A self-described “frustrated conservationist”, Mark has spoken publicly on the threat of the 6th mass extinction and what the impact will be on society. His latest book, “Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises” is a comprehensive, beautifully illustrated guide to the world’s 90 species of cetacean.
You’ve followed and documented many species in different habitats. What drew you to marine mammals in particular?
There is something about the sea. I am never happier than when bobbing about in a boat, or swimming or diving under the waves. Just staring out to sea is calming and inspirational and, of course, how can you fail to be moved by some of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet? No one ever says ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’ - it’s a life-changing experience for most people. I still remember my first encounter (a grey whale that suddenly leapt out of the water right in front of me, in California) and it certainly changed my life. I remember thinking, as this 30-tonne leviathan flew through the air, that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible.
What do you think will be the biggest impact of biodiversity loss on society?
There are so many ramifications of biodiversity loss. Do you remember the game ‘pick-a-stick’? You drop a handful of sticks on the table in a jumbled pile and then take it in turns to remove them, one by one, without disturbing any of the others. Now imagine each stick as a different species and the pile as their ecosystem. Occasionally, you might be able to get away with removing one without seriously disturbing the others, but if you take out the wrong one, or too many, eventually the whole thing will collapse. If - when - ecosystems collapse, we are all in trouble. And when a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions or tens of millions of years for life to recover and, when it does, it generally has a new cast of characters. No one knows if humans might be among them. Even if we can survive, what sort of world would we be living in? And – this is the biggie – do we really want to keep going down the same trajectory to find out?
If you could tell people one message about conservation, what would it be?
If we are going to turn this sorry state of affairs around, we need to reinvent ourselves. We must stop obsessing about economic growth, for a start. The countless billions of pounds currently paid out in subsidies to the voracious energy, fishing, agricultural and forestry industries need to be redirected to reforestation, marine reserves and other incentives to protect and restore nature, instead of destroying it. And, to a large degree, that needs to be done at government and big business level. But we also need to take responsibility ourselves. Apart from making dramatic changes in our own behaviour - everything from reducing our carbon footprint to eating more sustainably - we need to put pressure on politicians to act as a matter of urgency. This means writing to our local MPs to wake them up, to educate them, and to demonstrate that a lot of people feel very strongly about environmental issues. We need to live with nature, rather than just exploiting it.
During your extensive career, you’ve published more than 50 books. What distinguishes your most recent publication?
This really feels like the culmination of a life’s work. I’ve been observing, studying and watching whales, dolphins and porpoises since I was in my early twenties and I’ve always wanted to write the ultimate guide. And, not surprisingly, it's been dominating my life for the past six years! I read 11,000-12,000 scientific papers during the research and have had thousands of email conversations with the various species experts around the world.
Much of the information has never been published before – certainly not in a popular book. I have started giving a tongue-in-cheek lecture called ‘Never, Ever, Ever Write a Field Guide’, which is all about what was involved – worrying about whether to call something ‘blue-grey’ or ‘grey-blue’, how to represent the density of a whale blow (it varies from species to species), how long it takes to prepare a distribution map, how to brief an artist (and what happens when you spill a latte on an original piece of artwork), how to describe the way you tell a pygmy sperm whale from a dwarf sperm whale at sea, and so on. But, hopefully, it will be worth it and the book will be a useful source of information for years to come.
Do you see a link between banking and environmental issues?
It’s huge. While many banks, building societies, hedge funds and pension providers pay lip service to the environment, they are quietly financing the destruction of the planet. Their money – our money – is enabling oil companies to drill in the Arctic and agribusinesses to clear virgin tropical rainforest, for example. The government, as always, is dragging behind. But there are moves in the right direction. Sooner rather than later, we have to stop using fossil fuels – which means that the value banks have placed on their fossil-fuel assets could be hugely over-inflated – creating huge instability in the financial system.
Investing in renewable energy and low-carbon technology makes more financial sense. This is where we as individuals can make a difference - by banking with a company like Triodos to ensure that our money is used for the greater good. Business as usual is no longer an option. It’s not about the costs of tackling climate change and other critical environmental issues – it’s about the costs of not tackling them.
Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, as well as a selection of Mark's other books, are available on his website.