August 26, 2007

Remarks of Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

Ifremeria sp., a snail that lives at gold-rich hydrothermal vents. Watercolor; Karen Jacobsen; 2005.

The Way Forward

For those of you who have been to the shore this month, there is sand between the pages of your copy of The Edge of the Sea, and happily so. It should please you further to look forward to September and a discussion led by Patricia Hynes of the book, Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, wherein there is more by Rachel Carson about the edge of the sea, and where Carson reminds us that

‘in the waters of the sea, we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself. The water itself is altered, in its chemical nature and in its capacity for inducing metabolic change, by the fact that certain organisms have lived within it and by so doing have transmitted to it new properties with powerful and far-reaching effects.’

These words from a scientific paper that Carson presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1953 eloquently capture some of what the scientific community now somewhat pedantically refers to as an ecosystem-based approach.

Public addresses, books, essays, letters… As a gifted and impassioned writer, Carson found myriad ways to share her knowledge of nature with the public and to shape and influence public policy. What about the contemporary environmental scientist – what do we do to advocate for wise environmental stewardship?

I offer a brief outline of a particularly tricky case study that goes beyond the edge of the sea, into the deep sea. In the late 1970’s, scientists discovered hot springs on the seafloor, oases of life colonized by strange and beautiful animals. Thirty-five years later, we continue to explore these wilderness areas, finding every year dozens of new species and, oftentimes, unimagined adaptations for life in extreme environments. These discoveries are the stuff that make new chapters in textbooks and that inspire the next generation of ocean explorers and advocates. Would that strange life were all one might find at these deep-sea hot springs. But

“In the ocean depths, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold, which would be quite easy to exploit.”
— Jules Verne, 1870
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne was all too prescient. There is now a rush to mine gold and other precious metals from deep-sea hot springs within territorial waters of other nations, particularly those of island nations in the southwest Pacific. More than one company proposes to begin commercial extraction – pit mining – of metal sulfides that make up the mineral chimneys formed as hot spring fluids exit the seafloor. The method of extraction removes the very habitat that supports the strange animals that I study and is likely to cause collateral damage to the surrounding ecosystem as well. We – the scientific community – have barely begun to discover which species live in these particularly gold-rich environments in the SW Pacific. What we do know comes at a great price and is in large part enabled by field expeditions sponsored by mining companies as they work to meet or even exceed their legal requirements for environmental assessment. Can we begin to assess the impact of mining on the species that live in the threatened habitats and to advise policy makers with informed science?

Here we land squarely at the frustrated interaction between scientists and policy makers that is so cogently described in H. Russell Bernard’s 1974 essay on Scientists and Policy Makers: An Ethnography of Communication (Human Organization 33:261-275) (reprinted by permission of the publisher). Scientists – myself as an example – want to give the yes and no answer, because the issues can be, as in this case, complex, with many unknown and unmeasured variables. We are trained as scientists to specify the limitations of our research, to distinguish what is result and what is interpretation; we are trained to think about the error as well as the mean. Policy makers want to know what is the best course of action to achieve a particular result; insufficient information to make a wise policy decision is not a tenable response.

My own view is that it is premature to mine hot springs for gold. We do not have the ability to assess the environmental impact of sustained and cumulative commercial mining efforts on organisms that colonize seafloor hot springs, nor do we have the means for environmental remediation should mining proceed and insupportable consequences result. I, in a view that I believe is shared by others in the scientific community who study the animals that live at deep-sea hot springs, advocate that a precautionary approach be applied. I take it as our ethical responsibility to maintain the integrity of natural systems; the burden should be on mining advocates to demonstrate that mining will not cause habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity at regional scales.

Week of August 27 – Rachel Carson Book Club members have the opportunity to study how Carson’s work influenced the environmental movement and environmental policy. This leadership comes from her understanding and knowledge of how organisms interact with one another and the environment, as well as a set of values and ethics that places human beings within the context of the environment, rather than apart from it. To all this, Carson added an ability to communicate. What is included in the suite of tools and opportunities that contemporary scientists may use to influence environmental policy? In the particular example of seafloor mining in waters of other nations, what outlets might individuals use to advocate for a particular environmental policy?


Anonymous said...

The affects of greenhouse gas ozone, which has been increasing near Earth's surface since 1850, could seriously cut into crop yields and spur global warming this century, scientists reported on Wednesday. For more information about Effects & Causes Of Global Warming

julie said...

Maybe I'm feeling pessimistic tonight, but it occurrs to me that Carson's theme of incessant natural change throughout The Edge of the Sea could be turned against scientists or anyone advocating for the protection of deep sea vent ecosystems. If all is flux, undersea as on land, then why preserve vent-dependent species--or ecosystem diversity in general? The astonishing abundance of life and process that she describes so eloquently on each page has a meaning that, in her final paragraph, eludes her. I think we need to add to our tool box of scientific knowledge, technological prowess, and communication skills an enlightened philsopher or two if we want to protect the deep sea or much else still left to us.

Ben Smith said...

The consideration of the question regarding how scientists might influence policy gets at the core of an enormously important aspect of humans' relationship to the environment. I do think that's exactly the edge Rachel Carson was poised on as she pursued what she saw as her life's work.

How to fit science into the established beliefs of our civilization has always been, and continues to be, a dilemma. One of the groups grappling fairly well, at least in my view, with these questions is the Union of Concerned Scientists. They are a group who have respected scientific and ethical credentials who are willing to stand up when science and policy (or politics) collide.

