Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Turning the Tide: Is it time for an Evolution P.A.C.? Ask the oceans folks.

Here's a guest post by Harvard-trained evolutionary ecologist Randy Olson, the filmmaker whose documentary film "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus," was an official selection at New York's Tribeca Film Festival and the Maui Film Festival earlier this year:

What do the worlds of ocean conservation and "evolution teaching" have in common? They are both run by highly educated people. And over the past ten years, they have both experienced plenty of failure.

The "failure" on the evolution front is represented by current attacks underway in a couple dozen states, the looming storm in Texas, and the fact that Kansas is dealing with a set of science standards that are universally disdained in the world of science. Granted, evolution is not a total failure, but its definitely embattled and clearly at risk of possible major failure.

The "failure" of ocean conservation is represented by the ravaged coral reefs of the Florida Keys, the over-fished kelp forests of the California coast, the anoxic waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the growing "Dead Zones" of the Gulf of Mexico. All of these ecological calamities occurred despite the activities of ocean conservation groups to prevent them.

The failure of ocean conservation was the subject of a report commissioned by the Packard Foundation in 2003 titled, "Turning the Tides." The study was put together by two veteran ocean conservationists, a lawyer, Jack Sterne, and an ocean policy analyst, Dave Wilmott. They researched the question of why ocean conservation is failing and came up with a simple conclusion -- that ocean conservationists are "more comfortable with policy than politics." Ocean conservationists would rather stay in their offices and work on more policy to protect the resources than get out on the street and do the politics necessary to bring about the changes needed.

Since 2002 I've been running the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project, a communications collaboration between Hollywood and ocean conservation. I found the Turning the Tides report inspiring when it came out. It verbalized every major frustration I had been experiencing in trying to convince foundations and N.G.O.'s to direct more funding towards mass communications. The answers I was receiving were very similar -- that the foundations don't like to fund mass media (they see it as too ephemeral and fleeting) and prefer to put their money into more nuts and bolts things like ... creating policy.

But the great thing about the authors, Stern and Wilmott, is that they went on to put their efforts where there mouths were by following the recommendations of their own report. In 2004 they founded Ocean Champions, the first Political Action Committee (P.A.C.) for the oceans. Rather than producing educational materials and sending them to congressmen, they decided to enter the real world of politics by pinpointing a dozen or so politicians who are supportive of ocean conservation (regardless of party affiliation), raise money, then donate the money to their election campaigns.

Does it work? Well, I'll tell you what I got to see. A couple years ago Jack and Dave were in L.A. (where I live) and invited me to a fund-raiser for Senator Barbara Boxer's re-election campaign. There were a couple of hundred people in the back yard of a Brentwood house, but when we arrived Jack and Dave were brought into the living room where they sat and discussed specific aspects of ocean politics with Senator Boxer, filling her in on the current status of various projects in her home state and what she might do to help them along. Through their support of her campaign they had developed contacts with her staff. This was their payoff. Its called politics. Plain and simple. And effective.

For this year's elections they recently announced the group of ten or so candidates they will be supporting. They are slowly but surely building a very solid and realistic support base within congress for ocean conservation.

And its what has entered my mind over the past couple weeks as I've caught up with some of the folks in Kansas who appeared in my documentary feature film, "Flock of Dodos: the evolution-intelligent design circus." What I've been hearing in both Texas and Kansas is a frustration that the national pro-evolution organizations who say they are unable to provide funds to assist with the current political activities, such as the school board races. They say they are all non-profits, and so must stay clear of such activities. All they can do is produce more editorials, brochures, petitions, web sites and make statements that they hope will help. All of which is of course very valuable, but what's most needed right now in Kansas is hard cold cash.

But in the meanwhile, the Kansas folks are hearing of major funding coming into the state on the anti-evolution side. Is it possible those folks know something more about the political process?

So it makes me wonder if the time hasn't come to consider the idea of an evolution P.A.C. -- a national organization that can use the real political tactics of political action committees to take on the opposition directly, rather than through the tradition more indirect methods.

When Jack and Dave first introduced the idea of an ocean P.A.C. to the ocean conservation community four years ago there was considerable push back, and even still there are plenty of folks who don't get it. But I do. And I think you will, too, if you look at their website. And I know a lot of people will say that the teaching of evolution shouldn't be politicized. But I'm afraid they're a little late, if they say that.

Olson tells RSR that "Flock of Dodos" will be screened in Lawrence at the University of Kansas sometime in September.


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