To me, nothing says summer down-time quite like finding a shady spot on a warm day and settling in for a great read. This year, I had the good fortune of picking two exceptional books – ‘The Ocean of Life’ by marine scientist Callum Roberts and ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’ by Penn State palaeoclimatologist, Michael Mann. (I’ll post a separate detailed review of the latter presently, and thread it with an intriguing recent appearance on NewsTalk to take part in the eternal: ‘climate-change-is-it-real-at-all-at-all’ debate that continues to rage in the minds of many Irish journalists).
The two styles contrast sharply, yet their conclusions, from widely different part of the scientific spectrum, are eerily similar. While the denial and denigration of science is at the heart of Mann’s book, it also forms a notable undercurrent for Roberts.
“Over the years I have come across spectacular levels of denial among fishing industry representatives…I have seen them dig their heels in to resist regulations that could help fish stocks recover”. Politicians play along to the well-organised fishing lobby. “The relationship between politicians and the fishing industry in the EU has become like that of a doctor assisting the suicide of a patient”, is how he put it. I sincerely hope Simon Coveney reads this too.
World fisheries is now a globalised Ponzi scheme, with the fishing industry wiping out one area after another in pursuit of short term profit, then simply moving further and further afield in pursuit of new stocks. “Over time, fisheries have eaten up their capital stocks rather than lived within the limits of annual production. But fisheries are now failing (globally) because, like in a Ponzi scheme, they are running out of new capital”.
Overfishing and chronic pollution are just two of the threats to the world’s oceans. Global warming is now reaching into some of the remotest corners of the planet, and thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. Air temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen an astonishing 11F in the last 50 years, leading to a 90% decline in populations of Adélie penguins on this peninsula.
Roberts explains lucidly how susceptible the seemingly mighty ocean is to surface warming. Much of the deeper oceans contain very little oxygen, and life there depends of mixing of the oxygen-rich surface waters, but the greater the temperature difference, the less mixing occurs, leading to the spread of low oxygen zones, which are deadly to almost all marine life. “Mass die-offs of marine life will become a regular feature of future oceans unless climate change can be halted”, he warns.
The last great warming period to rival 21st century projections occurred at the end of the Permian era 251 million years ago. Runaway global warming meant that “life in the sea suffered the one-two punch of anoxia and high carbon dioxide. It took five million years to recover”.
Ocean acidification is rapidly emerging as a threat to the marine world every bit as potent as global warming is for the land. He recalls the very human story of US marine biologist, Joanie Kleypas, a coral reef expert. While attending a meeting on climate change in 1998, Kleypas suddenly came to the full realisation that the world’s coral reefs could be obliterated by the end of the 21st century. She was so shocked she rushed out of the meeting to be sick in the bathroom. A simple doubling of CO2 levels from today’s values is sufficient to commit the world’s coral reefs, which have survived more or less intact for tens of millions of years, to destruction. We can actually trigger this apocalypse under an IPCC low emissions scenario.
Ocean of Life also gives us a glimpse into the wonders of the oceans. Viruses are the most numerous marine life-forms, outnumbering all other life-forms by 15-1. In total, there are an estimated 4 nonillion viruses in the sea. That’s a four, followed by 30 zeros. If all these individual viruses could somehow be placed end to end, “they would form a thread less than one two-hundredth of the thickness of the finest spider gossamer that would stretch for two hundred million light years.” The thread would stretch beyond the Milky Way and by some 60 adjoining galaxies and countless billions of stars.
As if surface warming, gross overfishing and acidification weren’t enough, the world’s oceans have become giant dumping grounds for millions of tons of plastic and other of our wastes. Plastic doesn’t go away, it just breaks down slowly over time into ever-smaller particles, many of which end up being ingested by various forms of marine life.
Phthalates, polystyrene, PCBs, styrene and mercury (mostly from coal burning) are among the many pollutants that find their way in quantity into our oceans. Some are endocrine disruptors, which are strongly implicated in a range of birth defects (in humans as well as other animals). Noise pollution from shipping, military sonar as well as deep sea surveying is another potent threat to cetaceans in particular, as they depend heavily on sound to communicate, feed, hunt and find mates.
If humanity had consciously sat down to draw up a plan to wipe all life from our oceans, we could hardly have accomplished our task more thoroughly. Species including turtles and sharks that quite literally shared the oceans with the dinosaurs, and who have weathered many disasters over tens of millions of years are proving no match for the most voracious and indiscriminate marine predator in all Earth history, homo sapiens.
Here’s one egregious example: “The carnage wrought by bottom trawling and dredging is multiplied from coast to horizon, and beyond. Virtually nowhere above three thousand feet is spared. Some places get hit once every five to ten years, while places where trawling is unusually intense can be trawled five times in a year”. This translates into almost unimaginable carnage: “more than 15,000 square miles of damaged, dead and dying bottom life every day” Annually, that’s a submarine area one and a half times the size of Europe wrecked. Why? Because we can, and because, for now, it’s profitable.
The scale of our ignorance of the multiplicity of connections in the fabric of life is breathtaking, says Roberts. “It would take a thousand lifetimes of research to figure out all of the ways in which we are affecting the species in an ecosystem of even moderate complexity”, he observes darkly.
The world is, he cautions, living on borrowed time. “We can’t cheat nature by taking more than is produced indefinitely, no matter how fervently politicians or captains of industry might wish it…in essence what we have done in the last few decades is to mine fish, bringing them in at rates faster than they can replace themselves”. The price for today’s greed will be tomorrow’s hunger.
The mind-sets propelling these and related environmental disasters, including the unfolding calamity of climate change, present formidable challenges to any effort to put humanity on path towards sustainability. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, Middle Age institutions and God-like technologies” is how Harvard biologist EO Wilson pithily put it.
Defending nature is critical, even if only to protect our own narrow interests. “Nature conservation is too often perceived as a luxury, a view that has become embedded in attitudes and policies…climate change is exposing the folly of our neglect for the ecological underpinnings of life”, argues Roberts. Phrasing this in more human terms, he suggests that if life were a multinational company, “many o fits subsidiaries would have gone under by now as a result of lost productivity. The whole business would be at risk of failure”.
The crushing irony for the fishing industry is that it is busy putting itself out of business by overexploitation and needlessly destructive and wasteful practices. Saving the fishing industry from itself is almost as formidable a task as wider marine conservation. A World Bank Report confirmed the utter lunacy of current fisheries policy and practice by pointing out that the world’s major fish stocks would produce 40% more if we simply didn’t insist on fishing them to the edge of extinction.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity set a 2010 target to turn 10% of the world’s oceans into protected areas. To date, the figure is 1.6%. Roberts estimates that, to have any chance of allowing a recovery of our oceans, some 35% of the world’s oceans need to be off limits to untrammelled exploitation. That puts that paltry 1.6% figure into its correct perspective.
The Ocean of Life is a masterly survey of the systems that comprise more than two thirds of our planet, yet are misunderstood and abused in almost equal measure. Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at York University is a skilled communicator who, unlike so many of his scientific colleagues, is able and willing to connect the dots, rather than simply beavering away at his own favourite sub-specialty.
What this survey reveals is disturbing, even distressing, but rest assured, the Irish public won’t have been unduly disturbed. Total coverage of this landmark publication to date in the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Evening Herald, Daily Mail, Sunday Independent, Sunday Business Post and on RTE radio or television: zero. Among the Irish media I’ve reviewed, only the Irish Examiner and Sunday Times found it worthy of editorial coverage.
As Roberts concludes: “You can’t cheat nature, however good you may be at spinning a story”.