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Our oceans are dying

When even a mainstream magazine such as TIME highlights the fact that the world’s oceans are in imminent peril, alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear. In Jeffrey Kluger’s short, but punchy article, “Troubled Waters” (TIME, February 2, 2015, pp 12-13) the central photograph says as much, if not more than, his prose.

This picture shows the corpses (they are relatives of human beings; hence I cannot refer to “carcasses”) of some of twenty-five pilot whales that beached themselves on an island near Florida in the United States. The caption (under-)states: “Sickness related to environmental problems can trigger beachings, which are on the rise.”

Kluger (p 13) lists some of the perils (or symptoms of these) besetting the planet’s oceans and their inhabitants: Rising temperatures, coral-reef decline, habitat loss, seafloor scraping, fish migration and seabed mining. Of these the one that strikes me as being most symptomatic of humanity’s egregious, self-centred destruction of planetary ecosystems is seafloor scraping, which Kluger describes like this: “Bottom-trawling nets, which scrape up anything in their path in pursuit of fish, have left their mark on 20 million square miles (52 million square kilometres) of seafloor.” If this is not tantamount to raping the oceans, I don’t know what is.

Not surprisingly, another sign of the oceans’ demise is habitat loss (p 13): “The sicker the oceans get, the more their habitable regions vanish. Loss of aquatic habitat is mirroring the earlier pattern on land, which began with the Industrial Revolution and continues today.” “Fish migration” is directly related to this: “Fish flee existing habitats in search of better ones. Atlantic sea bass, for example, are migrating north to cooler waters – but the heat will chase them there.” Humans should take note of this and develop some empathy with the creatures of the seas – the fish are no different from us, their cousins in terms of the genetic architecture of life. We would do the same if our habitat was under threat.

As mentioned above, other threats listed by Kluger (p 13) include the familiar information, that sea temperatures, like those on land, are rising, something which, together with the oceans’ increasing acidification, has a deleterious effect on coral reefs and the creatures that inhabit them. In certain parts of the seas coral reefs have degenerated by as much as 40%.

Just how resource hungry the currently dominant economic system is, is reflected in the news that, in the last 15 years, seabed mining has increased to the point where an area of 460000 square miles or 1.2 million square kilometres of the floor of the oceans is currently being mined under contract by mining companies. It is telling that Kluger refers to this as “exploitation” of the resources found on the seabed.

What I find puzzling is the fact that one perceives no sign of any awareness on the part of companies engaged in operations that are damaging the oceans or their inhabitants that they are busy exploiting finite resources. Or rather, that they are damaging the finite, irreplaceable habitat, and therefore the lives of millions of living creatures.

Of the three studies that have recently brought these troubling oceanic conditions to light, the one that appeared in the journal Science seems to me to state things in the most suitably drastic terms. In Kluger’s (p 12) words, it “ … warned that worldwide, the oceans are facing ‘a major extinction event’. Coral reefs are dying, fish stocks are collapsing, seas are acidifying, and surviving species are migrating to cleaner, cooler waters wherever they can find them”.

Another reputable journal, Nature, reported that the rate at which sea-levels are rising has been at least 25% more rapid than what was previously believed. Because in most parts of the world this has not become directly visible, the vast majority of people would probably fall for the conservative capitalist lobby, that climate change is a hoax and there is nothing to fear. But studies such as this one make it abundantly clear that the rise in sea levels, caused by polar ice melting – itself the result of steadily rising temperatures worldwide – can and will affect the integrity of coastlines across the world.

Lastly, a recent joint report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Nasa has indicated that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. Since 1880, nine of the 10 hottest years occurred in the 2000s, and the 10th was in 1998. All three studies throw the spotlight on the dismal state of the world’s oceans, as well as on the significant causal role that humans are playing in this. Kluger sums it up with a striking understatement (p 12): “The oceans were here for 3.8 billion years before humans arrived. It has not, alas, taken us nearly as long to make a mess of them.”

What really struck me in this short, but significant article was Kluger’s remark, that habitat loss on land commenced with the Industrial Revolution – an event that many people would, I imagine, see as being symbolic of the modern continuation of humanity’s supposedly laudable Promethean quest for technological control over nature. This quest has not, to say the least, turned out so well, and not only for nature. Anyone who believes that what happens to nature in the long run is somehow unrelated to what happens to human beings, is simply uninformed.

In this respect even the magnificent recent film by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, gets it wrong, in my humble opinion. In the film the scientist (Michael Caine) responsible for planning a space exploration to be led by the main character and space pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), responds to the latter’s (sensible) observation, that “the earth is our home”, by telling him that humans were not meant to stay on earth (which has become an inhospitable environment), but that they were “meant to leave the earth”.

This is fine in a fiction film where the characters cryptically refer to “they” and “them”, who have been making contact with humans, and who eventually bring Cooper face to face with everything that has happened and will happen in his daughter’s bedroom in a confrontation with this familiar space presented to him by “them” in multi-temporal dimensions. This is indispensable for Cooper to communicate with Murphy, his daughter (who becomes a renowned physicist while Cooper is away from earth for decades, looking for habitable worlds), to perfect the mathematical formula that would make the escape of humans from earth into deep space a viable option.

I don’t believe humanity will be that lucky when it comes to jumping the ship that it has, by its own stupid cleverness, damaged so badly that it may actually reach the point where it is no longer suitable for its passengers to stay on with impunity. Forgive the oxymoron, “stupid cleverness”; the ambiguous Afrikaans word for humanity, “mensdom”, which also suggests “dom mense”, or “dumb people”, says it more eloquently.

In retrospect the 18th century artist who painted manifestations of the Industrial Revolution, such as experiments with birds where an air pump deprives them of air (shown in one of his best known paintings), Joseph Wright of Derby, may be seen as having hinted at worse things to come. He appears to have been clairvoyant, to say the least.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.