Getting to Know Dr. Phil Levin


“I’m not a big fan of foreign movies, because I always fall asleep reading subtitles” says Phil Levin, “but these movies – I’m so into them!” Levin is talking about Kurosawa, the Japanese auteur, and is animatedly describing Rashomon, the 1950 classic film which is giving him inspiration for his plenary speech at IMCC5.

Rashomon’s subject matter initially seems a far reach from themes of marine conservation. The story is set in feudal Japan, and delves into a rape, murder, and the following criminal investigation. The film is told from the subjective experiences of four people involved in the event, who appear contradictory and self-serving, impossible to reconcile amongst themselves. But, as film critics have suggested, perhaps different perspectives don’t need to reconcile to be true. Levin contemplates this now as he describes what he wants to convey to other marine conservationists at IMCC. “Nobody’s lying. They all have a different truth.”

Levin frequently encounters this idea as he works through complex issues of ocean management with some very diverse stakeholders. A thousand people will have a thousand different responses to the question “what does a perfect ocean look like?” and it would be hard to argue the “truth” of any of them. But ask instead how a marine resource should be managed, and hard-fought notions about what’s right or wrong, true and false, will rear up, and things might start getting heated.

“There’s this concept called sacred values – this idea that there are certain things that we hold really deeply. And in a lot of cases where I’m interacting, it can get ugly, I mean there might be blockades, there might be people taking over government buildings and violence – it can go to that level.”  The thing is, he says, the resource itself is often a proxy for where the real tension lies. “A lot of cases where I’m interacting, the conflict is not about what we’re talking about. It’s about the history in the region and its people—their understanding of how they are treated by others.”

Understanding that it’s impossible to separate the resource – and the decisions made about the resource – from the perspectives of the people who are connected to it, changed how Levin works. “I’ve become a lot more interested in the social side of things because of that.” And he’s wary of writing off conflict over marine resources to a simple difference in personal values. “We don’t often recognize we might have the same values and be experiencing the world in completely different ways”.

The idea gives him hope. Perspectives, and perceptions, can be informed, enriched, and transformed. “The literature suggests that even the act of attempting to reach consensus around information can reduce conflict. So we don’t have to agree, but if we sit down in a room and share our perspectives, that could be enough to lower the tension and allow us to talk through things, and not just assume that the other person just wants to screw us. That’s hopeful to me, because it suggests that there’s something we can do about conflict, and allows us to make forward progress.”

If anyone knows how perceptions of our environment can be changed, it must be Levin. His first interaction with the ocean was disastrous. Dipping in the water on a Texas shore, he spotted a football-sized object floating in the water. With the curiosity of a scientist, he picked it up, only to learn the hard way what a close encounter with a Portugese Man-Of-War felt like.  “If you’d asked me then what the perfect ocean looked like, I would have said it looks a lot like a heavily chlorinated swimming pool!”

He tells the story with a generous laugh. Transforming that first, painful, experience into a lifelong career in marine science took resilience, he says, and persistence.  The same characteristics serve him well now in his professional life exploring interdisciplinary approaches into conservation management and policy. After years as a Senior Scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Levin began a joint role with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment and The Nature Conservancy in 2016. UW calls him a “professor of practice” and the term seems tailor-made for Levin. “I align myself with organizations where I think that knowledge can be put into action. I mean I really enjoy basic science, but I think I’m personally motivated by use-inspired research.” He pauses. “Isn’t… IMCC, isn’t there something about that…?”

There is. Making marine science matter is the theme and goal of IMCC, and remains unchanged since the first congress in 2010. Levin’s attended every one of them.

“I enjoy IMCC because it’s diverse, both in geography, in disciplinary expertise, and other stuff. Some of these other similarly sized meetings are broad too, but I find myself in one room for two days because it’s where the thing I’m interested in is. The problem with IMCC is I just don’t know where to go, because there’s too much that I want to see! That’s a nice problem to have. But IMCC, as well as being diverse, is also quite targeted. You take a single suite of problems and say, “across the world, and from different perspectives, how are people trying to solve the exact same thing that I’m trying to solve?” He pauses. “That’s one reason I go. The other reason is to catch up with old friends!”

Levin’s a generous person to chat with, and I can’t help but add a few throwaway questions into our interview:

“How did you get into marine science?”

“TV! Cousteau, of course. The octopus episode. The oil-painting underwater. I thought it was incredibly cool.”

“Do you love fish? Can you love a fish?”

“Of course you can! How can you not?”  They’re different though. “Salmon are terrible, just terrible”, Levin jokes.   They’re narcissistic. Whereas groupers? I like groupers. I mean, you can have a relationship with a grouper, right? If you can’t love a grouper, then you can’t love.” I nod my head. Spend enough time with marine biologists and this seems utterly rational.

Finally, I ask what he loves most about his work, and Levin stops – I have the sense he’s struggling to pick a single response out of many. I quickly rephrase: “what’s your biggest reward? I mean what are you in it for?”

His response, coming as it does from such an accomplished and effective marine scientist, is in many ways the very spirit of IMCC:

“I’m trying to save the world,” he says confidently. “I embrace the naiveté that I can make a difference. I know it sounds everything, cliché, naïve, stupid, arrogant. But I just hope that I can. That we can. I mean I really do.”

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Dr Phil Levin will give the Ransom A. Myers Memorial plenary on 28 June. You might also like to track him down at the bar, where he’ll buy you a beer if you’ve bought a copy of his book Conservation for the Anthropocene Ocean. If you’ve brought an actual copy, he’ll even skip the quiz, and sign it for you in beer.

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