On Molokini and Making Real
Molokini Crater is one of the most popular snorkeling destinations in the Hawaiian islands -- and for good reason. Molokini is a volcano almost entirely submerged beneath the ocean with only the top of the rim poking above water. The crater rim forms an islet the shape of a crescent moon and it sits in the Alalākeiki Channel between the islands of Maui and Kahoʻolawe. The floor of the crater holds a coral reef resplendent with fish of most any color, shape and size imaginable.
A couple of years ago we boarded a catamaran and sailed out to take a look. The fish were cool; the bay that Molokini Crater is nestled within is even cooler. It’s just off the migration route for humpback whales and it’s a safe place for moms to birth and raise their calves. This means that during the winter there are whales everywhere. We visited in March and by that late in the season many of the whales had departed -- headed for the nutrient rich waters of Alaska. Still, we had the chance to see a few and hear their breathy exhales at the water’s surface. The captain told us that if we’d descended into the water to snorkel a few weeks earlier, the bay would’ve been singing.
The whale songs are so prolific that they can be heard throughout the bay by swimmers and snorkelers like us floating around and gazing at coral. We didn’t get to hear the water lit up by song, but we chatted about what that would’ve been like as we cruised back towards the port snacking on Lay’s potato chips and sipping cans of Coors Light that the captain had cracked open for us. To this day, I still wonder what it would be like to swim in a singing sea.
I thought of Molokini when I heard an episode of On Being where Krista Tippett interviews Katy Payne, a self-taught acoustic biologist who spent her life listening to elephants and whales. Despite lifelong observation, Payne is quick to admit to the things she doesn’t know -- to the questions that remain and the places where conjecture is all that science has revealed thus far. There’s an ease to her unknowing and at the age of 82 she seems to have nothing to prove. The lack of certainty endows her stories with a sense of richness and wonder, as if she herself is contemplating their meaning even as she shares them. In the telling, Katy makes you feel like a comrade.
Well into the conversation, Tippett asks about the challenge of motivating a change in behavior of people who live at a great distance from some of the pressing problems facing our world. Problems like saving the whales, quite literally. How do we create change when people can’t clearly see the connection between their actions and the crises of our time? “I think that’s a hard equation for people to feel,” Tippet says.
This is the central question of social change, isn’t it? How do we show people the connection between their actions and the perpetuation or lessening of harm and suffering?
In its most expansive form, the question can never be answered. We can never fully know the repercussions of our actions. Still, there’s much room to explore the relationship between our choices and the harm or help they may cause.
If we are people who have much (too much, maybe, says Payne), how do we make decisions about what we save and spend and give? What do we believe about the word enough? And what do those things have to do with other people and institutions and our planet?
The simplicity of Payne’s response stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what she says:
Ms. Payne: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And so that’s our task, you see. Here you are on the radio, here we are on the radio. Our task is to make this real. This planet, this planet is the only place where we have this kind of life. Let’s not blow it.
Our task is to make this real.
This. This thing you care about and are working towards. This problem you see and understand and work with. This vision you hold and work to usher into the realm of the real, into the line of sight of those who hold the power to participate and create change.
Real. Make this real. How do we do that, exactly?
Perhaps it begins with giving people a way in -- to feel the problem, to wrestle with what a solution might look like and what their role might be. We tell stories and share ideas and point to what just might be the path forward. We find ways to show instead of tell. And we look into the nooks and crannies of our experience for the details that give life and anchor our stories in a singular moment of space and time. We dig into the specific and hold it up. Then we stand back in awe as the specific is somehow changed into the universal. The specific of ‘over there’ ends up being akin to a memory of ‘over here.’ Like recognizes like and we are moved towards action.
The alternative is to make it unreal. And unfortunately, this is what happens a lot of the time in the social sector. We sensationalize and exoticize the crisis and the poverty. We trade the shared human experience for the sensational. “Otherness” becomes the called to action. The problem is that it’s difficult to catalyze change around something at arm’s length, around something we haven’t seen or felt or understood.
A phenomena is made real when our experience is connected to that which we can only begin to imagine. We remember bobbing about while gazing at the the yellow tangs and the brain coral. We’d never considered an interspecies musical accompaniment to such an experience might be possible. But once this idea is introduced, we toggle back and forth between what we know and the wonder of what could be. Henceforth our view of what’s possible shifts. We find ourselves wondering what it would be like to swim through the chorus of whales. And wondering what action we might take to ensure this song continues until next winter when we might experience it firsthand.