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From Cook to Cousteau: the many lives of coral reefs

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This paper sketches the history of changes in Western attitudes toward coral reefs. I trace a broad shift from the view that coral reefs were robust and threatening natural phenomena to the late-twentieth century view that they are fragile and threatened. I also examine the different moral lessons that have been drawn from changing understandings of reef formation. In the final section I attend to the recent concept of the ‘death’ of a reef. I suggest that this description (or metaphor) was linked not only to environmentalist concerns of the late-twentieth century, but also to SCUBA and the other technologies that encouraged their users in the flourishing science of marine biology to equate the reef with its actively growing portion rather than with the entire (mostly dead) reef structure. I conclude by offering a reason why the unfamiliar cultural history of reefs seems to follow an arc that is rather familiar to environmental historians, arguing that the transition was driven by shifts in the ways in which scientists were able to encounter reefs.

This talk is part of the HPS History Workshop series.

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