Coral reefs and the concept of fragility in the age of ecology
How did coral reefs, formerly viewed as a menace to human activity, come to be seen in recent years as inherently fragile, threatened directly by a variety of human activities and indirectly by imperialism and the growth of industrial capitalism? In tracing changing attitudes to the formation and death of coral reefs since 1768, I explain why coral reefs once seemed particularly threatening among marine hazards and how new scientific ideas mitigated the apparent severity of that threat by the late-nineteenth century. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century, however, that reefs came to be understood as threatened, and indeed as inherently fragile.
I argue that this transition depended upon two technologically and culturally mediated shifts. The first was a shift toward contemplating anthropogenic threats not only to objects and organisms but also to natural processes, such as the growth of coral reefs. The second was toward identifying coral reefs with the “living” portion of the submarine structure that is a reef, which disaggregated that which was threatened (the “growth” of the reef) from that which remains an obstacle to navigation (the robust structure of the reef that rises up from the seafloor).
There has been an inversion of attitudes about reefs since as recently as the mid-twentieth century. Scientific and popular discussion of coral reefs in the 1950s offered no indication that reefs would require protection. For example, they are scarcely mentioned in The Sea Around Us, the 1951 book that first brought Rachel Carson to prominence. Descriptions of Pacific coral reefs such as Bikini Atoll, which had been cratered by bombs and pock-marked by petroleum-geologists’ drills, tended to focus on their robustness and resilience. The perception of reefs was still primarily that of the nineteenth century: what was noteworthy about reefs remained the scale and solidity that had always made them threats to navigation. In accounting for the rapidity with which this view was abandoned, I show how attitudes about reefs have been connected to those about other menacing but potentially vulnerable natural phenomena, from man-eaters to the darkest jungles (that is, from endangered species to rainforests). The history of reefs in particular, which are at once animal, vegetable, and mineral, living and fossil, sheds the brightest possible light on overwhelming recent changes in conceptions of nature and of humanity, and in the material circumstances of humans and the world they encounter.