Fish Out of Water

There we were: two scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, standing in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. Myself, then a visiting scholar from Yale, along with Jeremy B.C. Jackson, one of the most famous ocean ecologists in the world, complete with gold pirate earrings and a long red ponytail, standing there in the harsh heartland summer sun. Looking back, we must have seemed like two exotic species.

We were starting research for our new book, obliging ourselves to our cordial host, a major farmer of GMO soy and corn as well as president of the National Pork Producers Council. His hogs—clean, white and washed down with high-tech nozzles—stood behind us in a cooled, elevated barn.

Scientists from an oceanographic institution at a Midwestern hog farm. Go figure.

Steve Chapel, MAS ’06, and Jeremy Jackson take an epic road trip through the heartland to report on America’s environmental crises.

But that was the point: a scientific road trip traversing the country, keeping our minds open and our mouths (mostly) shut, in order to listen to what smart, hard-working Americans were dealing with environmentally. Americans with farms to protect, houses and condos to shore up, shrimp boats and oyster coolers to fill, ranches and subdivisions to douse down from the growing summer fires.

It seems that anyone—whether they’re from Dubuque, Kenosha, or the shores of La Jolla—can peg an oceanographer. Throughout our travels folks took one look at us and decided we must be the real thing, and then came the questions: Why was a hurricane stalling over Houston? How come California was on fire? Were the world’s coral reefs bleaching? New England seems to be getting way too much snow—is this the new normal? People just wanted to know what was going on, and we were the unlikely experts who dropped in.

And we might answer, connecting the dots, that the new normal was not a stable data point. New Normal may be the beginning of Bad Normal. Or not. There may be solutions, which we endeavored, mightily, to line out once the trip ended and the writing began in earnest. The world was changing in front of us, but we were changing, too. Jeremy went from his well-known persona of “Dr. Doom-and-Gloom” to imagining how the planet’s environmental crises may be “tractable.” Now that we know what is going wrong, and are beginning to understand very well the why, it’s time for solutions. As for myself, I deepened my understanding of ecology and science far from Scripps Pier, sometimes in the most unlikely of ways.

Like learning the way a proper oyster should taste, as Cambodian immigrants and Florida truck drivers cracked shells open for us with clasp knives and we sucked their little invertebrate bodies down in vivo, the oysters. Or the difference between solid mineral soil and the floating root mats of the Mississippi delta’s once vast organic marshes. And how at our joyful ad hoc southern field quarters every night on that dwindling delta, crab and redfish and three kinds of shrimp were dumped onto the long cypress plank table as we diners argued about that most slippery of molecules—water, and what would save New Orleans from sinking into the sea.

Nothing. Nothing will save New Orleans.

And if Miami is hit with a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane, which it dodged just last year, America may experience the existential flood of 9 million climate refugees slogging north, or, indeed, dying in place.

Serious stuff. Breakpoint.

It is a short book about a big subject: the spot we are in as a nation, and, indeed, as a species. What will happen to you and me and our grandchildren in the here and now, as well as the not too distant future.

I am grateful for me and Jeremy to be supported by this great university, and many far-sighted foundations. We hope you enjoy our focused ramble, Breakpoint: Reckoning with America’s Environmental Crises.


Steve Chapple MAS ’06 is the author of Breakpoint:Reckoning with America’s Environmental Crises (Yale University Press, 2018) with Jeremy Jackson, professor of oceanography emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Chapple is a visiting scholar at Scripps and executive director of the San Diego Unified STEAM Leadership Series, which bridges high-tech business and science with the public school system. He writes the newspaper column, Intellectual Capital, and has authored several books including Kayaking the Full Moonand Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run.