The oceans: cradle and graveyard of life on Earth

My first newspaper environmental column appeared in mid-March 2008, headlined: ‘Out of our depth in tackling overfishing disaster’. In researching the piece, I was staggered to read a quote from a senior UNEP official to the effect that even if human impacts on the marine world stopped immediately, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”.

Trying to summarise the situation back in early 2008, I wrote: “A lethal cocktail of climate change, overfishing and pollution is causing severe strains on fish stocks worldwide, with the total collapse of commercial fish stocks now predicted to be just four decades away”.

While the main focus of that piece was the lunacy of taxpayer-funded industrial overfishing, it was hard, even back then, to see the catastrophe somehow not extending far beyond the shoreline.

I signed off that opening column as follows: “Unless a radical conservation-led approach to managing the world’s fisheries is quickly put into place with binding and enforced international agreements, the calamity will not be limited to the marine ecosystem. If we simply to carry on our current path, ‘market forces’ will, left unchecked, do the rest and complete the maritime holocaust exactly as scientists are predicting”.

I may have been vaguely expecting an angry mob to march on Government Buildings that day, crumpled Irish Times in hand, demanding that the Irish State “do something” to stop the carnage. If so, that piece was to be the first of many such disappointments over the last six years or so.

No amount of environmental or ecological ‘bad news’ can, it seem, pierce the invisible carapace that appears to shield the public, media and political classes from the breathtaking realities of our predicament. Many column inches have been shed, here and elsewhere, trying to unpick the flaw in our ability to collectively reason that has allowed a mass extinction scenario to steal upon humanity with barely a whimper of either recognition or outrage.

Reporters whose job it is to bring us the stories from war zones and humanitarian disasters, often become cynical about the litany of misery and horror that is their job to relate. Taking that home with you is a recipe for depression, or worse.

South African photographer Kevin Carter in 1993 shot to international attention with a harrowing photo of a starving African child trying to drag herself to a nearby feeding station. In the background, a vulture stood, apparently waiting. That image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize but it also seemed to haunt him. Within a year, he was dead.

Part of his suicide note read: “I am depressed… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”. (Carter’s angst was immortalized in the eponymous song by the Manic Street Preachers).

Writing and researching environmental and ecological issues from the bloodless safety of a computer in suburban Dublin is a long, long way from the front lines that Carter and many others have risked so much to cover, yet the horror still comes crashing through from time to time, no matter how remote you may wish to imagine it.

I had such an experience early this morning when reading a report on ocean acidification by the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey. She was reporting on the release of an international audit (State of the Ocean) of the health of the world’s oceans, by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

I have read and written on this subject on numerous occasions, yet was still left gasping at the import of this audit. The current acidification “is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun”.

According to Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth”.

The same article quoted Trevor Manuel, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, describing the report as “a deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans…unless we restore the ocean’s health, we will experience the consequences on prosperity, wellbeing and development. Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important”.

The last major global extinction event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), occurred around 55 million years ago. The current rate of carbon release into the world’s oceans is today ten times faster than those that preceded the PETM extinction event. “The IPSO scientists can tell that the current ocean acidification is the highest for 300 million years from geological records”, Harvey’s report added.

Overfishing and deoxygenation as a result of run-off of fertilisers and sewage into the oceans is making a desperate situation worse. The IPSO report projects that the average oxygen content of the world’s oceans may fall by some 7% by 2100. Phytoplankton, single-celled plants that live at or near the ocean surface, produce 40-50% of the world’s atmospheric oxygen.

Without the quiet industry of trillions of these organisms, you and I and all our fellow mammals would, quite literally, suffocate. Yet the epic pressures human actions, from hydrocarbon burning to overfishing to wholesale marine pollution are placing on the ecology of the oceans threaten this fine equilibrium.

“People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems”, Alex Rogers of Oxford added. “Phytoplankton produce 40% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90% of all life is in the oceans”.

All life began in the oceans. Our ancient ancestors first crawled or heaved themselves onto the shores around 400 million years ago. The oceans are and remain the cradle of all life on Earth. Destroying this cradle, either intentionally or through carelessness or hubris, means our own sure and certain destruction.

Evolution is unsentimental. From its narrow standpoint, humanity is a dangerous aberration, a defect that will either kill or be overwhelmed by its host. The race is on. Wherever you choose to put your money, neither outcome bodes well for homo sapiens.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • econroy

    As usual, very good article John. This detail on the oceans brings into play what is unseen in climate science, and helps put the 15 years of temperature flatness into perspective. Given that the oceans absorb 80% of the increased heat in the climate system, this puts the varying temperatures on the surface in a new light – the tip of the (melting) iceberg? While we concentrate on surface temperatures, there is a lot more going on below the waves that we (the public) are not aware of. Thanks for bringing another disturbing angle of climate change under the microscope.
    Eric.

