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From Think Global Green: An example of coral death by bleaching. As reefs fail, so do other marine ecosystems, leading to the mass extinctions occuring around the world in a single human generation.

It pains me to be the purveyor of bad news, but if we don’t stop the destructive cycle we’re on, we’re going to make Earth history by being the shortest lived species before facing extinction, killing many many other species as we go.  Two days ago, Reuters published an article on yahoo sharing the findings of a study by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).  In a nutshell: “Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, over-exploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean.”   We’ve heard this warning before.  In fact, we’ve been hearing it from researchers, scientists, and activists all over the world for the last decade.  And now it seems that grim future prophesied is upon us.

Things Fall Apart

Before the bubonic plague ravaged Asia and Europe in the Middle Ages, it was preceded by war and famine.  In 13th century China, war with the Mongolian conquest eventually took its toll, weakened the population significantly, and led to a disruption in farming and trading that ignited a nation-wide famine.  Shortly afterwards, plague erupted, and before it faded entirely, about half the population was reduced.  The situation was similar for England.   It took hundreds of years and many human generations later to recover.

Now imagine what’s happening right now in the ocean. It’s like the plague except ten times worse.  Instead of war and famine, marine life has to contend with global warming, pollution, acidification, reduction in oxygen levels, and exponential killings by the global fisheries industry.  Global warming is, perhaps, the biggest challenge of all, as it is unlikely to be reversed, only lessened, and it influences the intensity of the other interlocked, death-bringing forces.

Exponential killings from the fisheries industry is, perhaps, the simplest yet most challenging to redirect.  Simple, because all it takes are changes in policy across the world.  Challenging, because commercial interests always supersede ecological demands.  In Canada, fishing regulations are almost nil to where they don’t know whether they’re overfishing or not.  In China, it took significant reduction in the Zhoushan Fishery for the government to respond.  Even with changes in policy, so long as commercial interests drive fishing and whaling for food, delicacy, cosmetics, traditional Chinese medicine, or what have you, marine organisms will always be under stress.

According to the report from IPSO, dead zones are spreading across the oceans

From NASA: Satellite images of dead zones in the deltas of three major rivers.

at a fast rate.  Dead zones are regions of the ocean with low oxygen levels.  They are naturally occurring, formed by an increase in nutrient-rich sediment pockets that congregate, particularly at deltas and on lake shores.  Algae and plankton are attracted to the sediment and thus form colonies that eventually suck up all the oxygen in that space, leaving it to where other organisms can no longer live there.  The problem is not that they exist, but that they are increasing in area and numbers.  Thanks to agricultural run-off (i.e., nitrogen-rich fertilizers, killer microbes, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, to name a few), sewage treatment, and increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, dead zones are more successful than coral reefs, which are on the brink of dying completely.

Credit for writing the death warrant for corals has been given to global warming.  According to Jeremy Hance’s article at mongabay.com,  a carbon sink study published in Nature stated that more than a quarter of carbon emissions have been sequestered by the ocean, but the ocean has reached a tilting point and cannot sequester anymore carbon.  The signs are apparent from coral reefs all around the world as they die from bleaching–a condition brought on by acidification.

Increased acidification has been set in successful motion courtesy of increase in CO2 gasses, according to Marlowe Hood’s AFP article on oceans in distress.  And with the continuous flux of pollution into the ocean, scientists project that marine organisms will be less resilient to global warming.  Sound familiar? (see plague analogy above)

Let’s assume that, like most living systems, marine ecosystems can eventually recover from this.  Over time, they can restore major food webs and continue to harbor the most biodiversity on Earth.  But it wouldn’t be within our species’s lifetime (probably not in any species’s lifetime), and who can say how significantly the Earth would change by then and how terrestrial and aquatic life would have to adapt.  Life would be so altered that Earth could become unrecognizable.

Facing Death, Restoring Life

But I don’t want to end on that daunting note.  It’s painful to witness what’s happening.  We are all contributing to the plight of marine life and yet we are not all equal in power to do much about it.  How can we accept that and still live with ourselves without deafening our healthy emotional responses to this trauma?  Are we truly helpless or is there something that we as voiced citizens can do about it?  What can we do in the face of this trauma?  Major ecosystem destruction and mass extinction are two forces that can be felt around the world.  Just by being part of this world, we are vulnerable to the pain of that tremendous loss.  Rather than ignoring and suppressing it, we have an opportunity to own up to that pain, share the world’s pain for our own, and act to alleviate it.  This makes the plight of marine life both global and personal.

As a systems thinker, I see this travesty as a positive feedback loop and the opportunity for caring humans to intervene.  We may be able to lessen the harm through policy reform and renewable energy, but they are merely bandages to greater problems.  I know this may sound simplistic and overly theoretical, but a change in values, from the humblest individual to bureaucratic governments, can go a long way.  Value the world as if life beyond humans matter.  Value our lives as if responsibility for our actions matter.  Value our utter vulnerable dependence on other living beings as if ecosystems matter.  As long as commercial interests trump the needs of living beings, as long as currency is valued over life, as long as we spend more time creating death around us and avoiding death in ourselves, global civilization will continue this positive feedback loop until it can’t.  But, then again, this may not be so terrible.  Perhaps it takes the death of our global way of life to restore our true selves in the biosphere.

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