Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock in recent years, you’ve probably heard something about the increasing environmental threat to coral reefs. And if you’ve ever seen any kind of under-water documentary, then you know that coral is home to a wide array of ocean life and an integral part of its watery landscape.
But how do we fix the problem? Should we intervene directly in aquatic environments and try to save coral reefs?
Those were the questions that inspired Honors College student Abigael Malcolm, a senior majoring in marine biology, to take a quintessentially liberal arts approach to her bachelor’s essay, a research requirement for all Honors College students. Instead of having a biology professor supervise her thesis on the ethics of saving coral reefs, Malcolm decided to seek out philosophy professor Jennifer Baker.
“I met Dr. Baker in the fall of 2016 when I took her environmental ethics course,” says Malcolm, who took the course as part of her environmental studies minor. “That was the first philosophy class I ever took, and I just really loved the different ways we approached current issues or hot topics in the environmental or sustainable world.”
The idea, says Baker, is to expand students’ point of view.
“Before taking our class, one common bit of skepticism students studying sustainability or the biological sciences sometimes have is to assume the class will be all about reasons to care about the environment,” says the professor. “They already care … but once they begin reading philosophy on issues they care about, they realize how many options we have when it comes to how we ought to regard value in our world.”
And, after spending five weeks in spring 2017 traveling on a sailboat from New Zealand to Tahiti with the Sea Education Association studying microplastics and ocean life, Malcolm was struck by what she saw.
“I really started thinking holistically about the environment because I didn’t see land for a month,” says Malcolm, who will spend her summer after graduation working as a research intern in the biology department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “I just realized how big the world is and yet we’re having this humongous change on it as humans.”
That led her to wonder how we – or if we even should – save coral reefs.
There are many different sides to weigh: Do we let nature take its course on reefs without any intervention from humans to save them; do we invest in coral nurseries as a way to replenish the marine invertebrates; or do we accept that natural coral is dying and simply build artificial reefs instead.
Those distinctions matter, says Baker, when looking at a seemingly straight-forward issue such as coral reef intervention. Debating solutions to a problem, in Baker’s mind, only serves to strengthen answers for problems in any field.
“As far as I have been able to tell, philosophy helps everyone with both their confidence and their curiosity,” says Baker. “In other words, philosophy does not create a problem, but it shows you a huge array of tools with which you can work when solving one.”
Looking at works by environmental ethicists such as Paul Taylor, Ronald Sandler and Freya Mathews, Malcolm surmised that leaving the problem of coral bleaching unattended would have dire consequences on ocean life. But artificial reefs, in her mind, could create a commercial market for the structures, which might disincentivize efforts to protect natural reefs.
Her solution? An intermediate approach that includes transplanting coral polyps from nurseries and sinking old ships to serve as artificial reefs.
“Traditional environmental ethics has been about humans fixing things because it’s the ‘right thing to do,’” says Malcolm. “But are those really the right questions we need to ask when it comes to coral reefs, because it’s not the same thing as a forest where we harvest trees and use them for things. Coral provides many things, but humans do not use them for anything. I thought it was kind of an interesting intersection point where some of those thoughts come together.”
And that thinking could make a world of difference.