Why We Should Care About Saving Coral Reefs
Juli Berwald on Public and Investor Interest in Coral Reef Conservation
Driving off the tip of the peninsula that is Florida, you hit a series of small islands known as the Keys. The first and largest is aptly named Key Largo, and Reef Futures 2018 was held at its northern end in an exclusive community of yachters and golfers. Along the island’s coastal highway, I watched the transitions from Key Largo’s laid-back town of dive shops and pizza joints to the dense greenery of a chain of state parks and finally to a massive gate where uniformed guards scanned my driver’s license before admitting me to the manicured grounds beyond. Winding my way through palm-lined streets, I parked next to immaculate tennis courts and found my way to registration and then to the chandeliered hall where the meeting was getting under way.
Two large screens flanked the stage and a giant banner proclaimed “Reef Futures 2018,” uplit in purple and blue. The lights dimmed and a kaleidoscopic vision unfurled simultaneously on both screens: a tight zoom on the white-tipped tentacles of a pink coral waving elegantly in the surge. The video faded to the green corrugated ripple of a brain coral. Background music boomed and then settled. A quiet chorus of flutes peeked through as the video turned to high speed and churning tissue in parrot greens and cardinal reds danced across the screens.
At the conclusion, the audience applauded boisterously and then was welcomed by one of the co-chairs of the Coral Restoration Consortium, which hosted the meeting. He told us that we, the assembled five hundred, hailed from forty different countries. Among our ranks were researchers, members of the media, philanthropists, and donors. I surveyed the crowd, seeing seemingly equal numbers of women and men, and many people of color. This coral reef community was rather more diverse than a typical academic meeting crowd. But philanthropists? Donors? That was unexpected. This meeting’s intrigue was building. As I scanned the program, an entry caught my eye: at 11:50 am, a block of fifteen minutes was scheduled for a “Special Announcement!” What could that be?
Back on the stage a man named Tom Moore, the other co-chair of the Coral Restoration Consortium, was being introduced. Dressed in sleek black, he looked much more TED Talk than lab-coated scientist or blue-jeaned field biologist. He had an engaging and ebullient energy that radiated off the stage into the audience. Tom began by recounting many of the benefits of coral reefs, their outsize influence on marine ecosystems, their ability to protect those of us on land, their contribution to tourism, the spiritual and cultural contributions, and the untapped biochemical richness.
But the bad news about bleaching was stark. To emphasize the point, he brought up the most severe example: half of the Great Barrier Reef—the largest biologically built structure on our planet—had been killed by warming water. But this wasn’t the canary in the coal mine, Tom said, his voice strong in the swanky ballroom. A dead canary shows what isn’t supposed to happen, a death no one thinks will happen or they wouldn’t go into the mine. This death: it was predicted. The scientists in this room expected it. This mass death on the Great Barrier Reef “shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” Tom said.
I sat up in my chair. I had read about the massive bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2015–2016 and then again in 2016-2017. I had been surprised. But it was becoming clear that the people sitting with me in the ballroom were already way past surprise. They were way past words like preservation and conservation. They were tossing out the environmental-ethical quibbling and asking, What can we do, and do now? To answer that, Tom explained, the coral restoration scientists had looked for other instances when animals had been brought back from the brink: pandas and whales. Asking the people involved in those struggles for advice, the coral scientists heard the same thing over and over: Don’t be cautious.
Either the mood in the room shifted or my own mood shifted—maybe both. This wasn’t a typical science meeting at all. Scientists are generally conservative by nature. The scientific method demands the accumulation of information before drawing conclusions. These scientists were saying, “Not in this case. There’s no time for that.”
Tom flipped through slides of coral farms: orchards of PVC pipes hung with coral fragments, metal stands studded with coral branches. He spoke of coral restoration scientists developing corals that could withstand repeated exposure to warming temperatures. He said scientists were developing breeding programs for corals that could survive the future. “We have had success at a local level,” Tom said, “but there is a massive gap between small-scale coral gardening and success at the ecosystems level. And we don’t have the technology to cross that gap yet.” What was needed was a scaling up of local efforts, he said. But how to do that was the great unknown. It was an engineering problem that hadn’t yet been solved. And that was what this meeting was about. “What we need is crazy ideas.”
Tom didn’t mince words summing up the stakes. “The status quo is losing the reefs. Climate change mitigation is still losing the reefs.” What he meant was that, like an eighteen-wheeler coming to a stop, even if we do put the brakes on climate change, the accumulation of heat and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will still ooze into the ocean for decades. It takes time to slow down that chemistry and physics. And by then it could be too late for the corals if we don’t help them.Scientists are generally conservative by nature. The scientific method demands the accumulation of information before drawing conclusions.
“Crazy ideas,” echoed around in my head. Crazy ideas. This meeting wasn’t an obituary for the reefs. It was about imagining a future in which reefs flourished. It was about inspiration. Maybe it was even about hope.
Over the next hours, I listened to local stories of coral reef restoration. Scientists from Israel’s Red Sea, from Belize, and from Curaçao told of their successes and struggles. Then Tom Moore took the stage again. According to the meeting schedule, it was time for the Special Announcement!
