A Shrinking Ocean: Parenting in an Era of Climate Crisis

Ocean Acidification and Coral ReefsOn this morning’s commute, I happened to tune in to NPR’s story about the impact on coral reefs from climate change. Scientists off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, on Heron Island, are conducting a kind of no-duh experiment on the subject of ocean acidification from carbon emissions. They set up a series of tanks to mimic various climate change scenarios from before the present day to now, and into the not-nearly-distant-enough future.

Richard Harris, NPR’s reporter, described one tank as “what the world’s oceans are likely to look like later in this century when the schoolchildren visiting this island today reach middle age.” So what was in that tank? Well, brace yourself.

By comparison with the “present-day” tank, which showed some continuing growth in the coral, or with the pre-industrial tank which contained a more vibrant eco-system, the future is a place we wouldn’t really want to inhabit, filled as it will be with swirling masses of bacterial detritus and dead rock:

DOVE: OK. So there’s lot of this slimy, yucky mess(ph) of cynobacteria.

HARRIS: Clumps of black gunk swirl along the surface of the tank.

DOVE: We find that cynobacteria tend to do really well in the future. The slippery slope to slime seems to be the way to go.

HARRIS: Not so for the coral. Most of it has either died or turned white, which means the organisms that live inside the coral have moved out.

The “skeptic” quoted for the program did complain that the experiment imposed these dramatic changes suddenly, saying that species could potentially adapt. But Dove, the scientist who set up the tanks, doesn’t see any evidence of the capacity for such adaptive changes in the fragile corals.

More to the point, the levels of carbon and heat in the tank were modeled on scenarios for this century, so the adaptation argument makes little sense. We just don’t have the time for transformation on an evolutionary scale, which takes thousands of years, to allow creatures to transform over generations to suit their new environment.

Instead, the future is almost upon us. Science has now advanced to the point where we can clearly see where this — namely, the fossil fuel economy — is headed. Given the revelations that the pace of change is likely sooner that anyone guessed, we’re way past “inconvenient” all the way to panic button. But our political institutions evidently lack the willpower to do much about this dystopian future in which Maya and all of our children — and certainly our grandchildren — will live.

When I imagine the oceans as dead, full of floating slime chunks of bacteria, I get both angry and panicked in more-or-less equal portions. There will little fish in that world, no snorkeling worth the time and expense, and few startlingly gorgeous sea-creatures flashing their brilliant colors. The millions of people all around the world who make their living from the reefs or the oceans will have to find something else to do.

I also wonder what it will mean to Maya and her peers: the uncomfortable fact that we have destroyed the life-sustaining capacities of these vast and complex ocean systems. Like the view of the planet from space, or the development of nuclear weapons that could obliterate the planet, our self-regard as a species will be inevitably and deeply altered by this enormous hubris. How will this unmistakeable evidence of our tragic inability to act impact my daughter’s view of what it is to be human?

It has always seemed obvious to me that the predators from outer space in movies like Alien are based on a deep concern about our own relationship with the planet. After all, we are the species out-of-line with the natural order. We are the ones that — as Avatar brilliantly showed — take without any thought of giving back. In Louie C.K.‘s hilarious new HBO show, he celebrates the fact that we got “out of the food chain” and are therefore not subject to attacks from say, cheetahs, while waiting for our morning train. This is doubtless reason to cheer.

Nonetheless, as I try to raise my daughter with a sense of her own power to shape her world, and as someone who chooses to take responsibility for her actions, I can’t help but think that the patent irresponsibility around her will create a world — literally — of depressing limitations. Once we’ve killed the oceans, how is it again that our self-concept as an empowered — or at least benign — part of life on earth survives? I don’t see it.

Another story on NPR a few weeks back discussed the challenge of adding climate change materials to high school science classes. The major problem, it seems, beyond the predictable non-sequiter from (non-scientist) deniers, was that high school kids, with their optimism and sense-making, truly struggled once aware of the facts with the level of puzzling inaction by politicians, as well as with their own complicity in a fossil-fuel system to, say, get to soccer practice.

