Most people know Ted Danson via their televisions – perhaps while watching Cheers, Mr. Mayor, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Fargo, Becker, The Good Place, or any number of feature films. But at Oceana, he’s best known for his advocacy, whether he’s penning an editorial about the environmental impacts of farmed salmon, visiting Alaska to testify against offshore drilling, or urging members of Congress to address the plastic pollution crisis.
He has been fighting for our oceans since 1984, when he and Robert Sulnick, a local lawyer and activist, teamed up to stop 60 oil wells from being drilled along a beach near Santa Monica, California. They succeeded, and the organization they co-founded, the American Oceans Campaign, championed environmental protections for 15 years before merging with Oceana in 2002. Danson has been on Oceana’s board ever since and previously served as Vice Chair.
In a recent interview with Oceana Magazine, Danson spoke about his longtime involvement with Oceana, his views on climate change, and what The Good Place taught him about unintended consequences.
When your organization merged with Oceana, you considered ending your involvement there. What made you stay?
TD: After 15 years with the American Oceans Campaign, the merger was my exit plan. I didn’t withdraw from Oceana – I just silently started walking backwards, hoping no one would notice. But I did end up attending an early Oceana board meeting and was excited by the level of scientists and family foundations involved. It truly was an international organization, or at least a budding one. It was amazing, and I was back in. I’m grateful that I could brainstorm with these people, but no longer be running the show. With Oceana, my role is to stand in front of the press and say, ‘Thank you for watching my latest show, but let me point you to this marine biologist I’m standing next to. She has something really important to tell you.’ One of the great gifts of my life is to be part of Oceana. The science of ocean advocacy thrills me because it gives me a platform to care about everything. If you were to focus on just making the oceans healthy, you would actually be solving a lot of the world’s problems.
Since the ‘80s, you have been working to prohibit the expansion of offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters. What gives you hope that permanently protecting U.S. coasts is a fight Oceana can win?
TD: What gives me hope is we’ve succeeded in several instances. When Barack Obama was president, he at one point announced a plan to open up the Atlantic Coast to offshore oil and gas leasing. We hired organizers to go up and down the coast and talk to anybody who had an interest in keeping their coastline beautiful. We visited cities that depend on tourist dollars, or fishing, or all these other industries that would suffer if there were a catastrophic spill on their coasts. We got governors – both Republican and Democratic – to oppose offshore drilling, and persuaded hundreds of municipalities and businesses to sign a petition against it. We succeeded in changing that plan, and we did it again during one of the congressional elections. When you help people understand the impact that offshore drilling could have on their way of life and their livelihoods, they get it. So I feel pretty strongly that we will succeed with offshore oil.
You have been increasingly speaking out about the threat of climate change and its effect on the ocean. How have your views on this issue evolved over the years?
TD: I intellectually understood climate change and the hugeness of the problem, but I have to admit, I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, I’m focusing on oceans, so I don’t have to engage completely with climate change.’ That changed in the last couple of years. It was partly because I had an experience with Jane Fonda at a Fire Drill Friday protest – being arrested and standing up with her – that focused me. I realized that climate change is the biggest conversation society should have been having – and is having, thankfully, at this point. With this new administration, we are genuinely having that conversation and oceans are a huge part of it.
You have spoken publicly about alternating between a vegan and pescatarian diet. In your view, how is it possible to eat fish and be an ocean advocate?
TD: I, living in America and being wealthy, have choices. I could become vegan – probably would be good for me. But I am in a small minority around the world. There are so many people, especially women in the Global South, who depend on the nutrition that a fish gives them or their children. Sure, the world would be a better place if we could all be vegan and not eat meat, but that feels like a rich, Northern Hemisphere argument. And by the way, there are also people in the United States who can’t afford to be vegan. So then the question becomes: How do you eat fish sustainably? If you get rid of the huge trawlers, and all the illegal and unregulated fishing, you could let the ocean feed a great many of us. If you did it correctly, you could provide a billion fish meals a day. You can eat small, local, wild fish, and you can do that sustainably for a long time – forever – if you manage your fisheries correctly.
Plastic pollution is another issue that gets framed as a personal failing, with consumers facing pressure to use less and recycle more. How can we best address the problem of single-use plastics?
TD: The simple answer is you have to stop plastic pollution at the source. You have to get rid of single-use plastic and find alternatives because, not only is it killing a lot of creatures in the ocean, but it’s also made from fossil fuels. Plastic production is projected to quadruple in the next 30 years, and we cannot recycle our way out of that. Only 9% of every piece of plastic ever made has been recycled, and some of that is not even recycled – it’s downcycled. One way to approach this is to give customers a choice. So if you’re checking out at a supermarket or store, you would have a plastic-free option. The polls say, by huge amounts, that people will make use of that option. So it’s up to the packagers and the industry to make it happen.
The Good Place got a lot of people thinking about what it means to do the “right” thing. Do you see any links between the messages underpinning this show and your role as an ocean steward?
TD: Yes, I do. One of the messages in the show was that no one was getting into the ‘good place’ anymore because of unintended consequences. If you send your grandmother flowers, that’s X amount of ‘good points,’ but in doing so you pick up your phone that was maybe made in some sweatshop, and gas is used to deliver the flowers. So what I take away from that are the unintended consequences of our actions – like burning oil, for example. People say it will take away jobs, and while we do need to have some sort of relief for those workers, no one accounts for the jobs that will be lost and all the bad things that will happen if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels. We need to act responsibly and think about the world as a whole, and we can do that by letting science lead the way.
This story appears in the 20th Anniversary Issue (Fall 2021) of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.