Kennedy Warne: Why Steinbeck Got it Wrong

MEG BERNHARD

I’ve always found it strange that Steinbeck was so derogatory about mangroves. […] For coastal people in the tropics, mangroves are truly the supermarkets of the poor.

Megan Bernhard, Featured Image

Kennedy Warne is an ecologist and journalist from Auckland, NZ. He co-founded New Zealand Geographic in 1988 and since then has contributed to National Geographic and Smithsonian, among other travel magazines. Warne published Let Them Eat Shrimp—The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea in 2011, writing about the need to preserve mangroves in the face of big shrimp industry. Currently, Warne is working on a project about marine-protected areas and why, as only one percent of the ocean is protected from human exploitation, we need more of them.

Brevia: John Steinbeck once described an encounter with mangroves, writing,”we felt we were watching something horrible. No one likes mangroves.” I’m guessing you’re an exception to Steinbeck’s observation. What inspired you to begin researching mangroves, and how would you respond to the aforementioned quote?

KW: I am most definitely an exception to that statement. In New Zealand we have one species of mangrove…and I live in the northern part of the country where they flourish. As a child, I used to pick up their plump green propagules at the beach, where they washed up in their thousands. Each was an eight-page leaf book that I pretended to read. Maybe I got my love of reading from mangroves too! Later, as editor of New Zealand Geographic… I commissioned a lengthy feature on mangroves… What I learned in bringing that story to publication—their physiological adaptations to an extreme environment, their many ecological roles in terrestrial and marine ecosystems—never left me.

I’ve always found it strange that Steinbeck was so derogatory about mangroves. People in Central and Latin America love mangroves, because they provide them with so many foods and products to live by. For coastal people in the tropics, mangroves are truly the supermarkets of the poor.

Brevia: How would you describe the coastal peoples’ interaction with mangroves?

KW: I imagine it is similar to the interaction of an Amazonian tribe with a terrestrial rainforest: intimate, multifaceted, sustaining. This is one of the reasons I refer to mangroves as “rainforests of the sea.” Not only do mangroves supply coastal people with food, provisions and livelihoods, they provide the sense of place that is so closely linked to a person’s identity. I love the expression they use in Latin America, “los pueblos del manglares”–people of the mangroves. They identify as people who are part of the mangrove ecosystem. It is their world.

Brevia: Of the many reasons people should care about mangroves—including their environmental impact, biodiversity, and wealth of natural resources—which do you think would persuade shrimp consumers, especially those in the developed world, to advocate mangrove preservation?

KW: If the person cares about social justice, and became aware that shrimp farming has been responsible for massive displacement and suffering to coastal communities in the developing world, he or she might decide not to be part of that cycle of injustice by refusing to buy or eat farmed shrimp. On the other hand, if the person is concerned about the environment, then letting him or her know that mangrove forests are fantastic sequesterers of carbon (and therefore play a role in slowing climate change) might influence a decision to keep those forests alive and healthy, rather than be complicit in their destruction.

Brevia: In a review of your book, Let Them Eat Shrimp, Aaron Ellison, a Harvard ecologist, called you a “21st century Lorax.,” referring to the famous character created by Dr. Seuss. What are your thoughts on this statement?

KW: It’s all there in that little book—the causes and catastrophes of modern consumer culture, the myth of endless growth, the destructive dominance of industry. So, of course, I was immensely flattered to be compared to such a towering figure as the Lorax. But I would say it is a mistake to look to individuals to “speak for the trees” on our behalf. Sure, media culture craves heroes and stars, environmental or otherwise, but we all have a “loraxical” role to play. Each of us has been entrusted with “the last of the Truffula Seeds,” so to speak. We who are living have the stewardship of the planet as our responsibility, and we can either step up to that role or not. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Megan Bernhard is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at mbernhard@college.harvard.edu.