Can pessimism have a positive impact? Interview with Rowan Jacobsen about the recent obituary of the Great Barrier Reef


“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.”

--- From Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016) by Rowan Jacobsen

MEAM: Rowan, in October 2016, Outside magazine published a satirical obituary you wrote for the Great Barrier Reef. This "obituary" got quite a bit of attention in marine conservation circles as well as international media (examples here and here). Can you describe the reactions you got to the article from individuals, the conservation and scientific community, and the press (and any other entities such as government agencies, etc.)?

Jacobsen: Yes, it certainly got much more attention than anything I’ve ever written before. I’ve written things that received quite a bit of attention from reviewers, traditional media, etc., but this was a couple of orders of magnitude beyond that, and it was entirely due to social media. What I wrote was intended to be a quiet little think piece (see below), so yes, I was hugely surprised. There were millions of shares on Facebook — both support and a fair amount of condemnation from conservation groups and scientists, and some howls of protest from Australia.

MEAM: You published another article about the decline of the Great Barrier Reef in Outside magazine a few months later, so you were obviously doing a lot of research on the status of the Great Barrier Reef at the time. Can you tell us a little more about why you chose an obituary format for the October 2016 article? 

Jacobsen: I’d been thinking about how the usual strategies for getting people invested in conservation projects, or slow-moving tragedies like climate change, just don’t work. People aren’t wired to think in abstract terms. So I was thinking that a “Ghost of Christmas Future” approach might have more emotional impact: Drag people to the year 2050 (or thereabouts) and show them what the world will be like—and make it a matter-of-fact news story. Of course I don’t know when reefs will go extinct, but all the research and interviews I’d done made it pretty clear that by 2050, they’ll mostly be toast, so that was the rough date I had in my head for the obituary. But I left the date blank when I turned in the piece; I thought that might be more ominous. But the online editors saw “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 20__ after a long illness” and thought it was a placeholder. They filled in the current date, supplied a headline, and published it. This is how things go in the online world. The rest is history.

MEAM: Without a doubt, your article brought a lot of international attention to the declining health of the Great Barrier Reef. Do you believe that attention can/will lead to positive action to improve reef health?

Jacobsen: The evolution of the reactions followed what I think turned out to be a pretty useful pattern. First, there were a lot of people on Facebook (who clearly had read nothing but the headline, probably aggregated by bots) lamenting the death of the Great Barrier Reef, but only for as long as it took them to compose the post. Frankly, anyone who knew so little about the Great Barrier Reef that the obituary could have convinced them that it had just died as a single unit probably hadn’t been doing a lot to preserve it anyway. But then came a whole wave of conservationists and scientists being given a lot of space in newspapers and the radio to condemn the tactic and explain that the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t dead at all, and if we all got our act together could still be saved. A lot of people who would never otherwise have given reefs two minutes got to learn about them in a relatively in-depth way. And all of this ended with new attention on what we need to do to actually still have reefs in 2050. I turned down a lot of media requests during this time and stayed silent because it seemed like things were moving forward in a pretty positive direction. So I think it worked out about as well as it could have.

But no, I’m afraid I’m very skeptical of the ability of writing or ideas to change societal behavior. If any of that could solve climate change, Bill McKibben would have a Nobel Prize by now. The only thing that works is technological changes that make doing the good thing easier than doing the hard thing. Barring that breakthrough, we’re going to fail.

MEAM: If you could go back in time knowing what you know now (e.g., reactions to the obituary, another bleaching episode for the reef), would you still write the obituary? Anything you would do differently?

Jacobsen: I would, but I’d go back to my 2050ish death date—which of course means that it would have been read by just a few hundred folks, so I tip my cap to the online editors for knowing how this works.

Rowan Jacobsen can be contacted on Twitter at @rowanjacobsen.

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