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.


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:

My Troubles with Teflon

Jokes about abusive relationships are, by definition, Not Funny. They are also tasteless and a tad tawdry, much like my former relationship with my darling Teflon.

I now remember, with a little wince, how I spent years worrying over my Teflon, examining its placid, emotionless face for scratches and dings, using only the gentlest soaps and utensils, in the vain hope of somehow keeping it pristine and untroubled.

I babied it, frankly, fussing at those around me to treat it similarly with a ginger hand, somehow believing that if only the surface would remain unscathed, things would be all right.

Now I wonder, from the other side of things, why was I so scared? Why couldn’t I just leave it behind me? Was I perturbed by the thought of less perfectly formed eggs? Of spending precious time scrubbing that brownish cooked-egg scrum from the corners of some other, lesser, pan??

It was only when I learned about its sordid past, its ugly history of broken lives in a small town in West Virginia, that I knew that one of us had to change, and that one of us was me.

My problem was not really the Teflon itself, but the bad company it keeps – the PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid) used to make it stick evenly to a pan.

To be clear, PFOAs (or precursor chemicals called “fluorotelomers” that break down into PFOAs in the environment) are also used in Gore-tex, Stainmaster, and carpets. And popcorn microwave bag linings, and the inside of some fast food containers.

Think really slick stuff. PFOAs are one slippery character, biologically speaking, as well. They’ve been found in animals in the Arctic, and – charmingly – form some of the strongest chemical bonds chemists have ever seen.

The best part? They bio-accumulate in humans and animals, persisting, basically, well, scientists don’t really know how long, but likely approaching something like, uh, forever.

How bad are PFOAs?

On this question, as with so many others, the government is not of much help. The Environmental Protection Agency, in an early draft of a risk assessment, labeled it a “likely human carcinogen” in 2005.

The agency has since stalled on the question. The agency’s Web site now says both that “EPA is still in the process of evaluating this information and has not made any definitive conclusions regarding potential risks, including cancer, at this time,” and that the agency, in “January 2006…asked eight companies in the industry to commit to reducing PFOA from facility emissions and product content by 95 percent no later than 2010, and to work toward eliminating PFOA from emissions and product content no later than 2015.” My translation: it may cause cancer. Please take a decade to stop using it.

Clearer, and helpful as usual, is Wikipedia:

[PFOA] is a toxicant and carcinogen in animals. PFOA has been detected in the blood of more than 98% of the general US population in the low and sub-parts per billion range, and levels are higher in chemical plant employees and surrounding subpopulations. 

 The floodwall of Parkersburg, West Virginia, a...

For evidence of this, look to “Teflon Town” – Parkersburg, West Virginia, the only place in the U.S. where PFOA is manufactured. Just today, one of the largest research studies on chemicals ever attempted announced a conclusion, after looking at the problem for over four years, that PFOAs are causally linked to prostate and testicular cancer.

For some of its residents, who fought an Erin Brockovich-level struggle against the hegemony of DuPont, this is welcome knowledge, but really not news.

PFOA had been leaching into drinking water in nearby Little Hocking, Ohio. After it was dumped near the property and stream of farmers Jim and Della Tennant in the 1990s, here’s what Della told NPR happened to her cows:

“It had the most terrifying bawl, and every time it would open its mouth and bawl, blood would gush from its mouth…And whenever you think about feeding all those animals to your children, all the time they were growing up, it’s something that puts a lump in your throat you can’t take away.”

The Tennants settled their dumping claim with DuPont in 2001. But that left the drinking water issue.

As movingly described in Chapter 4 of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” Parkersburg citizens received a mysterious letter around the same time of the Tennants’ settlement, stating that PFOA levels in the water were safe – based on the considered judgment of PFOA-maker DuPont.

Oddly, they weren’t reassured. They subsequently waged an unpopular campaign to bring the issues involving one of the town’s largest employers into the light, bringing suit against DuPont, and winning a novel settlement.

The EPA also sued DuPont, for failing to disclose that workers at the plant had PFOA in their blood, proving that the company knew it starting at least as early as 1981. DuPont was fined a record $16.5 million in 2005.

That lawsuit also turned up disturbing evidence that DuPont knew of health risks from PFOA way back in 1961, when rats exposed to PFOA had enlarged livers even after relatively low dose-exposures.

Most revoltingly, in 1981, when DuPont conducted a study of female workers to see if birth defects were present among their children, it found that two workers out of eight had children possessing similar defects in the eye and facial area. Although these findings were like the birth defects found in their study of rats, the company merely transferred the workers, halted the study, and buried the results.

