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Playing against the slaughter rule

My middle school baseball team was bad. Really bad. Ball droppingly, bat throwingly, pitch ditchingly bad. It was a good inning if four of our batters made it to the plate. A great inning if the other team didn’t rotate through it’s entire line-up, twice. Our MVP was the kid who caught a ball. And if you think this is going to be one of those articles about how one tough player (me?) turned a bunch of scrappy underdogs into winners, it is not. I played right field, and not particularly well. We lost, often.

In peewee sports, at least in the US, there’s something called a “slaughter rule”. The slaughter rule ends the game if a team is losing by more than a certain number of points. In our case, it took something like a 20 run difference to trigger a slaughter. The slaughter rule exists so that outmatched teams don’t have to slog through 7 innings of a brutal losing streak, racking up demoralizing 112 to zero defeats. Once, we got slaughtered in the first inning.

Were it not for the slaughter rule, I would probably still be out somewhere in right field, wondering if maybe I should sign up for the Latin team next year.

We were bad and we knew it, but we still loved baseball. Even though we went into almost every game knowing we were going to lose, we still wanted to play. This was baseball, after all, and even bad baseball is good. There’s a difference between losing and being slaughtered. When you’re slaughtered, you don’t get to play anymore baseball, and we were there to play some goddamned baseball. Even knowing there was absolutely no chance we could win, we were willing to play our hearts out just to lose by a little less.

A funny thing happens when you’re repeatedly slaughtered: your objectives change. It’s not about winning, it’s about losing the best way you can.

In ocean conservation, all wins are temporary, all losses are permanent. We are perpetually playing against the slaughter rule.

This is the elephant seal in the tank for marine conservation: we aren’t playing to win, we’re playing to not get slaughtered. There are a million separate threats facing the ocean and these issues require massive societal changes that many are not willing to make. We can make small, concrete wins, and we can achieve major temporary victories, but the dirty secret is that the other teams are stacked against us and the game is rigged to prevent an upset. No matter what we do, climate change and ocean acidification alone are going to alter the ocean in ways we can’t even imagine.

This is not a cynical post. I have tremendous faith in the ocean conservation community. I know that there are lasting victories to be won. The ocean future is brighter today than it was even 10 years ago. #OceanOptimism isn’t a marketing ploy, it’s a genuine expression of our collective belief that with enough hard work by dedicated, educated, motivated players, we can eke out a win.

But blind naivety and breathless optimism do not serve the overarching goals of ocean conservation anymore than conservation colonialism. The end result is burnt out, demoralized campaigners who feel trapped in never ending cycle of loss. A Sisyphean struggle with no end in sight. And the reason that happens is because we’re playing the wrong game.

Acknowledging the existence of the Environmental Slaughter Rule is not a declaration of defeat, nor is it an expression of wanton cynicism. Acknowledging the Environmental Slaughter Rule is a recognition of the reality of the situation. It is an honest assessment of the whole field. And it is a declaration that we are neither uninformed idealists nor jaded cynics, but rational, seasoned campaigners working towards an insurmountable goal because the closer we get, the better off we are.

We are not going to win.  

In the end, we are going to lose. The Western Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing. Ocean acidification is killing marine life. The sea is rising. The globe is heating up. We’re only beginning to understand the consequences of the last two centuries of industrialization. We barely have a grasp on what the next decade will bring.

We can slow it. We cannot stop it.

Even in the face of unquestionable eventual defeat, there’s still hope that, if we fight hard enough, if we refuse to take our balls and go home, if we play hard through Just. One. More. Inning. we can lose by a little bit less.

Marine science and conservation. Deep-sea ecology. Population genetics. Underwater robots. Open-source instrumentation. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.

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