Five Questions for Carl Safina

Every year, the Orion Book Award is given to a book that addresses the human relationship with nature in a fresh, thought-provoking, and engaging manner. This year, nobody did it better than Carl Safina, whose closely observed and lovingly crafted The View from Lazy Point, is our 2012 winner. Safina wrote to us from his home on Lazy Point, on New York’s Long Island, on the meanings and uses of natural history, the geometry of progress, and the writing of his latest book.


The View from Lazy Point is the product of close and sustained observation of the natural world. That sort of observation is the foundation of natural history writing, but this book explores human behavior, too. Did you draw on your skill as a naturalist to unravel and explain, say, the way our economy affects the environment?

I’d say not. I’d say I have a certain proclivity for evaluation. When fishing, too, you must observe closely, then decide what to do. I like observing nature and then evaluating it. I would not say I like observing the crassness and backwardness with which we run our economy and political system; I can take the daily grind and outrages in the news only in measured doses, but then the same tendency to evaluate, sift, and cut through to cause-and-effect (or at least attempt to do so) kicks in. I am an evaluative observer, not a passive one.

You write that “the geometry of human progress is an expanding circle of compassion.” Can you say a bit about what you mean?

We’ve gone from warring tribes to warring nations struggling to stay at peace. The “in” groups have tended to get larger over time as more people identify with one another. In ancient Greece, only white males could be citizens. Over millennia, rights have been extended to other genders and races. Even “animal rights” is a large social movement, and humane treatment of animals, even those destined for slaughter, is now a mainstream concept, and encoded in law, at least in the West. The front line at the moment in the U.S. is the nonsensical resistance to gay marriage. But it is all the same ideal, though still elusive: liberty and justice for all. The Golden Rule remains instructive: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. All progress follows along these lines. Blood is spilled every time there is a struggle to extend rights and full personhood to another group. But retrospect always proves inclusion to be the right course. Whenever differences are emphasized and lines drawn or a group is dehumanized and debased, retrospect always shows it to be a travesty. Compassion will always point us in the right direction. Empathy is always a good start.

The majority of this book is told from and is about Lazy Point. But you also travel up north and down south, in chapters with titles like “Travels Polar” and “Travels Solar.” Why go elsewhere? What sort of story did those travels away from Lazy Point allow you to tell?

The book is set at Lazy Point. It’s not really about Lazy Point. It’s about how the durability of human dignity requires the stewardship of nature, and how the stewardship of nature cannot be accomplished unless we preserve human dignity. At this moment in time, nature and human dignity require each other. The travels show things in change globally, but anchoring the story at Lazy Point helps provide long-term perspective, because perspective requires at least two points in time or in space.

Here’s something we loved: “Contrary to the oft reported doom and gloom, the world still sings.” What makes you say that? Can you share a sight or a sound that lifts your ear from the doomy news cycle?

As Emerson said, “Most people do not see nature, most adults do not see the sun.” Many people understand events in the world around them almost exclusively from the news, and the news is usually about trouble. So they think everything is gloomy. Naturalists actually go outside and see what’s going on. I see migrations that have been happening for thousands of years and continue, constantly. I see vast schools of fish, even though I know a lot about overfishing both from reports and first hand. I commonly see birds that, when I was a teenager, were on the brink of extinction. For billions, trillions of animals, there’s no time to be gloomy. Yes, there is a lot of bad news. There’s plenty of trouble. But this is still the only known planet full of life.

You’ve written six books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View from Lazy Point. You’re also an ecologist and president of the Blue Ocean Institute. What’s next?

I’m going to keep practicing ecology until I get it right. I have another book in mind and am gathering material for it. And we’re working on a series for PBS television called Saving the Ocean, which will be distributed this fall and winter. Each episode profiles a person or group who has part of the solution. It’s pretty exciting.


  1. I read everything Carl writes and in this piece I can identify with his statement, “I can take the daily grind and outrages in the news only in measured doses.”
    I live in the outdoors but as a human which is a social animal I am attracted to newspapers to find out what we are doing.
    As naturalists, we still see vast schools of fish in the right places, but when I was young I saw greater schools of fish without even looking for them.

  2. I have never read Carl Safina before and am only about one third done with “The View From Lazy Point.” However the book really sings to me – from totally engrossing descriptions of nature to sharply thought-out critiques of modern life, it is a true gem. I think it is destined to be en enduring classic.

  3. How anyone can get away with uttering such mawkish, doltish tripe as in seriously quoting the “Golden Rule” and not be greeted with guffaws is beyond me. What social reality is Sarafina inhabiting?
    “Compassion will always point us in the right direction”? Thanks, O Zen Master of garden variety liberal piety . That’ll help all of us deal with a benighted political structure, a rampaging corporate superstructure, dead oceans, species extinction.

  4. Carl-
    Yes, there are still many species migrating. Yes, some species have come back since when you were young (and when I was young…) but during that time, untold thousands of species have gone extinct. What sort of “happy” drugs are you indulging in?

    You seem to be gladly going about your business as a “naturalist” (something I have been now for about 45 years) but you seem to be oblivious about what is really going on. When you say that “we have gone from warring tibes to nations trying to achieve peace” (sorry if this is not an exact quote) you are clearly ignorant of the fact that most traditional people–presemably the “tribes” you’re referring to–did not engage in anything even remotely resembling war. If you wish to write, please get some understanding of your topics.

  5. It must be very pleasant and comforting to imagine that the world we live in is slowly getting better and better. But it has echoes for me of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. However comforting this kind of anodyne may be, it’s ultimate effect is a numbing of the mind and heart to the deadly spiral of life’s accelerating extinction on our fragile planet that demands our awareness, concern, and action. Books that pretend to be serious accounts of our world that ignore the dark realities we are facing are not only unhelpful, they are pernicious, however well intended by their sleeping authors.

  6. “Compassion will always point us in the right direction.” A few days ago the right direction for me was leaving my home in Santa Cruz County, going over the mountains to San Jose, and joining colleagues and friends in a demonstration against Ringling Bros. Circus and their horrific abuse of animals. Thank you, Carl. Your words mean so much looking back on that event.

  7. “Compassion will always point us in the right direction.” This is a true and important truth. The important follow up is to go where it points and do what you can to help. Thanks for protesting the circus, second only to zoos in abusing animals.

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