Let’s Protect The Oceans Like National Parks: David Lang (Transcript)

David Lang at TED Talks

Full transcript of underwater drone expert and TED Fellow David Lang’s talk: Let’s Protect The Oceans Like National Parks.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Let’s protect the oceans like national parks by David Lang @TED conference


David Lang – Underwater drone expert

So, of all my childhood memories, there is one that stands above the rest. And that is the time that my brave parents rented an RV, packed it with me and my brothers, and drove west from our house in Minneapolis, out to Yellowstone National Park.

We saw all the sights, like the geysers, we stopped at the Badlands, but more than any of the places, I remember this as an adventure. This was my introduction to the Wild West.

But it wasn’t until I got older and I learned more about the National Park System that I realized just how lucky I was. One, to have that experience, but also that, hundreds of years ago, people had the foresight to set aside the very best places, the very best ecosystems in the country, for everyone. And for future generations.

And to really appreciate just how prescient that idea was, you have to go back and you have to look at the history of the National Parks Service.

So, a lot of people know, the first national park was Yellowstone, in 1872. A lot of people think of John Muir, the poet, naturalist, who was such a visionary in getting people inspired by the idea of conservation — that we need to take the best places and protect them.

He had an audience in very high places — there’s a great story of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir going hiking, in Yosemite, during his presidency, four days, completely off the grid, just the two of them. Can you imagine a president actually just going completely off the grid for four days? No tweeting. Like that idea.

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But he had a great impact on Theodore Roosevelt. And he created dozens of national parks, hundreds of thousands of square acres of national wildlife refuges. It was an important administration, but it wasn’t a done deal. Even less than 10 years after he created all of those new places, the future of those places was very much in doubt.

And it wasn’t until this guy, Stephen Mather, a businessman from Chicago, wrote an angry letter to the Department of the Interior, saying, “You guys aren’t doing a good enough job protecting and preserving these places.”

Then, something was done about it. The Department of the Interior wrote him back “Mr Mather, if you care so much about this, why don’t you come to Washington and do it yourself?” And he did.

He took a job at the Department of the Interior, but more importantly, he started a campaign. He actually had a meeting two blocks from here, in 1914, in California Hall, and he brought together the park superintendents and a few other people who cared about this idea of conservation.

And they put together a plan, they hatched a campaign that eventually led to the National Park Service in 1916. And that’s really important. Because it went from an idea that we should protect these places to an actual plan, a way for people to enlist and carry that idea forward for future generations, so little kids like me can go and have these amazing experiences.

That is the history of the National Parks on land.

The ocean, what I want to talk to you about today, is a completely different story. And we are almost precisely 100 years behind.

So, the first marine sanctuary was in 1972, after the oil spill in Santa Barbara, people got interested in taking that concept and applying it to underwater environments. We’ve had our own John Muir, who’s Dr Sylvia Earle, who’s been a tireless advocate for creating these marine protected areas around the world.

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So, I know there’s a lot of bad news about the ocean, there’s plastic pollution, coral bleaching, over-fishing — it’s hard to take it all in sometimes. But this idea of setting aside places for nature is working.

Science tells us that if you set these places aside, nature will come back and we can keep the oceans healthy. So we know this idea works.

And Dr Sylvia Earl has been influential, like John Muir, with administrations — George W Bush and Obama were both fantastic ocean presidents, creating marine protected areas all around the country. This is not a conservative idea or a liberal idea, it’s not even an American idea, it’s just a good idea.

But here we are, a few years later. And now the administration is proposing to roll back a lot of the progress we’ve made in the past 20 years.

So, so, don’t mourn — organize. We need to do what Stephen Mather did 100 years ago. We need to start a campaign to get people engaged with this idea. And I think we need a league of citizen scientists for the ocean.

And I’ve seen glimpses of this future, and I know that it’s possible. My friend Erik and I started building underwater robots, these little swimming cameras with lights that you can see underwater. We started building these in his garage five years ago, and we’ve watched that grow into this community of thousands of people around the world, who believe that everybody should have access to these places.

We all deserve the tools to go and explore. There’s stories like Laura James, who used her robot to find out that sea stars in her area were dying. And she started this whole citizen science campaign, collected data and drove awareness for sea-star wasting syndrome, to try and figure out what was happening there.

There are stories of fishermen in Mexico, who used the robot to create marine protected areas where Nassau grouper were spawning, to protect the future of this species. It’s really amazing stuff. We found that if you give people the tools, they’ll do the right thing. But we need to take it a step further.

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And, actually, I think we can dust off Stephen Mather’s playbook.

So what did he do? So, the first thing that he did was he focused on infrastructure. So 1914 wasn’t just a time for the parks, it was also a time for the automobile, the Model T was rolling off the line, and Stephen Mather understood that this was going to be an important part of American culture.

And so he partnered with highway associations around the country to build big, beautiful highways out to these parks. And it worked, he’s basically invented car camping.

And he knew that if people didn’t go to these places, that they wouldn’t fall in love with them and they wouldn’t care. So that was a really insightful idea that he had.

The second thing they did, was they focused on visionary philanthropy. So, Stephen Mather was a successful businessman from Chicago, and anytime there was a parks association that needed funding, anytime there was a highway association that needed funding, they’d step in, write the checks, make it happen. There’s a great story of his friend William Kent, who recognized there was a small patch of redwoods left on the base of Mount Tam, and so he quickly bought the land and donated it to this National Parks effort.

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