Turning The Tide An Introduction

The ocean is alive. The waves change shape constantly, mesmerizing us with their infinite variations on a theme. The sound of the surf is soothing background music for contemplation. The vast panorama and the roar of breaking waves inspire awe and expansive thoughts.

Changes in perspective offer glimpses of the ocean's nature. At night, the waves sometimes glow with the light of tiny organisms excited by the surf. I leave bioluminescent swirls behind as I swim through warm water in the darkness. Bouncing along in a boat, I am moved by the sight of a pod of dolphins, or of young humpback whales leaping out of the water. But the ocean hides most of its treasures below its mirrored surface.

Putting on a mask and snorkel can induce a startling revelation. Life is everywhere. Clouds of small silvery fishes part as I approach. Tiny damselfish fiercely chase me away from their carefully tended gardens. Elegant sea fans wave in the surge. With the aid of an air tank, I can take the time to return the inquisitive stares of cuttlefish and swim with graceful eagle rays. I meditate on the sound of my breath and the bubbles I leave, and become aware of a school of big tarpon fish cruising by, their beautiful scales gleaming in the sunlight. I have come to know barracudas as individuals, guarding their territories merely by glaring at me.

The ocean seems too immense, its life too vibrant, to be affected by tiny humans and their industries. But scientific papers and data from around the world offer other perspectives. They show that humans have in fact decimated enormous herds of sea cows, sea otters, and sea turtles. The great oyster beds of the Chesapeake and other estuaries have been reduced to pale, sickly vestiges of their former glory.1 Mind-boggling numbers of fish have been removed from the ocean and as a result, global fish catches are declining, and several major fisheries have collapsed altogether. Some ocean species are already on the verge of extinction — and we have only just begun to explore the ocean's biological diversity.

Beyond all these losses of a precious natural heritage, we have done even worse by the ocean. No living system can function properly without all of its essential components. This is easy to understand in terms of an individual — but it applies also to whole ecosystems. Sea turtles eat seagrasses, and so killing off the sea turtles has contributed to the decline of seagrass meadows which are the productive rangelands of the ocean. Hunting southern sea otters to near extinction and killing off lobsters and fish has allowed purple sea urchin populations to explode in the absence of their natural predators. The grazing urchins have then reduced majestic forests of kelps up to 100 feet (about 30 meters) tall to rubble — bare rock covered with hordes of urchins. The excessive harvest of oysters over the decades appears to have interfered with the ability of estuaries like the Chesapeake to cleanse themselves — the oysters were once capable of filtering the entire volume of the bay every three days, but no more.2

These are not isolated examples. Because everything is connected, most of our actions have indirect and unintended effects. How can driving a car or using electricity affect the ocean? The burning of coal and oil to propel cars and power our society releases carbon dioxide and other gases that have warmed the world significantly over the last century. As the seas heat up in response to global warming, intensely colorful coral reefs are bleaching, turning a deathly white and starving to death. In 1998, coral reefs suffered their most severe bout of bleaching, associated with unusually warm waters. The great systems of ocean life that we depend on, and are part of, are collapsing — silently, below the waves.

Nearly a decade before, some cautioned that reefs would die in just this way if global warming proceeded. Yet few actions were taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming. Almost a hundred years ago — long before recent headlines announcing that "fish stocks are crashing" — people had sounded a warning.3 Could the collapse of several major fisheries have been prevented with earlier and more powerful intervention? Why do we so often find ourselves dealing with environmental crises instead of preventing problems or resolving them early in their evolution? How can we break this cycle of denial and inertia followed by crisis, and instead, take action early? Why are we not protecting the sea that we love?

Powerful forces are arrayed against ocean conservation. Precautionary behavior in advance of a crisis is difficult to motivate. Factors contributing to inertia include strong vested interests in the status quo (both economic and ideological) and flawed socioeconomic analyses that omit many of the true costs of business. A double standard prevails. Economic activities are allowed to begin and continue, and are even encouraged, despite little understanding of their ecological or health impacts. But extensive evidence is often required before conservation measures can be implemented. Scientific uncertainty about the exact causes of environmental problems is often used as an excuse to justify failure to prevent, reduce, or eliminate threats to the environment. These forces have led to areas devastated by pollution, the dispersion of persistent pollutants throughout the environment, global warming, and many other problems that have degraded all kinds of living systems — including human societies. The same forces have created serious problems in the ocean — one of our great global commons, the cradle of life, and the engine of ecological processes that sustain the planet.

