, flood protection, carbon sequestration, and tourism income. There are numerous methods for valuing these benefits, and endless debate over whether this “commodification” provides a pragmatic strategy for winning over policymakers, or whether it denigrates the intrinsic value of biodiversity and the moral imperative of protecting it.

At Duke, Nichols started thinking about what was missing from this market-based approach. “It had a lot to do with the emotions connected with those experiences. How do you put a value on your best memory? How do you put a value on nostalgia? How much for your inspiration? How much for your insight?”

As he progressed through his academic and professional career, Nichols discovered his colleagues were generally uninterested in these intangibles. “Stick to the science,” he remembers people saying. “Keep that fuzzy human stuff to the side.”

Once he began his fieldwork, though, Nichols realized the “fuzzy human stuff” mattered. Most of his career has focused on Pacific Ocean sea turtles in Mexico’s Baja California—filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the species’ biology to manage its declining populations. His interdisciplinary team, from universities and organizations around the world, published dozens of peer-reviewed articles, he says. “But the science isn’t what’s saved the sea turtles.” Nichols also worked closely with local fishermen and their co-ops, illegal hunters, and government officials. He won them over through personal relationship-building, and that in turn led to declines in both bycatch in fishing nets and the poaching of adults and their eggs. Researchers, fishers, kayakers, and scuba divers, he says, report healthier turtle populations than the region has seen in decades. “It’s halftime, and we’re winning.”

In 2011, while still working on turtle conservation, Nichols decided to see whether he could expand this “human dimension” to other marine issues. That year he convened his first Blue Mind summit in San Francisco, bringing together brain and marine scientists with surfers and other ocean lovers. The summits, restricted to about 100 participants to ensure intimacy, feature panels in which researchers and practitioners are asked to wrestle with new questions—for example, how surfing affects the brain. They have become annual events held at different locations in the U.S. and England.

Scott Huettel Ph.D. ’99, the Hubbard Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, spoke at the 2012 conference, held on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He was struck by the value of meeting people whose “deep interest” in the oceans comes from different perspectives. “Talking to marketing faculty, or maybe an activist, or somebody who’s trying to use water-based [health] interventions—I think that’s an interesting conversation to have,” says Huettel, who directs Duke’s Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Sciences. “I think that’s a very Duke-like approach: connecting people across disciplines in a productive way. Many people, when engaging a popular audience, simply skim off what they need from other fields to justify something they already believe. J has consistently tried to engage scientists who work in other areas and takes them seriously. He’s not an expert in these other fields, but he’s trying to bring people together.” (Read how Huettel's research has helped Nichols explore how water makes us calm.)

Because of the visibility of his work, Nichols has met with officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This past June he gave a speech at the annual conference of the American Water Works Association, an influential group of water management and treatment professionals.

“One worries often that people who have that sort of drive can spend their careers tilting at windmills,” Huettel continues. “But what he’s been able to do is to engage policymakers and scientists and still reach the general public. That’s a rare combination.”

Before he flew home from Durham in March, Nichols visited Duke’s campus and met with about a dozen graduate students in the Nicholas School’s coastal environmental management program. Making his case for neuroconservation, he asked what emotions drove their academic career choices.

It became immediately clear that no one was pursuing a degree based solely on cool intellect. “We went to Florida for spring break to do bird banding,” said one student. “Along the way [a friend] and I went paddleboarding”— here, she paused to collect herself—“with dolphins and other animals. They swam next to us, and I just had to stop and cry. I hope that I never not have this sense of amazement, because the second I do, I don’t want to be in this field anymore.”

Her classmates talked about wonder, empathy, happiness, frustration. They discussed their passions for surfing, scuba diving, and watching whales. One shared his sense of doom knowing that people who have never seen the ocean’s depths are helping destroy it. Nichols suggested these feelings might be grist for research that could further conservation efforts. “Walk across campus and ask a neuroscientist out for a cup of coffee,” he advised the students.

Bringing sentiment into environmental science does not mean abandoning rigor, Nichols argued: “You do want to be unbiased, and you want to present the facts.” That’s different, he said, from adopting the air of detachment that is valued in some academic circles.

“There would be no sea turtles without the turtle-huggers— people who are absolutely, wildly obsessed,” Nichols said. “We would have lost a lot of populations without the people who are truly unstoppable. You take away their funding, you put up all kinds barricades, and they don’t stop. We often are so careful to not be those people. But I say fly your freak flag high, and sometimes fly it a bit higher.”

Yeoman is a journalist based in Durham. His recent work has been published in OnEarth, Audubon, The American Prospect, and Popular Science, and by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.