Other sources that address this topic are, 1) a book titled "The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics" by Roger Pielke, Jr.. (preview this book at:

2) a journal titled "Environmental Science and Policy."

Annie said...

Deep Ocean Mining
Gosh, Dr Van Dover, you sure saved the hardest for last! I'm sitting on the floor with my brother Sam, surrounded by piles of books and maps and print-outs of articles and science papers and blogs, mining company reports, financial reports, ecological guidelines, international treaties and ocean current charts, and there's no idex to help find your way through all this. If this is what you mean by "complex," you're right! and we did come up with pages of ideas of what to do to stop or at least regulate deep-ocean mining,...but who would listen to kids from Virginia!
So we think that someone from the science community HAS to step forward to be the spokesperson, the advocate and the defender of life in the deep ocean, because you guys are the only ones who have explored and recorded and written about a world so remote and alien to the rest of us.If you don't care, if you're only willing to watch...destruction, why should anyone else care. That's what the mining companies are counting on!! and when the sea bed is scrapped bare, you cannnot all run off to be astrobiologists!!!

A couple of good references to get a handle on the problem:
"Race to the Bottom" For background on under sea mining
"Danger of Deep-Sea Mining" Science Vol 316 18 May 2007
"The Deep" by Claire Nouvian
spectacular pictures of creatures most of will never see.
"Deep Ocean Journeys" by Cindy Lew Van Dover a personal, Rachel Carsonesque account of life at the bottom of the sea

Good Luck!!! xxoo

Mandy said...

In the final chapter of the book, Carson contemplates existence itself. She says "For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment, determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea." She talks about the "unifying touch of the sea" in referring to all the different life forms. In the last sentence she refers to the "ultimate mystery of Life itelf", implying that the sea, with its ever-changing stream of life contains the mystery and holds the answer.

stephen williams said...

The "unifying touch of the sea" -- that's so lovely.

Would it be appropriate to remember that Carson's writings have been translated into a number of other languages?

This morning I read about a plan to replicate Carson's Maine cottage as part of a research center in Japan.

Any chance of adding to the schedule of the Rachel Carson Centennial Blog a guest moderator (or two) from another country?

Re deep-sea mining, if only there was a convention that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the seas, establishes clear guidelines for businesses, protects the environment, and improves the management of marine resources. Hey, wait a minute, what about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea?

Herb L. said...

Good ideas. An international convention does seem called for to address concerns over deep sea mining. Another convention that comes to mind is the International Whaling Convention. It's not perfect, but it's not a bad approach to the deep sea mining issue.

By the way, I took a moment to find out a little about the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Intersting to note that the U.S. has not joined for pretty much the same reasons it didn't sign on to the Kyoto Protocol: possibly unfavorable to U.S. economy. If we're going to deal with global issues, I'd say we at least need to be on the team.

Gretchen Green said...

Annie has a point. Scientists would make good advocates for the resources because they do have access to the data with which to make a convincing case for conservation. But how do scientists maintain their credibility? By presenting factual, unbiased science. I'm afraid when scientists step into the realm of advocacy, their science is perceived as being skewed and no longer holds the same weight. Things just aren't that simple. No one group can accomplish this alone. If we want our scientists to speak out then we need to be speaking out with them.

And with all due respect, Annie, "just being a kid" is no excuse. Kids are amazingly creative and resourceful and you're already more informed than most adults. You've got lots of credibility going for you because you are the future.

NCTC Librarian said...

Thank you Dr. Cindy Van Dover for your marvelous postings. We hope to see you continue with comments to our next moderator's remarks.

Mandy said...

It's hard to believe summer is almost over and we're getting ready to pack up and leave the beach. I think I've enjoyed this time at the beach even more than usual this year. In part because of our reading of The Edge of the Sea. I feel like I became more intitmately acquainted with the ocean.

Joining the book club at the local library was such a great thing to do. For our last meeting we decided to have it at the beach, at night. It was the perfect setting to sum up our experience of reading The Edge of the Sea. Having a discussion on a blog is a fun and interesting thing to do but there's nothing like being at there to hear, feel, and smell the real thing.

Thank you to the folks who makea this blog avaiable. We've really enjoyed the discussions. Hope to see it continue.

NCTC Librarian said...

Mandy, just for the record we would love to know where your book club is located, how many participants and how you integrated the blog into your discussions. It will help us model the format better to accomodate other programs. Please email me if possible at Thanks for sharing your thoughts and words of appreciation.

NCTC Librarian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie said...

Hi, Mr. Williams, the "United Nations Law of the Sea" applies only to international waters. A nation's territorial waters, something called "Exclusive Economic Zones" in the treaty are the responsibility of each nation and if that country has few or no laws to protect its waters, that's where the mining companies go!
And Ms. Green, if Rachel Carson hadn't the courage to take on the giant chemical companies, we wouldn't be celebrating her today AND I wouldn't be watch a bald eagle, right now, soaring over my marsh! and as Harry Potter said, "Because sometimes you've GOT to think about more than your own safety! Sometimes you've GOT to think about the greater good! This is war!"

Support said...

Hi there,

Nice stuff you got, very interesting to read.
Well, I do have also in my sleeves, if you have time don't forget to visit

Many thanks

Locations of visitors to this page