To break the cycle of denial followed by crisis we need to examine and correct the thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, and behavioral patterns that reinforce the status quo. Because the threats to the ocean result from human activity, the key to addressing those threats is to understand ourselves and how to change others. Part of the problem lies in how we think about technology and the environment. The psychologist George Howard identified "killer thoughts for a world with limits." These thoughts include the notions that consumption will produce happiness, that we don't need to worry about the future, that it's okay for profits from industry to accrue to individuals while the costs of pollution from industry are borne by communities, that ecological threats are innocent until proven guilty, and that we can solve environmental problems with technical innovations, including problems created by technology.4

To counter these cognitive tendencies, we need a new way of thinking about ourselves and nature. We need to develop "ecola-cy" to complement the essential modern survival skills of literacy and numeracy. Ecolacy is the eminent ecologist Garret Hardin's term5 for the prudent practice of asking "and what then?" of any technological innovation or economic activity. Ecolacy is part of the wisdom we need to go along with our enormous power to alter the planet. It will help us anticipate the effects of new technologies or practices, replacing unquestioning acceptance with a reasonable weighing of pros and cons, costs and benefits.

To be useful, the analysis of the costs and benefits of any important decision must reflect reality. Accurate assumptions and full sets of facts are obviously essential for making a good decision, but are sometimes difficult to come by. Costs such as losses in fishing revenue or the price of pollution control equipment can be estimated in terms of dollars. But the less tangible (but no less important) benefits of passing on a natural legacy, of protecting a beautiful place, or even of keeping the water and air clean are not as easy to add up. Too often, policy makers rely on flawed analyses of conservation measures such as pollution control, restrictions on fishing, and habitat protection — analyses that emphasize the costs to industry without properly accounting for the benefits of conservation. This is like thinking about buying a house knowing only the price and all of its problems, but remaining ignorant of the beautiful views, comfortable living space, and excellent garden that it offers. To make prudent decisions and avoid crises, we need improved analyses of the full range of both costs and benefits.

To avoid crisis, we need to think about current trends and the future. Strategic thinking about how scientific, economic, and technological trends may affect the ocean in the future helps us identify threats early. Foreseeing threats may allow us to intervene before large investments of time, energy, money, and ego are made, rendering corrective action more difficult. So, too, will new policies that embody the principles of "do no harm" and precaution. Such policies will reduce the incidence of intractable environmental problems and crises.

But a new way of thinking won't break the cycle of denial and crisis by itself. Even better policies and more comprehensive analyses will not be enough. Behavioral psychology informs us that incentives need to change as well.6 Institutions and policies aimed at protecting the ocean can thrive only if people get behind them and support them. Consequently, such policies and institutions should provide constant reinforcement and incentives for people. Economic incentives — such as tax breaks for solar power or steep penalties for pollution — can reinforce precautionary behavior and spur technical innovation. Building community around the protection of a special place on land or under the sea can help meet our deep-seated need to relate to one another. At a more profound level, environmental actions can flow from the realization that all of nature is interdependent — ourselves included. Economic incentives, efforts to build community around environmental protection, and a new ocean ethic based on interdependence can reduce the risk of dangerous ecological and economic surprises, as well as inspire acts of healing and restoration.

To create a world in which we not only do no harm but also act to restore nature, we will need to find ways to create a large and active constituency for ocean protection. Conservation efforts at all scales from the local to the global are hampered by a lack of political will. A redoubled effort is needed to spread awareness of the ocean's nature and the serious threats the ocean faces. The Internet and mass media are useful indeed for quickly reaching large numbers of people, but I believe we also need to encourage discourse in community centers, in chambers of commerce, at book clubs, and even in hair salons and the supermarket to generate the sustained activism that will be needed to heal the ocean. As Benjamin Barber argues in his book, Jihad vs. McWorld,7 a re-invigorated civil society full of educated, informed, and empowered citizens is needed to counterbalance big government, a powerful private sector, and special interest groups. Citizens and civic organizations skilled in ecolacy can help direct economic activity and the use of technology to serve the public good, promoting a range of interests and values including ocean conservation.

In this book, I will provide an overview of the nature of ocean environments, briefly describing some aspects of the natural history of the coastal zone, nearshore waters, coral reefs, the continental shelf, the open ocean, and the deep sea. I will go out on a limb and make predictions about what some of the next big ocean conservation issues might be, then lay out potential ways to address these issues early on. I will describe effective techniques for building constituencies for ocean conservation and relate success stories to inspire effective activism to protect the ocean and help create a new ocean ethic.

This book is not intended to be all-inclusive. The focus is on issues that I have been working on over the past 25 years, including climate change, ecological restoration, fisheries, and pollution. The predictions of emerging issues are based on my understanding of current trends and likely developments. I hope they are proved wrong, and that this book will have helped to turn adverse trends around in order to heal the ocean.

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