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Must Read: “The Ocean Of Life”

May 25, 2012

If you want to know pretty much everything on how humanity has exploited and damaged the oceans, since the first humanoid fashioned a crude fish spear or fish hook, then Callum Roberts’ new book “The Ocean Of Life” should be next on your book pile.

Here’s a review in the Wall Street Journal, by my friend Bruce Knecht, who, after an introductory quibble, writes:

Having made this point, I need to now jump up and down myself to say that “Ocean of Life” is an excellent and engrossing work. Mr. Roberts, a British professor of marine conservation, has corralled an astonishing collection of scientific discovery, and he conveys it with non-textbook readability.
It must also be said that the unvarnished realities of what has happened to marine life should outrage everyone. Many of the statistics are not new. In the past 30 years, the populations of the largest marine animals have declined by 75%. Some species have been depleted by more than 90%. Other populations are not even counted anymore because they have disappeared entirely. One of the species that now appears to be on a fast track to extinction is the leatherback turtle, the massive reptile that has existed since the time of the dinosaurs. “There is just one leatherback left in the Pacific for every twenty in 1962, the year I was born,” Mr. Roberts writes. [snip]…
…The steady undercurrent to most of this is bad news, and it leads to a disturbing and seemingly inevitable conclusion: The explosion of human populations, our disrespect for ecosystems, and our ever-expanding demand for seafood and everything else will exceed the natural world’s capacities and ultimately put humankind’s survival at risk. Mr. Roberts reminds us that, during the Earth’s more than four-billion-year history, there have been at least five mass extinctions, including an episode of global warming 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs. He believes that we are likely to be heading toward a sixth such catastrophe. This one would differ dramatically from the others both because those who caused it—us—would also be victims, and because the disaster might be avoidable. Mr. Roberts is particularly worried about the possibility of another bout of global warming.
While some say it is not absolutely clear that the current warming trend is a real threat or that it is man-caused, there can be no such doubt about the destruction of ocean life. The traditional belief that the seas are so large as to be impervious to human effects is long gone. The specific problems are mostly familiar: industrial pollution and fertilizer runoffs, the destruction of wetlands and river deltas, rising sea temperatures, and of course too much fishing. Technological advancements have made it possible to scoop up fish far faster than they can reproduce. “Our planetary remodeling did not stop at the shore,” Mr. Roberts writes. “It just came a little later to the sea.”

Okay, so it’s not a very uplifting read, but what did you expect? These are hard times for the oceans. And to the extent the book delivers such a dire prognosis, it is a very helpful reminder that the scale of mitigation we tend to talk about when we talk about addressing climate change and the fate of the oceans is completely inconsistent with the scale of the problem.

We need to amp it up by a couple of orders of magnitude, folks, when it comes to changing the way we live and changing our economies. So thanks, Mr. Roberts, for helping make that clear because so far not that many people seem to be paying attention.

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