Saving The Oceans

We’re used to seeing lots of bad news about how poorly the oceans are faring. Naturalist Carl Safina went in search of more positive stories, in a PBS series. You can now watch the entire first season online here.

It’s encouraging to see the people and ideas who are working to reverse, or at least combat, the decline of our seas. But somehow I feel like we’re all going to have to get a lot more radical to make a real difference.

Here’s the trailer for the series:

Sylvia Earle On The Oceans

Speaking of the future of the planet’s watery realms, here’s an excellent podcast of Sylvia Earle talking about humanity and its impact:

If you’re inspired by Earle’s ability to pull this off at age 78, just wait: The real inspiration lies in her stunning plea for ocean conservation. In this episode of Inquiring Minds (click below to stream audio), Earle doesn’t shy away from giving us the really, really big picture. She explains that we’re the first generation of humans to even know what we’re doing to 96 percent of the Earth’s water—through assaults ranging from over-fishing to noise pollution to global warming’s evil twin, ocean acidification.

Older generations just didn’t get it; they simply had no idea they could have this effect. “We have been under the illusion for most of our history, thinking that the ocean is too big to fail,” Earle says. Now, thanks in large part to the work of ocean adventurer-scientists like Earle, we know better. And we’re right at that crucial moment where knowing something might actually help us make a difference.

Actually, I think knowing something about 50 years ago might have really helped us make a difference. We often don’t want to know until we are on the edge of disaster, and that is naturally very late in the game. Still…

How Acidic Are The Oceans?

It’s one of the key questions of the global warming puzzle, and the X Foundation is stepping in to incentivize the scientific world to invent a good way to monitor ocean pH:

Scientists know this is killing coral reefs and dissolving the shells of marine animals, but the overall danger of ocean acidification is still poorly understood. To fix that, the X Prize Foundation announced a new bounty this week: $2 million for anyone who can figure out how to figure out what all this extra CO2 is doing to the pH of our planet’s oceans.
Named the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, the 22-month competition is scheduled to kick off in early 2014 and name its winner(s) in 2015. The $2 million jackpot is divided into two purses, which can be won separately or by the same team. The X Prize Foundation provides this description of the potential winnings on its website:
  • Accuracy award ($750,000 first place, $250,000 second place): To the teams that navigate the entire competition to produce the most accurate, stable and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.
  • Affordability award ($750,000 first place, $250,000 second place): To the teams that produce the least expensive, easy-to-use, accurate, stable and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.
This is the latest of many such trophies from the X Prize Foundation, which launched in the 1990s with a $10 million contest aimed at spurring commercial space travel. (It was inspired by the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 jackpot won by aviator Charles Lindbergh when he flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.) The original X Prize went to aerospace firm Scaled Composites in 2004, whose technology is now part of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two.
One the one hand, this is the sort of out-of-the-box technology strategy that could help the planet confront warming. On the other hand, it is sort of depressing that we have made the oceans about 30 percent acidic over the past 250 years without really bothering to understand what the implications might be. Humanity has never been skeptical enough about the potential impacts and unintended consequences of technology.

Ocean Investigations: Chasing Glass

Over the past 25 years, C. Drew Harvell has meticulously recovered more than 200 models in a mostly forgotten collection of 570 glass sculptures created by a pair of father-and-son glassmakers, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, in the 1860s. (Photo: Jeffery DelViscio/The New York Times)


A very cool effort to find and film oceanic hundreds of oceanic species that were captured in exquisite detail by a family of 19th century glassmakers:

I’ve been a marine biologist my entire professional life, spending more than 25 years researching the health of corals and sustainability of reefs. I’m captivated by the magic of sessile invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea squirts — creatures vital to the ecosystem yet too often overlooked in favor of more visible animals like sharks and whales.

The filmmaker David O. Brown and I want to change that. To make a documentary, “Fragile Legacy,” we are on a quest to lure these elusive and delicate invertebrates in front of the camera lens.

Our inspiration springs from an unlikely source: a collection of 570 superbly wrought, anatomically perfect glass sculptures of marine creatures from the 19th century.

These delicate folds and strands of glass make up theBlaschka collection of glass invertebrates at Cornell, of which I am the curator — enchanting and impossibly rare jellyfishes of the open ocean; more common but equally beautiful octopus, squid, anemones and nudibranchs from British tide pools and Mediterranean shores.

How many will be thriving? How many will be impossible to find? It’s an interesting snapshot of what has happened in the oceans over the past 200 years.

Make sure you check out the spectacular multimedia presentation that compares the glass versions to the real thing.

What Is The True Value Of The Oceans?

Mission Blue takes a stab at adding it all up.

