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.