  • johngibbons

    Thanks Eric, feedback appreciated as always. For once, I decided to more or less steer clear of the broader climate change argument, where the ‘missing’ heating is going, etc. etc. and just focus for a moment on how deeply we have screwed the life support system AKA our marine systems. For those remaining hard chaws who like to soothe themselves that the Earth is ‘too big’ to be wrecked by human enterprise and the by-products of our civilisation, this study is a sharp slap in the face.

  • hugh

    I am a reader of your articles which helped encourage me to organize a conference on the ethics of water use & abuse. It includes a strong Native American representation. If any of your readers are from Maine they might like to attend the Conference on October 25:

    CONFERENCE: RECLAIMING THE WATER COMMONS:
    WATER ETHICS & NATURE RIGHTS
    FRIDAY, OCTOBER 25, HUTCHINSON CENTER, BELFAST, MAINE
    8:00 am- 8:30 AM: Registration
    8:45 AM: Opening Ceremony: gkisedtanamoogk (Lecturer, Native American Studies)
    9:00 AM: Storytelling: John Bear Mitchell (Lecturer at the Wabanaki Center)
    9:15 am – 10:00 am: SPEAKER: John Banks: (Director of Dep’t of Natural Resources, Penobscot Indian Nation)
    10 AM – 11 AM: ROUND TABLE DISCUSSIONS
    1ST TABLE–Facilitator/Leader: Barbara Arter (Environmental Consultant)
    “The Human Footprint in Maine Eastern Coastal Waters”
    2ND TABLE-Facilitator/Leader: Susie O’Keeffe (“Art of Reciprocity”, Lecturer: College of the Atlantic)”Art & Ethics: How Does Art Influence Environmental Ethics?”
    3RD TABLE: Facilitator/Leader: John Bear Mitchell (Wabanaki Center)
    “The Value of Storytelling in Nature Rights & Ethics”
    4TH TABLE: Facilitator/Leader: John Peckenham (Assoc Director, Mitchell Center for Environmental Research): “Safe water is a global issue” Ethical decisions concerning water means reconciling our personal values with larger community needs whether the concern is our hometown “commons” or the global “commons”.
    5th TABLE: Facilitator/Leaders: Emily Markides (ESTIA founder)& Kyriacos Markides ([Sociology Professor, Univ of Maine): “Living in Creation” & Environmental ‘Green’ Patriarch Bartholomew.”
    11 am – 12 noon: PANEL DISCUSSION
    Facilitators/Leaders will each give a ten minute summary of discussion.Q & A after all presentations.
    12 NOON – 1:30 PM (lunch) INANNA, Sisters in Rhythm (Percussion & Vocal Ensemble)
    1:30 pm – 1:45 pm: Poem: Sandra Hutchison (Ed: Puckerbrush Review, Poetry: “The Art of Nesting”) “Poetry & the Ethics of Water use & abuse”
    1:45 pm – 2:30 pm: SPEAKER: Gail Darrell “Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund” (CELDF)
    2:30 pm- 3:30 pm ROUND TABLE DISCUSSIONS
    1ST TABLE: Facilitator/Leader: Masanobu Ikemiya (Concert Pianist, founder of Arcady Music)
    Title: Water and the power of music and words to heal.
    2ND TABLE: Facilitator/Leader: Jennifer Greene, Water Institute, Blue Hill. Title: “The Intrinsic Nature of Water & a New Social Ethic for Water Resources”.
    3RD TABLE:Facilitator/Leader: Sherri Mitchell, Director of the Land Peace Foundation & graduate of Univ of Arizona School of Law: “Indigenous water rights on a global scale”
    4TH TABLE: Facilitator/Leader: gkisedtanamoogk: “Becoming more responsible to “living waters” We will explore a step by step process of becoming more responsible to “living waters”, for ourselves & future generations.
    3:30 pm – 4:30 pm: PANEL DISCUSSION
    Facilitators/Leaders will each give a ten minute summary of discussion.
    Q & A will take place after all have completed their presentations.
    4:30 pm – 5:00 pm: Summing up of Conference: Closing remarks: Hugh Curran & Emily Markides
    5:00 pm – 5:30 pm-Hawk Henries-(Flute Maker/musician will share music, stories & humor)
    8 ARTISTS DISPLAY THEIR WORKS RE: ETHICS & WATER: