Duarte sees the project in the Bahamas as a blueprint (pun intended, he says) for a much bigger idea that has driven his work for the past two decades: he wants to restore all habitats and aquatic creatures to their pre-industrial bounty. He speaks in terms of “natural blue capital,” imagining a future in which the value of nature is factored into how nations calculate their economic productivity.
This is different from past efforts to financialize nature, he points out. Since the 19th century, conservationists have argued that protecting bison, lions, or forests is a wise investment because extinct animals and razed trees can no longer provide trophies or antlers. More recently, ecologists have attempted to demonstrate that less popular habitats, such as wetlands, may serve humanity better as flood protectors or water purifiers than as sites for strip malls. But while these efforts may appeal to hunters or conservationists, they fall far short of recasting nature into a “global portfolio of assets,” as a Cambridge economist described natural capital in a 2021 report commissioned by the British government.
Duarte and I first met in the halls of a crowded exhibit at the 2022 United Nations Climate Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He had traveled a short distance from his home in Jeddah, where he oversees a wide range of projects, from coral restoration and advising on regenerative tourism projects along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast to a global effort to intensify the cultivation of seaweed (using, yes, income from carbon credits). In Egypt, Duarte was to appear on 22 panels, serving as the scientific face of the kingdom’s plan for a so-called circular carbon economy, in which carbon is treated as a commodity to be managed more responsibly, often with the help of nature. .
Chami was there too, wearing a neat suit and a whale tail pendant around his neck. He was participating as a member of the Bahamas delegation, which included Prime Minister Davis and various Beneath the Waves conservationists. They had arrived with a case for how to include biodiversity in global discussions on climate change. Seagrass beds were their model, one that could be replicated across the world, ideally with the Bahamas as a hub for natural markets.
The UN meeting was a good place to spread the seagrass gospel. The theme of the conference was how to get wealthy polluters to pay for the damage they cause in poorer countries that suffer disasters such as Hurricane Dorian. The hope was to strike a deal with the UN, but in the meantime other approaches to moving the money were in the ether. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries have been forced to start accounting for carbon emissions in their balance sheets. Big emitters were lining up deals with cash-poor, biodiversity-rich countries to make investments in nature that would potentially help polluters meet their climate commitments. Chami’s boss at the IMF had suggested that indebted countries could start thinking about using their natural, carbon-rated assets to repay it. “Today all these poor countries are going to find out that they are very, very rich,” Chami told me.
At a conference where the main message often seemed to be disaster, the project in the Bahamas was a story of hope, Chami said. When he lectured on seagrass, he spoke with the vigor of a tent revivalist. With the time humanity had left to fix the climate, he told the audience, “cute projects” were no longer going to cut it. A few million dollars for replanting seagrass here, a handful of carbon credits to protect a stand of mangroves there – no, people had to think a thousand times bigger. Chami wanted to know what everyone gathered in Egypt was waiting for. “Why are we hanging around? he asked the crowd. “So much talk. So little action.
One day this Last winter, a former real estate developer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, named David Harris flew his personal jet over the Little Bahama Bank. From his cockpit window, the water below looked like a melancholic painter’s palette. Harris was bound for a weed-cracked airstrip in West End, Grand Bahama, where he would board a fishing boat called the Tigress. Harris and her crew, which included her 10-year-old daughter, spent the rest of the week surveying the seagrass beds for Beneath the Waves.
They approached a large expanse. While the total area of the Bahamas is only 4,000 square miles, the islands are surrounded by shallow underwater platforms about 10 times that size. These banks are the work of corals, which build towering carbonate civilizations that pile on top of each other like the empires of Rome. When the first seagrasses arrived here around 30 million years ago, they found a perfect landscape. Plants grow best in shallow water, closest to light.