The citizen lawsuit also got results, including a $71 million health and education project, a water treatment facility, and a landmark agreement to let a $20 million Science Panel conduct a detailed study of the health of town residents, to evaluate the link between PFOA exposure and health harms.

If the panel does find a link, DuPont must pay up to $235 million to cover medical costs for those harmed. (Although this sounds like a lot, as Smith and Lourie point out, it’s really chump change when considered against the $3 billion in profits the company made in, for example, 2007.)

So, after years of study, and a record number of blood samples from town residents (totaling some 70,000), the second set of conclusions are in. The first set of findings found a “probable link” between PFOA exposure and dangerous high blood pressure among pregnant women. It also found no link between PFOA exposure and birth defects and adult-onset diabetes, and some types of cancers.

Today’s announcement from the Science Panel was as follows:

The only two cancers where the Panel found a reasonably consistent and strong relationship between past exposure and cancer were testicular cancer and kidney cancer. Both…are rare. In the Science Panel data there were 19 confirmed cases of testicular cancer and 113 confirmed cases of kidney cancer. After dividing the population into four categories…the kidney cancer rate in the upper categories of the population was 20%, 40%, and 60% higher for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quartile compared to those with the lowest exposure. For testicular cancer the corresponding numbers were 80%, 120%, and 170% higher for the upper quartiles compared to the lowest.

The panel will wrap up its work by June of this year.

So, what to make of all this? After all, at least eight manufacturers claim to be phasing out PFOAs (though they are replacing them, at least in some cases, with chemically-similar substances).

Depressingly, cooking pans may not be the biggest source of contamination for PFOAs, as long as you always cook on low heat and never leave the pan empty (which I know we did, as I remember scolding my husband over it at least once, because I evidently privileged the health of my abusive Teflon boyfriend over him).

The Teflon itself starts to off-gas at around 390°F, and at close to 500°F, you actually get a dangerous breakdown of the pan. While this sounds super-hot, a study in 2003 by the Environmental Working Group found that pans can actually get well over 700°F in 3 to 5 minutes. And there’s the issue of the non-stick coating under the burner area on the stove, or under the broiler. Fumes from over-heated pans can kill birds, and also have negative health effects for humans. So there’s that.

Basically, although avoiding PFOAs is evidently impossible even if you move to the Arctic, we do the following:

1)    We chucked our non-stick everything. Like Tribbles, non-stick coatings were slyly hiding everywhere – the rice cooker, sandwich press, muffin tins, as well as frying pans. I recognize that DuPont says that there is little exposure from this cookware (uh, ok), but I don’t want to have to worry about off-gassing, heating points, and the like, and the story about Parkersburg really ticks me off, more or less on principle.

We found a rice cooker, which we use all the time, with a stainless steel bowl on Amazon. We use enameled cast iron for every day, and regular cast iron when we have a big frying job. (Except for with tomatoes or acidic foods, as the iron leaches too much.) I don’t miss non-stick, really. Plenty of oil and a little extra scrubbin’ pretty much makes it work.

2)    For carpets, furniture, and the like, we don’t use or have applied any stainmaster treatments. (I actively regret, but have not bothered to replace, the small loveseat purchased in the mid-90s with the stain-resistant shellack.) When I buy carpets, I look for organic untreated wool in colors that show fewer stains. Cheap carpets, I assume, are full of PFOAs and other ick.

for microwave ovens, popped state.

3)    We avoid stain-resistant clothing and Gore-Tex. And microwave popcorn, which tastes like buttery Gore-Tex anyway.

4)    I turned back the allegedly “green and non-toxic” carpet cleaning guy, after he got to my house, because he couldn’t tell me what was in the murky blue liquid. Who knows? He certainly didn’t. I’ll just have to vacuum more.

5)    We use green cleaners. Which I’m sure helps with a number of chemical hazards.

6)   Because these kinds of chemicals are used, willy-nilly, to keep greasy fast food from sticking to containers, there’s yet another health-related reason not to eat, or let Maya eat, fast food.

Still, we know it’s all around us and in our blood along with most Americans. As Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie write (at 73), in comparison to, say, Love Canal and other local eco-tragedies:

The story of Parkersburg may be the first environmental-disaster story in which a [corporation in a] small town is also responsible for contaminating the entire world and almost every living thing in it.

Yikes. That’s one hell of a bad relationship.