Dr. Sylvia Earle: Creating a Sea of Hope

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Why grandparents are essential to the earth’s future

BY SUSAN REYNOLDS

Based on an interview by CHRISTINE CROSBY

Scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle is widely recognized around the world for her dedication to saving our oceans and seas. As a scientist/explorer, she’s led more than 100 expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater. She’s also the creator of The Sylvia Earle Alliance, an organization dedicated to saving our planet’s fragile oceans, and Mission Blue, a global initiative that supports research (Mission Blue is also the title of her National Geographic documentary). She’s also one of the ocean’s most well spoken advocates (listen to her TED talk and you’ll be on your feet clapping)—all while also being a loving mother and grandmother. And everything she does, she does with great passion, and humor.

Dr. Sylvia EarleDr. Earle credits her parents for supporting her love of science, beginning when they lived in Clearwater, Florida, “back when Clearwater had clear water,” she mused. “I would bring home gallon jars of ocean water, or fresh water, into my bedroom, inviting in the creatures that lived within them [and likely the smells]. I’d study the creatures for a while, and then return them [to their habitats].” Thus, her lifelong passion and career began with personally observing what the ocean was all about, at an early age.

Take your grandchildren on excursions in nature

Today, as the grandmother of four grandsons and someone intent on inspiring others to care about environmental issues, Dr. Earle places a high value on spending time outdoors, in nature. Continuing a tradition that began when her two sons and daughter were young children, Dr. Earle has taken her mother, her three children, and her four grandsons to the Galapagos Islands.

“All of them have been scooped up at various times to go on expeditions. They were subjected to swimming with whales, swimming with dolphins, and learning to dive at an early age.” She laughed. “I wanted them to engage with [and thereby] fall in love with the magical earth we live on—and to grasp [early on] how important it is to save the natural world.”

Why being a grandparent is so special

From the time her grandchildren were young, they’ve called Dr. Earle “Gmom” or “Mymy,” an endearment her grandson Tyler created when he first began to speak. “What a treasure,” she said, when asked what it means being a grandparent. “It’s great to have a legacy, but having grandchildren provides a continuity that is unparalleled in the universe. I vaguely remember small experiences with my mother’s mother and father, but my father’s were gone by the time I was born. Having the opportunity to convey wisdom to grandchildren is a privilege.”

Why grandparents are essential to the earth’s survival

While technology has its drawbacks (keeping children indoors instead of in nature), Dr. Earle marvels at the depth and breadth of knowledge available on the Internet. “So much has changed so fast in the last fifty years, faster than it has in all of human history. When I was a child, we had our parents, the library, teachers, and encyclopedias, but today, our grandchildren have access to massive amounts of information in seconds. Unlike any previous generation, our grandchildren have the opportunity to start out their lives with an amazing amount knowledge, and a much wider perspective of the role we humans play in preserving—or depleting—our planet’s resources. As grandparents, we are witnesses to what continues to be an extraordinary time of change, and to say to our grandchildren—‘you’re the luckiest kids ever, because you’re the beneficiaries of all that has preceded you, and we are still here to offer you our wisdom’—is not only a pleasure, it’s our responsibility.

She isn’t a fan of looking backwards. The ability to know the power that humans have to live in the world, either as a diminished place or a place that has a hope of going forward is precious. Use all this unprecedented knowledge you possess to become an ambassador to the future.

Why it’s a global responsibility

Dr. Sylvia EarleAccording to Dr. Earle, it’s up to our generation to seize the opportunity, with children throughout the world, to tell them that they must use this knowledge, while there’s still time to abolish global consumption of the natural world. “We need to make sure they know that everyone must take care of the natural systems and the natural species—because they underpin our ability to survive.”

What will save the planet is “to stop burning through earth’s natural assets (including her beloved oceans) and using all of the resources it has taken 4.5 billion years to get to the point where earth acts in our favor. Teach upcoming generations to work within those systems, so that we (and our planet) can have a long and prosperous future.”

Like mother like daughters . . . and son

Dr. Sylvia EarleToday, Dr. Earle’s eldest daughter and her son-in-law run Deep Ocean Exploration & Research (DOER) a company in Alameda, California, that Dr. Earle founded to develop ingenious ways to access to the sea. Her daughter is President and CEO, and her son-in-law handles operations. They’ve developed equipment that allows scientists and explorers to access the sea from going through ice in the Artic Sea to manned submersibles that can dive deep beneath the surface. Filmmaker James Cameron recently used one to dive to the deepest part of the ocean and film a National Geographic documentary Deep Sea Challenge.

