From the Annual Report: January 3, 2023
I am a person who tries to pare a problem down to its essentials. It drives many of my friends crazy. When I first heard former General Motors executive Charles Kettering’s quote, “A problem well stated is half solved,” it resonated to my core. With that in mind, you can imagine how I spent my first year as the Executive Director at Baykeeper… attempting to define the problem we are trying to solve.
I do not think we have defined the problem well enough yet; however, a theme has consistently presented itself as the source of the problem.
Baykeeper invited leaders from other conservation organizations to speak with our team throughout 2022, one of the first being Mark Berte from the Alabama Coastal Foundation. He said the main problem he faces is citizen apathy — people just not caring for our coastal environment.
I remember thinking how well he defined his problem, and I wanted to test his theory. As I got to know more Coastal Alabamians, it was not apparent to me that apathy was the problem. Almost everyone I met said they were passionate about our waters. Water is the reason we live in this part of Alabama, after all. Story after story confirmed that apathy was not the problem in our communities.
I began thinking, “This will be easier than I thought.” If everyone cares, it should be easy to present information about their beloved waters and devise methods to drive improvement of their health. Right?
Then I began to understand what Mark was talking about. Though the stated value was there, the will to defend and revive our waters was not. I began to hear arguments as to why we could not do what it takes to protect the gem we have in the Delta, why reviving the Bay couldn’t happen. The false dichotomy of economy versus environment was strong. The prospect of “going too far” was feared by many.
To dispel the myth that prosperity will only come with degradation of our waters, consider that places which protect their natural resources usually rank among the top in quality of life and economic health. Alabama ranks near the bottom among U.S. states in economics, quality of life, pollution prevention, and natural resource protection. Clearly, if we have sought to improve our economy at the cost of our land and water, our plan has not worked. Our collective right to safely drink, swim in, and eat fish from our waters has been trampled on.
Although apathy is not the word I would use to describe what I have experienced, many who say they want to see improvement of our waters do not seem willing to do what it takes.
I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. I read Dr. King’s letter as a student in Alabama’s public schools but didn’t quite catch on to what was happening in the correspondence until reading it again in seminary. King was not writing to his followers nor those who sought his destruction.
His letter from jail was written to other ministers who cared about his cause. These ministers wanted justice and equality in America but asked Dr. King and his followers to give in to the status quo.
I read the letter again this year to help me understand some of the feelings I was having. This quote stood out to me.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
We must take care not to draw exact comparisons to the challenges others face throughout history, especially those who suffered during the Civil Rights movement. However, it is worth noting that many who have worked for the good of our neighbor, our creation, and our waters see the lack of action on the part of those who care more harmful than those who are defiantly opposed.
A part of our vision at Mobile Baykeeper is for our communities to take responsibility for the health of our waters. I have heard from hunters, anglers, commercial fishermen, real estate developers, CEOs, waiters, artists, pastors, parents, grandparents, and children who agree that we must defend and revive our waters, for they are our source of life and the reason we live here.
However, our waters are not going to defend themselves. As Dr. King wrote,
“We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
This is the first time, but surely not the last, that I am asking you to join us in making real and measurable improvement in the health of our waters. The idea that we must degrade our waters to achieve economic prosperity has stagnated for too long. It is time for a new direction, or current.
Imagine a future where no one has to question whether the fish are safe to eat or the water is safe to swim in, where our oyster and seagrass beds are thriving, and our communities take responsibility for the health of our waters.
Join us in making this future a reality. We simply ask that you make up your mind to not allow short-sighted decisions to create the future for your family and your waters. Many opportunities to act will present themselves in 2023. Will you be ready to answer the call?
William Strickland, Executive Director
Image: The Battleship at sunset. Photo by Alex Timoney