Blog Post: Empathy as a Universal Language

Ashley Collier Smart

In spite of the environmental disasters that are caused by mining and burning coal, I cannot help but be at least a little fond of it, if only for selfish reasons. For the last 300 years, coal work has provided a livelihood for my relatives—I have the family name of Collier to attest to this fact. During an age when people adopted their trade as a last name my relatives were employed as Colliers, or coal miners. I come from a line of Colliers dating back to the 1700’s with relatives working in coal in western Europe before immigrating to America.

My family’s story is the story of coal and the American Dream, where workers believed hard work could translate to economic freedom. Nearly one million people a year were involved in mining coal at the peak in the 1920’s. These jobs provided a stable source of income that did not require an extensive skill set for native-born and recently arrived immigrants. However, coal mining was a dangerous profession fraught with lax worker regulations and precarious mine construction. The lives of coal miners became collateral for keeping up with the increasing demand for heating fuel and electricity that drove the greatest advances in the quality of life ever known.

burning coal
Burning coal and the release of carbon dioxide is one of many ways coal disrupts the environment. Mountaintop removal is a method of coal extraction which negatively alters the surrounding ecosystem (Photo: Wikipedia).

As the scientific process chugged along and coal burning was discovered to be a potent contributor to climate change, coal gained a dirty reputation and rightfully became a target for regulations. A new generation, my generation, has grown up with increasing alarm at the prospect of irreversible climate change and the coal industry a political issue. It wasn’t only coal that was vilified, but it was also the people who mined coal. Simultaneously revered and disenfranchised, coal workers moved from providing the fuel for the engines of the American economy to being unemployed en mass in economically depressed regions as green energy alternatives became more popular.

As a climate scientist, I study the consequences of increased oceanic acidity which is a by-product of fossil fuel combustion, but because of my coal connections I recognize the complexity of the human element of coal. My association with coal is not simple, but nuanced, filled with both rational and emotional connections for and against coal–and I don’t think that this is an uncommon position. In an increasingly partisan environment where dog whistling defines the political norm, we risk creating false dichotomies that pit coal workers against the environment.

Coal burning contributes to climate change and must be reduced, but it has historically provided a reliable livelihood for many people in impoverished areas. We should be more cognizant of the regional impact of reducing coal mining and empathetic to facilitate productive conversation. We need to lie down our verbal weapons and listen. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the decisions people make, but an awareness of why people feel the way they do fosters trust and allows these conversations to take place to develop solutions.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have rapidly risen since the industrial revolution. The NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory has tracked levels of carbon dioxide in the air starting in 1958.
coal workers
Coal workers traditionally engaged in dangerous mining work where they were exposed to a number of toxic substances (Photo: Wikipedia).
Av number of coal workers
Average number of coal workers in the United States from 1890 to 2015. The number of coal workers has declined over time resulting in displaced workers in economically depressed regions (Photo: Wikipedia).



Remembering Susan Williams

Susan Williams

At the Bodega Marine Laboratory and CMSI, we couldn’t be more honored and humbled to have Dr. Susan Williams a part of our community for so long. On the 26th of October, over 180 people from around the world gathered to celebrate the life of Dr. Williams.  

“I wanted to be an oceanographer since second grade, without understanding what that meant other than being fascinated by "things" that washed up on the beach during seaside family vacations.” - Dr. Susan Williams in her CMSI Spotlight.

“Scientific discoveries help people understand our world and galaxies beyond, predict the future, fuel economic growth and reconnect all of us back to our childlike wonder.” - Dr. Williams for The Conservation on science advocacy.

CAMEOS Fellows J Bean and R Fontana

As program director of CAMEOS, Coastal, Atmospheric, and Marine Environmental Observation Studies, from 2010 to 2016, Williams helped build on national ocean and science literacy initiatives and broadens participation of underrepresented graduate and K-12 students in inquiry-based STEM education.






Dr. Susan Williams helped protect countless coral in Indonesia. Learn about the development of a new “spider” conservation technique. 

Another study revealed that a quarter of fish sold in markets contain man-made debris.


marine debris workshop

Above, Katie Dubois and Dr. Susan Williams in Indonesia from Dubois’s blog post, Encountering the Marine Debris Crisis in Indonesia.

Dr. Williams’ team also illustrated that restoration efforts could be improved by using diverse array of seagrass transplants rather than a single founder species.

Williams shared her research in the short documentary, The Time is Now, the Future is Here.

CERF presidents



Dr. Williams served as President-Elect, President, and Past-President of the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation.



Susan Williams"She is a great listener and peacemaker. She has integrity and compassion. But she's very forthright and candid. She's a leader. People respect her." - Rick Grosberg when Williams became BML director in 2000.

“Dr. Williams was recognized as one of the most renowned marine ecologists in the US and globally, and she was a cherished mentor who encouraged women to pursue careers in marine science.” - The Press Democrat on Williams life.

market sampling
Sampling fishes in market, Makassar, Indonesia.

“Her legacy is absolutely one of an incredibly hard-working, rigorous scientist who worked at the interface of some of the most interesting science, but also science that mattered to people and impacted people. She cared very deeply about making sure that people had access to that science, that any person — senators, members of the media, students — had access to it.” - Tessa Hill via The Aggie

“Her scientific excellence, outstanding teaching and caring mentoring will be missed.” - Mark Winey for The Scientist.

A fund has been established in honor of Dr. Susan Lynn Williams. Find more here.

Learn more about her life here.