#71) The Rotten Communication Skills of the Coral Reef Community

This is not an indictment of any one individual, just the entire community.  It’s characteristic of the science community in general — the inability to communicate broadly.  Coral reefs around the world are approaching their third act, but the messaging about their welfare continues to be muddled.  Yes, there are lots of dire warnings, but there HAS NOT BEEN THE ONE SINGULAR MESSAGE CONVEYING THE LEVEL OF URGENCY.  Singularity is everything for narrative and narrative is everything for mass communication.  The atomic bomb community knew how to do this starting in the 1940’s.  The military knew how to do it with hunting terrorists.  But scientists have been too deeply ensconced in their soup of facts to speak effectively to the public.


THIS IS EFFECTIVE MASS MESSAGING. The Doomsday Clock countdown to nuclear nightmare.



I spent a year of my life living on an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  After spending upwards of 8 hours a day underwater conducting research almost every day, I knew the reefs around that island like the back of my hand.

Now those reefs are a wasteland from the mass coral bleaching event of this year.

The coral reefs of the Caribbean are worse.  I got to know the reefs of Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Panama 40 years ago.  Today they are shot.  In my lifetime coral reefs around the world have been obliterated.  And yet, while this has happened, the science/conservation community has been unable to produce much more than a “things are bad in some places” message to the world.


Actually, pretty much all of it.  Scientists are so determined to convey “all the facts” in all their joyous complexity that they have failed to convey much of anything when it comes to the plight of coral reefs.

I began bellyaching about this 15 years ago when I started my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project with coral reef biologists Jeremy Jackson and Steven Miller.  I kept asking them, “What’s the ONE NUMBER we can tell the world about the state of coral reefs?  Are they 90% of what they were?  50%?  25%?”  And asking them why the coral reef community in general didn’t grasp the importance of having a single, simple indicator for the general public.

The world needed ONE NUMBER.  Not the standard, “Well, it depends on whether we’re talking about live coral cover or total biomass or standing crop or …”

To this day there is still no widely accepted one number for the overall state of coral reefs.  Yet at the same time there are still countless television documentaries and tourism agencies painting pictures of coral reefs as happy and healthy as they’ve ever been.  And why not — dead reefs don’t attract viewers or tourists.  We talked about this 15 years ago.  Nothing has changed.


Go ahead and ridicule the simplicity of things like the Doomsday Clock for nuclear armageddon and the pack of playing cards that were used in 2003 to communicate about the most wanted Iraqis.  If you’re a sophisticate you probably think those things are moronic.  But they work for the masses.

Mass communication requires a commitment to finding simplicity.  If you doubt this just look at our new President.  And if you’re mad about that guy being the new President, don’t blame him — blame the Democrats who let you down by their endless inability to simplify anything.

I’m sick of listening to the whiners.  I voted for Hillary.  But I also watched her campaign fail to find any simplicity in their mass messaging.  You can hear my sad story about it that I told the morning after the election on Park Howell’s “Business of Story” podcast.

The Clinton campaign was just like the coral reef community that has been either unwilling or unable to simplify their message of decline for 30 years, and now sits in confusion as coral reefs approach their own midnight.

Rotten, rotten, rotten mass communication, completely oblivious of narrative dynamics.