The video totally nails the problem that traditional economics does not value or account for “natural capital,” the single greatest (and most catastrophic) flaw in the way we humans conduct our lives, cultures and economies. So thanks for getting that key point out.

But the video also irks me slightly because:

1) No value is placed on preserving the oceans simply because they are the most spectacular, beautiful, awesome, and life-nurturing resource on the planet (what I would call “existential capital”). Sure, those are intangibles, but not all value attached to the ocean can be expressed in dollars and cents, or benefits to the human race. And the lives of all the myriad species that live in the ocean are invaluable, even if they don’t directly benefit humans (or contribute to our cosmetics!). Even if the oceans didn’t protect our beach homes, provide us with a tourist destination, or regulate the climate so we don’t all overheat, I’d be in favor of protecting and defending the oceans. The oceans are the heart and soul of the planet.

2) The remedies are sorta lame. Go to a green resort? Buy “sustainable” fish, whatever that is? That won’t save the oceans. Saving the oceans, and stopping ocean acidification will require much more dramatic shifts in our behavior and culture. How about urging people to stop eating meat (the single greatest step any human can take to protect the planet)? And stop eating fish, period? Or stop living in humungous houses that are heated and cooled to ridiculous temperatures? Or to reduce their driving, and travel by airplane (the carbon emissions of that trip to the beach are significant)? Or stop using so much plastic? Or any number of the other 3,546 things that modern humans do that impact the oceans?

Maybe people should watch this video (and movie) instead, because Revolution really is the right response to the crisis of the oceans:

Media Failure And The Dying Oceans

CNN takes detailed note of the grim future of oceans, and the fish and mammals that live in them:

Remoteness, however, has not left the oceans and their inhabitants unaffected by humans, with overfishing, climate change and pollution destabilizing marine environments across the world.

Many marine scientists consider overfishing to be the greatest of these threats. The Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international survey of ocean life completed in 2010, estimated that 90% of the big fish had disappeared from the world’s oceans, victims primarily of overfishing.

Tens of thousands of bluefin tuna were caught every year in the North Sea in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, they have disappeared across the seas of Northern Europe. Halibut has suffered a similar fate, largely vanishing from the North Atlantic in the 19th century.

In some cases, the collapse has spread to entire fisheries. The remaining fishing trawlers in the Irish Sea, for example, bring back nothing more than prawns and scallops, says marine biologist Callum Roberts, from the UK’s York University.

“Is a smear of protein the sort of marine environment we want or need? No, we need one with a variety of species, that is going to be more resistant to the conditions we can expect from climate change,” Roberts said.

The situation is even worse in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, people are now fishing for juvenile fish and protein that they can grind into fishmeal and use as feed for coastal prawn farms. “It’s heading towards an end game,” laments Roberts.

It’s as dismal a picture as you can imagine, and the collapse of fisheries and acidification of the ocean, apart from the moral failures involved, will have profound effects on humanity’s future. Usually, if self-interest is at stake, people care.

So here is my question: why are these global threats–to the climate, to the oceans, to other species–not front page news each and every day on every media platform modern man has devised? They are existential threats, threats that dwarf the issues and problems that regularly get coverage, threats that dwarf most challenges we have ever faced because they are truly global and go to the core of how we live.

I am sure that media companies would answer that the public doesn’t want to read or hear about the scale of the problem, and the role of humanity and its hyper-materialistic culture in creating the problem. Doesn’t want to hear about sacrifice and the need for change. Covering that stuff is a money-loser.

But if Hitler or Dr. Evil, or an alien invader was threatening to heat up the planet, acidify the oceans, and force mass extinctions, I assume mainstream media would think that was newsworthy, and the public would agree. The occasional due diligence report, like this one, just doesn’t cut it. We need to be going to Defcon 1, and instead we are being hypnotized by the modern opiate of the masses, celebrity worship and endless and feckless video distractions.

Here is one point of agreement I have with Sarah Palin. Mainstream media = Lamestream media. And its failures, like ours, will seem criminal and shockingly blind to future generations trying to cope with the compromised planet we have bequeathed them.

Raw Numbers: Ocean Acidification vs. The Kardashians

Okay, on one level this is a bit silly. But on a deeper level–i.e. what it says about the degree to which modern media has given up on informing in favor of (more profitable) gossip and entertainment, as well as the degree to which we are all becoming stupidly fixated on celebrity–it is troubling.

Because ocean acidification is going to affect your future, and the planet’s future, a lot more than the Kardashians will (click image for full size).

Oh, and I will send Kim K. a “Save The Whales” t-shirt if “ocean acidification” gets mentioned even once during tonight’s presidential debate.

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