Birth of Ocean Optimism

by Elin Kelsey

The Birth of Ocean Optimism

My first hint of the extent to which kids feel hopeless about the environment came as a surprise. For years, I had worked with aquariums, museums and international environmental organizations. As an academic, I studied public engagement with the environment. I understood the national statistics about what people in many different countries knew and what their attitudes were toward specific environmental issues. But how all that “knowing” felt was nowhere to be found in that vast pool of information.

I realized the impact of that omission when I was invited to speak with kids attending a United Nations children’s conference on the environment in 2008 in Stavanger, Norway. The participants, who ranged in age from 10-14 years old, came from dozens of countries and a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. As a professional environmental educator and communicator, I was eager to learn how their perceptions might vary across culture and context.

“How do you feel when you think about the environment?” I asked. I don’t remember what I expected them to say, but so many of them expressed such a chilling sense of dread that I felt powerless to comfort them. Moreover, as they spoke, I felt a rush of familiarity. I too often felt overwhelmed by grief for the planet. I just never imagined such feelings were shared amongst hundreds of children living in vastly varied circumstances.

“Children are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”

There is a strange silence about all this emotion. We have media ratings to protect children from sex or violence in movies, but we think nothing of inviting a scientist into a second-grade classroom and telling the kids the planet is ruined. According to an article in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, “A quarter of [Australian] children are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”

As a children’s book writer, I set myself the goal of writing a hopeful book about the environment. I started collecting conservation successes: hopeful solutions that pass the scientific criteria of peer review. At first they were difficult to find because even our scientists have been more focused on recording losses than gains. As Nancy Knowlton, a preeminent marine scientist puts it: “An entire generation of scientists has now been trained to describe, in ever greater and more dismal detail, the death of the ocean.” A few years back, Nancy started hosting what she called “Beyond the Obituaries” meetings at major international scientific conferences. Scientists were invited to come and share only conservation success stories. She thought they might get a few people showing up, but they were inundated.

The more I looked for conservation successes, the more I found, particularly in the marine environment where the growing incidence of establishing marine protected areas was starting to show how resilient ocean ecosystems were. Scientists report more fish, bigger fish in just three to five years after establishing “no-take” marine reserves. I wrote the scientific brief for a campaign that led former President George Bush to declare the Mariana Trench as the world’s largest marine protected area in 2009. (I am pleased to report that several other larger MPAs have since been established.)

“An entire generation of scientists has now been trained to describe, in ever greater and more dismal detail, the death of the ocean.”

In 2012, I reached out to Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution, Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London and Cynthia Vernon of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, three powerhouses in ocean conservation who I had discovered shared a passion for increasing access to ocean successes. I simply invited them to my house in Pacific Grove, California for the weekend and they generously agreed to come.

Earlier that year, I had been lucky enough to be a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, where I was introduced to a marvelous concept called Radical Hospitality. The idea is to nurture people’s most creative selves by taking care of all of their needs for delicious food and warm beds and freedom to use time as they might wish. I happened to be doing a book talk at my local library a few days before Nancy, Heather and Cynthia were due to arrive and when I confessed that I was nervous about my capacity to create the delicious food part of the equation, their was a ripple of laughter through the audience. Yet a few days later, just as we were settling into our discussions, I heard a knock at my front door. Neighbours and friends came pouring in carrying home made soup and freshly baked bread and warm from the oven cookies. They wrapped all of us in the generosity of their unexpected gifts. As we walked the beaches of Monterey and chatted on my front porch, we felt supported and inspired, and we began to put a collective plan in place.

Soon we were joined by Elisabeth Whitebread, a global marine community organizer, and in the May 2014, we co-hosted a small retreat with scientists, journalists, and environmentalists on the outskirts of London, England. We challenged ourselves to use the 48 hour workshop to create and pilot a social change project to engage people with ocean conservation successes and shift the environment beyond doom and gloom. Together, we set about to populate and crowd share stories about marine conservation successes by focusing on World Oceans Day, an international event scheduled for June 8, 2014 (just two weeks after the workshop). We invented a #OceanOptimism hashtag and encouraged others to share their good news stories for our seas.

“#OceanOptimism has been seen by over 74 million Twitter users”

Since it’s inception in June 2014, # OceanOptimism has been seen by over 74 million twitter users. It’s an astonishing international outpouring of ocean conservation successes.

Tweet the site to a kid you love. I can’t imagine a better gift.

Elin Kelsey, PhD is an award-winning author, academic and environmental communicator. Her work on hope, resilience and the environment has garnered her fellowships with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, and the Cairns Institute. See more at

Elin Kelsey

Educator, researcher, author