When she was in high school, Madhavi Colton was known as Miss Enthusiasm. “I’ve always been a die-hard optimist,” she says. “I tend to be perky. In my family, I was always the one who thought that everything was going to be fine, that we can do this.”
Recent years have tested her optimism. Colton is now a director at Coral Reef Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting coral reefs. And corals need all the help they can get. A third of reef-building corals are in danger of extinction, and their growth rates have plummeted by 40 percent since the 1970s. They have been pummeled by hurricanes, disease, and pollution. Acidifying water makes it harder for them to create their rocky reefs. Rampant overfishing kills off the grazing fish that keep competitors like seaweed and algae in line. Rising temperatures force them to expel the symbiotic algae in their tissues, which normally provide them with both food and vivid colors. Without these partners, the corals starve and whiten. Once-lush ecosystems full of kaleidoscopic fish become spectral wastelands, where scuzzy green algae grows over the bleached white skeletons of dead and dying corals.
The continuing desecration has taken an immense toll on the mental health of people like Colton who have devoted their lives to studying and saving these ecosystems. How do you get up and go to work every day when every day brings fresh news of loss? When everything you are working to save is collapsing, how do you stop yourself from collapsing, too? Maybe everything isn’t going to be fine, after all. Maybe we can’t do this. “Are we going to lose an entire ecosystem on my watch? It’s demoralizing. It’s been really hard to find the optimism,” she says. “I think Miss Enthusiasm has gone away.”