Excerpts from an interview conducted by Marianne Schnall (1996)
MARIANNE SCHNALL: I THINK A LOT OF PEOPLE TAKE THE OCEANS AND WATER IN GENERAL FOR GRANTED. IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS, WHY IS THE MARINE ECOSYSTEM SO IMPORTANT?
TED DANSON: Well, for one thing, it does act as a mirror for the health of the entire planet. Another thing is, about a third of the world's population depends upon fish for the animal protein in their diet. And most important, the sheer mass of us, and how we manufacture things - our toxic waste, us flushing stuff down the toilets and down the drains - just our impact along the coasts, are starting to poison the coastal waters. So, what happens is, even though the oceans are vast and huge, it is the first three miles nearest the coasts that are the nurseries - that's where you create the life of the ocean, more or less, because that is where the oceans are most oxygenated and that is where most of the life occurs. So if you damage the coastal waters, you have a huge impact on the fisheries of the world. Overfishing, not being able to manage our marine resources in any kind of rational way, is having a huge impact. Fisheries are being closed for the first time in history all over the world. For the first time, in most of the waters around Seattle, you cannot fish for salmon. And this is because you have farmers farming too close to rivers, so that pesticides and farm animal waste get into the water system; you have saw mills polluting the rivers; you have over-development along the coast polluting the water; it's all of this together. So, what we need to start looking at doing is having a way of managing the whole ecosystem, because you can't pick away at it piece by piece, you have to truly start being coordinated and managing our resources as a system. We haven't gotten to that point yet.
WHAT TYPE OF MEASURES CAN WE TAKE TO STOP SOCIETY FROM USING THE OCEAN AS A GARBAGE DUMP?
Well, most of it comes in the form of legislation. Years ago, we all talked about recycling and not dumping things down your drain and all of that, but talking doesn't help much. Basically, it's going to have to be legislation because the impact is so huge and diversified. Yes, we need to do things as individuals without doubt, but we also need to work from the top down. Here's some examples of what we're doing. And I'm really proud of American Oceans Campaign because they do not just throw bricks - they work, when they can, with the people they disagree with. We have fought the oil companies for many years to keep them from drilling offshore, but at the same time, we have a project with Unocal here in Los Angeles, and it's going to happen soon in several other states as well, where we as an environmental organization, the oil company, and the state all get together to promote the recycling of used motor oil. Because the amount of used motor oil that gets poured down drains and gutters is really huge. So, I feel very strongly that you can't just beat people up anymore; you have to work hand in hand and find ways to compromise, and get big business involved, , because it won't happen otherwise. Also, we've created coalitions with existing water groups and have helped to give them a voice in Washington; I'm proud that we're very good at that. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel; for any environmentalist or environmental organization to claim sole responsibility for any kind of victory is insane, because everybody attacks these problems as a group. Most environmentalists are part-time, so it's crucial that we all work together and pool our energies.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS IS A RESULT OF A LACK OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OR CONSCIENCE?
It's one of those things where - this is not my analogy and I don't think I'll get it right, but it's great - where if you take one rivet out of an airplane, it will be all right, it'll keep flying. You take another rivet out of the airplane and it still flies. So what the heck, let's take more rivets out of the airplane, and sooner or later, the airplane drops from the sky, but right up until that moment....Now, the environmental movement, like all political processes, reacts best to disasters. But these are very slow, very gradual disasters in the making. It's hard to get somebody excited about, "Thirty years from now, we will not have 'da-da-da'." So, it's tricky. And people need to get elected on immediate issues, so you have politicians not really dealing with long-range, long-term thinking. Which will have huge economic results.
IT SAYS THAT ONE OF THE GOALS OF AMERICAN OCEANS CAMPAIGN IS TO CREATE A NATIONAL ENERGY POLICY ON CONSERVING ENERGY AND PROMOTING CLEAN, RENEWABLE FUELS. HOW IS THAT PROGRESSING?
Well, you can't just jump up and say, "Hey - no oil." You have to work with the auto industry, the oil companies, you have to work to develop renewable fuel, whether it's solar or different kinds of fuel or whatever. And it's funny - the oil companies are very willing to talk, up to a point, you can have a real conversation with them, because they know that oil's going to run out in a hundred years. And they have the Clear Air Act to deal with. They just want to want to make sure that their infrastructure can be used for something after fossil fuels are obsolete.
WHAT DOES BEING AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MEAN TO YOU? WHY IS THIS A CAUSE THAT YOU FEEL SO COMPELLED TO ACT ON?
Well, for one thing, you can go from "recycling saves money" or, "we need to eat fish" or, "God dammit, this is an ocean, I have every right to be able to swim in it" to as deeply spiritual as you want to go. We are all in this together. We will all make it or none of us will make it. If everyone cleans up their act except one big ole country, it isn't going to work. Your worst enemy - or at least it used to be your worst enemy - can have a nuclear hiccup that can devastate the world. We are truly all in this together, which is a spiritual thought. It isn't us against them. It has nothing to do with politics or philosophy or religion, it is these laws of nature, these laws of life, of which we are a part. We are so arrogant, we forget that we are not the reason for evolution, we are not the point of evolution. We are part of evolution. Unfortunately, we believe that we've been created to dominate the planet, to dominate nature. Ain't true. And if it's true, we're doing a real lousy job of it. Also, this will get handled. The thing is, do we get to participate in it and handle it gracefully and intelligently or is it going to get handled for us? Without getting scary or spooky - it will handle itself. The planet will survive. Whether we get to be here and enjoy it, or enjoy life as we've known it, is what's questionable.
ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC THAT PEOPLE'S ATTITUDES CAN CHANGE?
Yes. For me, you have to drop down to the spiritual level and say "why are you here?" You're here to learn and grow and learn more about yourself and grow, and what better place and what better challenges to face than these? I don't think it's a matter of, "do you win the game or not", it's how gracefully do you play it. How much do you engage yourself in what's truly real and important in life. So, that's the individual question - I don't think it's a finger shaker at other people, it's just what's so. I mean, to me you could run the whole world on environmental issues. Address these environmental issues and you will address every issue known to man. And we keep dabbling in things that aren't really that important in the long term.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE PUBLIC ON BECOMING POLITICALLY ACTIVE, WHETHER IT'S ON ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES OR OTHERWISE? WHAT CAN ONE PERSON DO?
Boy, I'd reduce the stress. I don't know what they can do, but I tell you, the difference for me is between being victimized, terrorized, numbed by reading about different disasters, or reducing the anxiety by getting up and doing something about it, at whatever level. Get up, do something - whatever it is. If you actively do something, it will stop making you feel like a victim and you'll start feeling like part of the solution, which is just a huge benefit to your body and your psyche.
American Oceans Campaign/Oceana
Actor and ocean activist Ted Danson founded the nonprofit environmental organization American Oceans Campaign in 1987 to advocate for stronger coastal and marine ecosystem protections. In 2002, American Oceans Campaign merged with Oceana to bring together dedicated people from around the world, including scientists and policy, economic and legal experts to preserve the oceans and our circle of life. For more information, visit www.oceana.org or call 1.877.7.OCEANA.
NOTE: No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .
Marianne Schnall is a co-founder of the EcoMall, a free-lance writer and co-founder of the women's site Feminist.com.
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