Dr. Earle’s son works for California Fish & Game, a job he loves but one that sometimes worries his mother. “He’s out there catching the bad guys, who are taking more than they should and thus expose him to circumstances that worry me, but it’s what he’s chose to do, as the way he gives back to the world.”

Her younger daughter knows how to drive submarines and has often worked with her mother (five years as data manager for Sustainable Seas Expeditions). “But she really has a way with words and music so now produces cds that express her passion and also gives back to the world, spreading the word that it’s up to us to make a difference.”

Like grandmother like grandson

Instilling this sense of purpose, of giving back and making a difference, is what has inspired Dr. Earle in every part of her crazily busy, wildly inspirational life. She is definitely passing down her beliefs, as she’s now collaborating with her eldest grandson, Russell Mead, in creating a book entitled My Grandmother Is . . . . “We have Sandra Day O’Connor as a Supreme Court Justice, Diane Feinstein as a United States Senator, and I’m an ocean explorer.” She paused to laugh. “I’m in pretty exceptional company there.” Deservedly so, we think.

Dr. Earle’s depth of knowledge is massive and the way she lives her life and expresses her passion—for the ocean and for earth’s future—is astonishingly inspirational. We asked her how “normal” grandparents could and should take a more active part in conservation, and here is her reply:

 Seven Ways Grandparents Can Help Save the Planet

1.         Look in the mirror

“We all have attributes that are special, through which we could make significant contributions. Can you write editorials, poems or songs? Can you photograph and catalogue endangered species? Can you create an environmental movement in your town? Can you inspire people to join forces? Can you offer green gardening advice? Ask yourself: What can I do as a person?—and then use your gifts to make a real contribution to environmental change, locally and globally. Look at the world and ask: ‘How can my voice be heard?’”

2.         Focus on sharing nature with children

If you have trouble identifying and using your gifts, take a single child out in nature. If you don’t have a grandchild, borrow one. Look at the world through their eyes and determine what you can do, as an individual, as a mom or dad, a grandparent, a teacher, a neighbor, or a friend, to teach them what you know about science and show them how to appreciate and protect the environment.”

3.         Get up to speed yourself

“If you’re not up to speed on the latest environmental issues and what you can do to help, there’s a wealth of information on the Internet. Ask questions and find answers,” Dr. Earle suggested.

4.         Start in your backyard

What can you do up close and personal that can be an example for the world—beginning in your backyard? “Get rid of a lawn that soaks up a lot of water and fertilizer, and especially anything that require pesticides. Instead of cultivating grass or plants that don’t thrive, with little to no maintenance in your area, embrace the natural systems unique to your location. Replace your lawn with native plants that won’t require, or disrupt, precious resources. Plant a vegetable garden, plant a fruit tree, or an oak tree (if they thrive in your area), plant a cactus. Plant flowers that attract honeybees or join a garden club and introduce native plants.

5.         Inspire a movement

Dr. Earle cites the example of a young girl in Texas who noticed trash on the beach and thought it was terrible. “She didn’t ask anyone what to do; she just started picking it up and disposing of it; and soon others began going out there with her, which inspired national and international beach cleanups.” Some were already in place before she began, but she inspired a local movement that steadily grew into a global movement.

6.         Magnify your efforts

Once you’ve done what you can with your own yard, consider magnifying your impact. “Vote for local politicians who are doing the right things. If no one is protecting nature in your community (or state), run for office yourself,” Dr. Earle said.

7.         Join organizations that support our earth

If you share Dr. Earle’s passion for ocean conservation, Mission Blue’s goal is to connect people with organizations focused on ocean preservation. “The National Geographic Society connects people with the wild world. Go online and see what they’re doing that you want to support with money, time, or energy,” Dr. Earle suggested. “There’s also the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, and many, many other choices for organizations focused on saving our environment. Choose one that most appeals to you, support the work they’re doing, and use their ideas to formulate ways you can help in your community.”
Susan ReynoldsSusan Reynolds is a Boston based journalist and magazine editor who has authored or edited more than thirty-five nonfiction books, including Train Your Brain to Get Happy and Meditation for Moms. Ms. Reynolds was the creator and editor of Adams Media¹s My Hero anthology series (Mother, Father, Teacher, Dog) and Woodstock Revisited. She founded Literary Cottage, through which she offers writing and editing services, and serves as a judge for Writer’s Digest Magazine Writing Contests

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