Less than a century ago they were hunted and harvested commercially, their meat packaged and shipped across the country. Now they’re protected by law and have their own hospital, staffed 24/7 with paid employees. The hospital has at least three ambulances and an offshore boat that would make any fisherman green with envy. The staff will pick up a patient any time night or day. There’s even a full-time veterinarian.

The Turtle Hospital sits on Route 1 in Marathon, Florida. We’re here for a week of R and R and decided to take a break from margaritas by the pool to check it out. Tours run non-stop during the day. We hang out in a cramped waiting room with two dozen other tourists and pass the time reading poster boards about turtles and the hospital. Five species of sea turtles are found along the U.S. coast: Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback, Hawk Bill and Kemp’s Ridley. Some remain threatened while others are doing just fine. The hospital was created from a resort motel and sits on what looks to be four or five acres. The motel rooms serve as office space and dorms for employees and there are multiple holding pools of varying sizes on the property.

Our tour guide is knowledgeable and entertaining and we spend a pleasant two hours seeing turtles in various stages of rehabilitation. Turtles that recover from various maladies (natural and man-made) are released where they’re rescued. In the largest of the pools is a cadre of permanent residents that can’t be rehabilitated and will live here for life if they can’t be transferred to another aquarium. Our guide gives us each a handful to turtle kibbles and we spend a few minutes tossing morsels to the beasts.

Fun fact – Loggerhead turtles have huge heads and are said to have gotten their name because lookouts on early sailing vessels often confused them for “a log ahead.”

“Do the turtles get attached to the staff?” someone asks.

“Nope, they pretty much just sleep and eat.”

Uh-huh. I gotta admit that seeing the turtles is interesting but I just can’t muster the excitement about them that I feel about cougars, wolves or polar bears (yet we just dropped $125 to take the tour). I’m glad other folks are passionate, though. There’s every reason to believe sea turtles will survive and thrive because of the public and private resources that are being devoted to them.

There’s something to ponder here. In his book “Enlightenment Now” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes an overwhelming case that, despite what we’re told by various mainstream and social media rants, the world is getting rapidly better for us humans. This improvement in safety, health, longevity and wealth isn’t confined to affluent societies but is a worldwide phenomenon. Hard to believe, I know, because of the non-stop narrative we’re fed about things going to hell. (It’s called availability bias and Pinker says we should watch a lot less news). But it’s hard to deny once you spend the time going through his data. Wanna argue? Happy to but first read the book.

Pinker attributes the unbelievable world progress over the last few centuries to the principles of the enlightenment: reason, science, humanism (all humans have equal value) and progress. One of the engines of this progress is a market economy that creates wealth for people. Pinker recalls Berthold Brecht’s quote “grub first, then ethics.” Only an affluent society has the means and inclination to support a multimillion dollar operation whose sole purpose is to rescue and preserve sea turtles. Hungry societies eat turtles, affluent ones have the luxury to appreciate value that goes beyond protein and calories. This principle applies to almost any environmental problem we face.

We hear a lot today about how capitalism and the market economy is wrecking our world and leading to horrendous income equality. Pinker says the exact opposite is true. Though a few folks benefit disproportionately in a market economy…there are 2,000+ billionaires in the world…almost everyone benefits to some degree.

Want to level out wealth? Pinker points out that historian Walter Scheidel’s research found that events that result in less income equality are universally bad for everyone, not just the wealthy. His “Four Horsemen of Economic Leveling” are mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution (i.e. Mao, Stalin, Kim, etc.), state collapse and lethal pandemics. Against that backdrop, a free market economy doesn’t seem quite so bad.

Pinker has little patience for those on the political extremes who either want to discard science and reason and take us back to opinion and superstition (vaccines cause autism, right?) or who want to dismantle our market economy in favor of systems that have repeatedly proven inferior (care to move to Cuba or Venezuela?). Making incremental progress is hard work. It requires tedious sifting of facts, a willingness to dialogue (and yes argue) in good faith without vilifying those who disagree with us and a lot of trial and error. Reason and science aren’t sexy or amenable to 30-second sound bites. He warns that our continued progress isn’t assured, especially if we turn our backs on the principles that have brought us so far.

There are a few hundred turtles in Marathon, Florida who hope we make the right call.

Dale and Joneen Sargent are stewards of a tract of mountain land, Demeter, in Bland County. Dale can be reached at dsargent522@gmail.com.

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