The Influencers

The Novelist and the Explorer

Author Jennifer Egan and oceanographer Sylvia Earle on discovering new worlds

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What on Earth do a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a legendary marine biologist have in common? The ocean, for one. That less than 10% of the ocean has been touched by humans is a fact that delights the scientist Sylvia Earle and the writer Jennifer Egan, explorers, both. Brought together by TIME, Earle and Egan met to discuss the beauty and mystery of the underwater world and man’s impact on nature.

Egan, whose new novel Manhattan Beach tells the story of a World War II-era female diver, remarks on the ocean as a symbol: “It becomes kind of a metaphor for depth, for exploration and for mystery,” she says. To Anna, the heroine of Manhattan Beach, a dive is “like being inside a dream” — a description that Earle, the first woman to become chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commends.

But Earle and Egan are as fascinated by the ocean’s fragility as they are by its magnificence. “We have such an appetite for life in the sea as products, as food, but we don’t have the kind of respect that you’re getting when you go in and meet them up close and personal,” Earle says. “We can’t go back to the way it was a thousand or a hundred or even five years ago. But you can make things better.”

Will humans “step up” and work to save Earth? Egan’s teenage sons, she says, feel “hopeless.” “We have this ability to see ourselves from a distance — and yet self-interest is such a huge part of how we make decisions day by day,” she says. Earle offers some hope: “Humans have the capacity to change the nature of nature. We can’t change the laws of nature — but we can change.”

— Lucy Feldman

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