You’ve got to love them for it. Once their attention is raised, these kids would like to get something done about the issue, given the alarming nature of the information. So our lack of a forthright response to the problem is already impacting our children, who are rightly struggling to reconcile their sense of moral right with the reality of our deep political dysfunction.

One of the great pleasures of going to the shore — where we all take our families — is of course to stand at the water’s edge and contemplate how small we are in the place of things, how vast and mysterious the expanse of water is as it stretches on forever.

Whether from exotic invaders, pollution and plastic, chemicals and oil spills, or rapid acidification from excess carbon, it seems certain that without decisive action, for our children and grandchildren in the foreseeable future the ocean will be smaller, far less full of life, and considerably more dangerous and dirty.

It breaks my heart, as both a parent and a person, that this moment, for Maya and others of her generation, will someday perhaps no longer be this essential experience of breathing in the fresh air of limitless possibility, and thereby finding our proper place in the order of things. Sadly, for our children, the ocean may — or will? — instead be tragic, like a crime scene or an horizon of another kind: a place where something important about who we are to ourselves, and to each other, was — perhaps irretrievably — lost.

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I’ll note that it is already difficult to responsibly eat from the oceans, due to both over-fishing and the gross levels of chemicals found in farmed fish (including dyes, PCBs, and antibiotics). The dearth of certifiably sustainably raised fish, healthy as it can be to eat, in both grocery stores and restaurants, is a real problem. We order bulk salmon from a certified sustainable seafood buying club, delivered locally directly from the fisherfolk who maintain a wild reefnet fishery around twice a year. They keep all of the mark-up, and we get a better source of Omegas.

And at least our stuff is never mislabeled! The enormous fakery around seafood, sadly, also conceals the ways in which we are strip-mining the oceans of the most valuable fish and other creatures.

I also try to harass restaurants with farmed fish or less sustainable fish on their menus into changing their offerings. And I won’t touch shrimp, due to both the chemicals in both Gulf and imported shrimp as well as the grotesque overseas working conditions.

It’s deplorable that such enjoyable aspects of living — and our connection with the ocean from which all life came — is now fraught with this sadness and human greed.

Update (4/26/13):

A few restaurant chains in my area — including Blacks, which is opening a location right here in Takoma Park, Maryland — are kicking off a traceability program to verify the sustainability of their seafood. (How I forgot to reference the This American Life piece above defies explanation, as pig bung now comes to my mind every time squid appears on the menu!). The program is called “REEF.” From an article about it:

Are you suspicious of seafood these days? It’s understandable. In January, a This American Life investigation questioned whether some “imitation calamari” is actually sliced pig rectum; not long after, an Oceana report revealed rampant fish mislabeling.

D.C.-based Black Restaurant Group and the Congressional Seafood Co. last week launched The REEL Story, a seafood traceability program, to address these concerns. The concept is simple: each menu item is associated with a QR code; scan the code with your smartphone to see a complete history of your dinner, from information on where and how it was harvested, to recipe ideas and cooking methods.

What a great idea!

Related posts:

Space Invaders: Here Come the Jelly Fish

Beautiful clouds of undulating ooze, these jelly fish were the obvious stars of my recent trip to the National Aquarium. With hours to kill after finding myself in downtown Baltimore, visiting the museum seemed an ideal way to pass the time.

Stuck way off in a corner of the sprawling facility was a small but gorgeously menacing exhibition, which had as its focus the rapid population spikes of jellies in many U.S. waterways. While it was easy to admire their silent grace in the water and the incredible variety of shapes they formed while swimming, it was equally easy to imagine their tentacles creepily drifting my way in the surf. Below are the Lion’s Mane jellies, which deliver a nasty sting.

As the museum made clear, an over-abundance of jelly fish is not a good sign for the health of the oceans and waterways. Some are carried by ships into faraway waters, where they spread from a lack of predators in their new ecosystem, while others merely multiply in place from weakened environmental conditions.

The exhibition spelled out the causes in no uncertain terms: the warming seas from climate change, the death of natural predators like sea turtles from habitat loss and strangulation-by-plastic-bag-imitating-a-jelly (ugh), and the loss of oxygen in the water from pollution that allows jellies to move in by the cloudful.