Tom opened, not with an underwater photo, but with a slide of an antique biplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, the name in iconic swooping brown font emblazoned down its side. A hundred years ago, on May 22, 1919, a New York hotelier offered a $25,000 prize to the first person who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. A number of pilots died attempting to win the purse until, eight years after the announcement, an unknown mail pilot from the Midwest took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island. After thirty-three hours, Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris. The barometer he carried proved that the flight was uninterrupted. Spurred by the cash prize—a substantial one—Charles Lindbergh birthed the age of transatlantic flight and the massive aviation industry that followed.It takes time to slow down that chemistry and physics. And by then it could be too late for the corals if we don’t help them.
The next slide wasn’t an underwater photo either. It was a spacecraft. On October 4, 2004, the first nongovernmental organization successfully launched a reusable spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. Prior to 2004, it had been illegal for a nongovernment agency to launch a spacecraft into space. The rules had been changed for this spacecraft to fly.
Like Lindbergh’s flight, a substantial prize had been offered: $10 million by a group of technology entrepreneurs, including the founders of Google, who collectively called themselves the XPRIZE Foundation. The founder, Peter Diamandis, is often quoted as saying, “The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities.” What was perhaps even more important than the competition itself was the birth of a new industry. The XPRIZE drove the investment of more than
$100 million in new space technologies.
“Big challenges,” Tom said, “are driven by big prizes.” With that, the lights faded and a video appeared of an even bigger and more elegant ballroom than the one we were sitting in. Two months earlier, tech entrepreneurs, CEOs, musicians, and politicians from around the world gathered in Los Angeles to consider the next XPRIZE challenge, a process called
“Visioneering.” According to the website, Visioneering is XPRIZE’s “vehicle for designing prizes that solve humanity’s Grand Challenges. By tapping into the genius of the crowd, our global brain trust of philanthropists and innovators, we significantly increase the likelihood that our XPRIZEs will catalyze breakthroughs that generate a 10x impact in the world.” On the stage, a jury sat in large gray armchairs. One by one, teams pitching the world’s greatest big problems took the stage. They envisioned a future in which a billion more people had food, earthquakes were predictable, farmers were pulled from poverty, and the coral reefs could survive warming waters.
After some winnowing, teams were pitted head-to-head: feeding a billion people versus building a global thermostat; extracting carbon from the atmosphere versus finding lost children. These were impossible decisions to make. “This isn’t about picking winners and losers,” the official from XPRIZE said, “this is about creating priorities.” Audience members used an app to vote. Decisions were made by collective wisdom.Sure, you can have grand ideas to solve Grand Challenges. But then you confront our big, complicated, powerful planet.
Two different groups speaking on behalf of coral reefs reached the finals. Both had big plans and narrow focuses: One group wanted to increase survival rates of newly planted corals. The other proposed farming the reef at a rate of half a billion transplants per year. Tom narrated: No one really expected either coral reef team to win. But then, in a last- minute pact-forming maneuver, the two coral reef teams joined forces, merging their pitches, offering up a bigger, more cohesive, and nearly impossible challenge: Saving Coral Reefs.
A man in the audience stood. He was a designer at Nike, who worked on shoes with stars like Kevin Garnett and Serena Williams. He said, “If we do not fund this prize, your grandchildren will never be able to find Nemo.”
It was convincing. When the votes were counted, Saving Coral Reefs won in an unexpected landslide. The purse would be $8 to $10 million. Uproarious applause from the audience in the video in Los Angeles and the audience around me in Key Largo filled the room. Later, Matt Mulrennan, the director of the Ocean Initiative at XPRIZE, would tell me that key to the calculus was that the other projects, important as they were, had already had money thrown at them and still hadn’t made much headway. Coral restoration had never been given the financial backing to give it a real shot. They saw huge potential for impact.
At the video’s conclusion, Tom introduced Matt Mulrennan to the stage. Young and handsome in a tightly tailored suit jacket with a small red X pin on his lapel, Matt said the selection of Saving Coral Reefs at the Visioneering meeting was just the start of the XPRIZE process. The next step was to define the game. If you’re giving out a prize, you need rules. And that’s why he’d come to this meeting, to get insight from the experts. Matt posed the questions that needed to be asked: How do you define Saving Coral Reefs? How much area do you need to restore? Where does it need to be: one spot or many? How many species? How fast? Do you count only corals, or do you count the myriad fish and other invertebrates that live on a reef and need it to survive? How long does the coral need to live? How do you compare ecosystems across the planet?
As he spoke, my excitement began to sag under the weight of reality. Sure, you can hold a fancy meeting in L.A. with lots of wealthy, smart, inspired people. And, sure, you can have grand ideas to solve Grand Challenges. But then you confront our big, complicated, powerful planet. You confront the unpredictability of biology and the unrelenting march of development, climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution. You could put a price on it, but what did Saving Coral Reefs really mean? Was it even possible?
Up on the stage, Matt Mulrennan was all optimism and confidence. “We’re planning to launch the XPRIZE in 2019,” he said.
Excerpted from Life on the Rocks: Building A Future For Coral Reefs by Juli Berwald. Copyright © 2022. Available from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.