Baselines still shift, reefs still degrade, most of us don’t really care. Is there a future with coral reefs?
With hindsight, it is clear that coral reefs were degrading globally even before reef ecology really got started in 1955. The causes were various and the trajectories differed from place to place. Mostly, reef scientists failed to notice the generality of decline until remarkably recently, while being well aware that reefs were being degraded in some locations, usually for obvious, local reasons. I discuss the attitudes and the paradigms that likely caused this failure to appreciate this human-caused, global deterioration in coral reef condition. I also look forward to a possible future which includes viable, high-diversity, productive, actively calcifying reefs, and to a much more likely future where reefs as we knew them in the 1960s have disappeared entirely. Reaching that desirable, but less likely, future will require substantial innovation in our understanding of the dynamics of complex ecological systems, and a recasting of conservation as assisting and steering rather than preserving or restoring coral reef systems. Achieving this future would be of real benefit to humanity and the planet. It could also bring opportunities for scientific research on coral reefs that are every bit as wonderful and rewarding as the great discoveries of past decades.