How to save the oceans with effective scientific writing
Our world is not a particularly healthy place. For the many sceptics out there, 2020 has put forward a stark and convincing argument. However, with less pollution and a light being shined on the flaws of our economic system, COVID-19 may well have a little silver-lining.
Short of starting a global pandemic that has claimed over 1 million lives, is there a more constructive way to create a lasting, global change for the better? And can this start with effective scientific writing?
In this blog post we caught up with Deborah Rowan Wright who aims to achieve just that with her new book “Future Sea: How to Rescue and Protect the World’s Oceans”.
Deborah is not concerned about the incremental gains and empty promises often proposed by governments and many environmentalists. She’s a radicalist and a realist; a lot more needs to change, and it needs to happen much faster.
In her book Deborah addresses everyone, from the public to political leaders, while tackling complex issues such as international maritime law, to propose a simple argument: 100% ocean conservation, by default.
The book is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in conservation, the effects of climate change or marine life. But perhaps even more so from a writing perspective. This is persuasive scientific writing at its best.
What was your inspiration to write the book?
When I was working for a small conservation NGO called Marinet, it was almost impossible to get the government to do more to protect the sea and marine life, despite their knowing about the widespread environmental threats. One of the campaigns I was involved with was to get marine protected areas created in UK waters. It seemed absurd that destructive operations like industrial fishing and aggregate dredging always took priority over the well-being of the marine environment. I figured the situation should be reversed; that all of the sea should be safeguarded by default, and industries which exploit marine resources should only be allowed if they operate in a responsible, sustainable and non-damaging way. Then I realised that if it were possible, that concept could be applied across the world, not just in UK waters. The next step was to work out how it could be achieved and present it as a sound case for change – which is essentially what the book is.
How do you present a compelling story to the general public about such a complex topic?
Telling personal stories is a good way to draw people into a topic, using something they can relate to. In Future Sea I had to include some hard-headed, dry information on subjects like international law, fisheries management and systems of governance, as evidence to back up the proposal I am making. If I started the book with those topics, the reader probably wouldn’t get past the first page. So, I begin with a description of a fantastic whale-watching trip I went on, to capture the reader’s attention and hopefully reel them in, before presenting the serious stuff. While researching for the book I met with all sorts of interesting characters involved in various aspects of marine conservation, to hear their stories first hand and write about them. As much as possible, I also wrote in an inclusive, almost conversational style, avoiding specialized language or jargon, to keep the reader engaged.
Once you have grabbed their attention how do you motivate someone to act?
I think the best way to motivate people to help protect the oceans is by describing their astounding wealth of life and how vital healthy oceans are to all life on Earth. In Future Sea I’ve written a chapter on what people can do towards safeguarding the sea, such as making a few lifestyle changes; avoiding commonly used products which kill marine life (like the majority of sunscreen creams on the market); eating the right fish; and supporting a marine conservation organisation.
Okay, so it’s about giving people to start with small, tangible adjustments that could make an impact. What was the biggest challenge you faced getting it published?
I’d written a pamphlet about the idea of protecting all seas and oceans by default, and explaining how it could be done, which was printed and disseminated by the organisation I was working with at the time. I hadn’t considered publishing a book but the pamphlet was picked up by the science editor at the University of Chicago Press, and she invited me to develop the idea and publish it as a book. But then I had to work my way through a long-winded process of submitting detailed proposals, waiting for peer reviews, getting past the scrutiny of the faculty board, the editorial committee etc., all of which took years. So the main challenge was having enough patience and persistence to see it through.
What are you hoping to achieve?
The book is aimed at two quite different types of reader, although who knows how effectively that can be done. With one – the so-called general reader – it is to make them aware of how important healthy oceans are to us all and that many things we do in our daily lives have an impact on the sea and marine life which they may not be aware of. With the second – the conservationists, scientists, policy-makers, academics – I’d like to trigger debate, open minds, shift perspectives and encourage the marine conservation community to take a far more radical path to keep oceans safe and full of life.
Deborah [right] at her book signing.