In fact, the whole museum was, in one way or another, a sign that we could usefully re-examine the ethics of fish consumption. Set in between the tanks of cruising nurse sharks was a light-board that brightly illuminated the dire situation created by over-fishing and the lack of effective inter-governmental agreements in much of our global waters. Whether talking about the population crashes in ocean species expected by 2050, or showing breathtaking images of colorful snakes and fish from one of the only three healthy reefs in all of Indonesia, the underlying message about ongoing ocean degradation was inescapable.

Combined with pollution and the inter-dependency of life-systems that ripple changes up the food chain with brutal efficiency, it is hard to believe that the kinds of delicate arrangements that support a robust chain of ocean life will still be around for Maya and her children to enjoy, either as mere spectacle or food.

I still remember reading a chilling account years ago about what the take-over of invasive exotics would look like in a prescient Harper’s article, Planet of Weeds, detailing how kudzu and snakefish would decimate native systems. An ocean full of little else but jellies belongs in such an inverted Garden of Excess. After all, they go back 600 million years and are extremely well designed to persist.

And then, as a devastating benchmark for loss, there was this TED talk by a marine biologist who makes an incredible claim that is all too credible: coral reefs have been depleted by humans so profoundly over the last few hundred years that our view of what a healthy reef looks like is actually based on an already-degraded ecosystem.

We can do better in terms of creating marine systems that nurture both the fish we like to eat and life more generally, as another TED talk by chef Dan Barber (one of my favorites) shows, and I’ll post in the future about the debates over eating fish, which is a knotty problem from both a nutritional and environmental sustainability perspective.

But today, there were the jellies, and the slow dance of our doom. On the larger questions, I came away from the encounter with an eerie feeling that the political and social obstacles to saving our oceans from rapid destruction — particularly given the “natural” inclinations of exotics like these stunning jelly invaders to exploit any niches we open to their long arms — are steep indeed.

It’s a system after all, and a highly complex, responsive one that utterly disrespects the prosaic boundaries of our political arrangements. It will be merciless about our many, predictable mistakes, like failing to thoroughly clean the hull of a ship.

When I looked at all the jellies, with their mindless movements that somehow flow in the direction of our follies, I felt a little chill. And when I put my fingers to the glass to take a picture, it was cold, just like the ocean deep.

Salmon Burgers with Basil and Orange

It’s summer, and the real question most evenings is what easy, healthy meal I can throw together right after work that we can pack up for a short evening excursion to the pool.

These simple, Omega-3 rich salmon burgers certainly fit the bill. They take only 5 minutes to mix and another 10 at most to cook, and can be packed up on top of some fresh spinach and diced tomatoes and eaten with a fork, or thrown unceremoniously into a sliced wholegrain bun with a smear of mayo or tartar sauce.

I do pan-fry them, because they would be a little delicate to grill unless you used a (stainless steel) grill pan. Once they cook a little, they tend to hold together decently well.

As a bonus, Maya loves these, and it’s not easy to get a toddler to eat fish!

Ingredients:

1 can (wild-caught) salmon (the BPA-free brands are: Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Vital Choice and Eco-fish)

2 (organic, pastured) eggs

1 Tbl (organic) dijon mustard

6 Tbls (organic) Panko bread crumbs (these do exist; I found them in the organic specialty section at Whole Foods)

1 (organic) orange, sliced in half and one-half juiced

2 Tbls chopped fresh (organic) basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Balsamic vinegar for finishing

Directions:

Empty the can of salmon into a bowl and pick out the small bones. Add mustard, basil, orange juice, bread crumbs, and salt and pepper. Let the mixture sit while you warm the pan with a generous amount of olive oil.

Form into patties and fry in the oil, turning infrequently. Makes about 8 patties.

Serve over bed of greens, such as fresh spinach, topped with a squeeze of the other side of the orange, and a dribble of balsamic vinegar, with a side of (organic) tartar sauce, or on a bun.