An ecologist walking on the beach wonders, worries, and dreams of a better future
We’ve had no ice on the sound this winter, and this morning portends more warmth, well above freezing. By now, late January, the days are already noticeably longer and the light has changed. It’s a little stronger, a little brighter.
Though the beach is lovely, the air remains raw, with a damp south wind. The dark shape of my dog, Kenzie, is loping along far ahead, zigzagging the beach. The tide, already low, is still ebbing. Pebbles are mounded at the upper boundary of the wave wash; above them, near the swipe of highest tides, lies a line of slipper shells. Six decades ago, my neighbor J.P. tells me—and he’s got photos—this beach was all sand, no pebbly stretches. A generation ago, the beach was windrowed with jingle shells. Kids, hippies, and young mothers (some people seemed to be all three at once) liked to string them into little driftwood mobiles to hang in windows and breezeways. Now slipper shells reign. It never occurred to anyone that counting shells on a beach could be science, so there’s no data on how jingles have nearly vanished. Only the neighbors speak of it; only the neighbors know.
A large time-blackened oyster shell, newly uncovered by the collusion of wind and water, speaks of when they grew wild in abundance, and big. Every walk is a product of the present and a relic of the past. And on a very recent clamshell I recognize the perfect, tiny borehole of the predatory snail that was its assassin. Three round, translucent pebbles that catch my eye fit snugly across my palm—not that I need more pebbles. Then again, Isaac Newton himself said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Well, exactly. So I’ll grant myself the pretty stones.
The sound reflects both the light of morning and the calls of sea ducks. I cup my ears and hear the long-tailed ducks’ ah—oh-da-leep. Their call means it’s winter—and it means I’m home. When I’m on a different coast, long-tailed ducks often make me feel at home. Among the gifts of the sea is a wonderfully portable sense of place. Portable because one ocean washes all shores. Like these migrants themselves, my sense of home goes where they go.
Scanning with binoculars, I locate those elegantly streamered long-tails. The morning light is falling across their pied heads, putting a gleam on their whites and setting their pink bill tips aglow. I swivel my gaze across the water, past several common loons in their soft-gray winter pajamas. Red-breasted mergansers, heads war-bonneted with ragged crests, sit scattered across the sound. On the shore across the cut, three harbor seals are resting with their bodies gracefully bowed, heads and rear flippers up off the sand, air-cooling themselves.
Their beauty alone is inspiring. Each kind is a private invitation posted on an unlocked door. But what in the journey of their ancient lineage led one kind to develop a black-and-white head, another a cap of ragged plumes? That opens to a room bigger than human time. Step inside, and you can easily spend a life.
Mysteries notwithstanding, this daily morning walk is how I take the pulse of the place, and my own. It’s a good spot in which to wake up.
The sun here comes out of the sea and returns to the sea—a trick that’s hard to pull off if you don’t live on an island or some narrow bit of land with its neck stuck out. As Earth revolves around that disc of sun, you can watch dawn and sunset migrate across the horizon a little each day.
On a coast ruled by a wandering sun and 12 moons that pull the tides like the reins on a horse, a year means something. Seasonality here isn’t just a four-season, common-time march. The rhythm of the year here beats to the pulse of a perpetual series of migrations, rivers of life along the leading line of coast. Fishes and birds mainly, but also migrating butterflies, dragonflies, whales, sea turtles, even tree frogs and toads and salamanders, whose migrations take them merely from woodland to wetland and back. Each kind moves to its own drum. Getting tuned in to the migrants’ urgent energies turns “four seasons” into a much more complex idea of what life does, what life is, of where life begins and goes.
Time has been called an arrow, but here time’s directionality assumes the circularity of the sky, the ocean’s horizon-in-the-round. Circular time. This is perhaps time as an animal perceives it, each day replayed with all the major elements the same and every detail different. Neighborhood families raise children who bring forth their own, as do all creatures here, in an unbroken chain of being. It’s a pinwheel in which each petal creates the one behind it, goes once around and then falls, as all petals eventually do. Time and tide. Ebb and flow. Many a metaphor starts in water. As did life itself.
Life—Earth’s trademark enterprise—continually constructs itself as plants and algae capture energy from sunlight and use it to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar. Then they use the sugar they’ve created as fuel for turning soil nutrients into cells, and powering growth, reproduction, repair, and defense. Whether at sea or on land, plants, and countless trillions of single-celled algae drifting in the ocean, create the planet’s basic living matter. They’re the world’s “power plants.” Their exhaust gas is the oxygen that animals breathe. About half the oxygen we breathe—say, every other breath—comes from those single-celled ocean drifters. Basically all of life on Earth is the story of plants making and animals taking.
“Follow the money” explains a lot in politics and in nature, although nature’s currency is energy. Almost all of it comes streaming to the treasury in gold bars of sunlight (some deep-sea creatures also use volcanic energy from the seafloor). The natural economy is flowing energy. World history is not the story of politics, wars, ideologies, or religions. It’s the story of energy flow, beginning with a fraction of the sun’s radiance falling on a lifeless planet coated with water.
When an unusually fragile ape began using fire to harness the energy in plants it could not eat—such as wood—to initiate digestion (by cooking), ward off predators, and provide warmth, and when it learned that by assisting the reproduction of plants and animals it could garner more food, its radical new ability to channel energy flow changed the story of life on Earth.
Animals eat plants, so, ultimately, we are all grass, pretty much. Now, the astonishing thing is how much of the grass we are. Each time a plant of the land or coastal sea uses the sunlight’s energy to make a sugar molecule or add a cell, chances are about four out of ten that the cell will become food—or be eaten by an animal that will become food—for a human. In other words, we now take roughly 40 percent of the life that the land produces; we take a similar proportion of what the coastal seas produce. For one midsized creature that collectively weighs just half a percent of the animal mass on Earth, that is a staggering proportion. It redefines “dominion.” We dominate.
Maybe it’s time to redefine our goals. If the human population again doubles, as some project, could we commandeer 80 percent of life? More conservatively, the United Nations expects the population to grow to over 9 billion people by the middle of this century. That’s two more Chinas. We’d still probably have to expand agriculture onto new land, and that means using more water—but water supplies are shrinking. Since all growth depends on what plants make using sunlight, continuous growth of the human enterprise for more than a few decades may not be possible. By mid-century it would take about two planet Earths to provide enough to meet projected demand (add another half-Earth if everyone wants to live like Americans). In accounting terms, we’re running a deficit, eating into our principal, running down and liquidating our natural capital assets. Something’s getting ready to break.
Since 1970 populations of fishes, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds have declined about 30 percent worldwide. Species are going extinct about a thousand times faster than the geologically “recent” average; the last extinction wave this severe snuffed the dinosaurs. We’re pumping freshwater faster than rain falls, catching fish faster than they spawn. Roughly 40 percent of tropical coral reefs are rapidly deteriorating; none are considered safe. Forests are shrinking by about an acre per second. Compared to the day when 13 colonies on the sunrise side of a wilderness continent asserted independence as the United States, the planet’s atmosphere is quite different. Ozone: thinner. Carbon dioxide: denser by a third and concentrating further. Synthetic fertilizers have doubled the global nitrogen flow to living systems, washing down rivers and, since the 1970s, creating hundreds of oxygen-starved seafloor “dead zones.” Americans—only 5 percent of the world population—use roughly 30 percent of the world’s nonrenewable energy and minerals. The Convention on Biological Diversity aims—aimed—to protect the diversity of living things, but its own assessment says that “biodiversity is in decline at all levels and geographical scales,” a situation “likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”
As a new force of nature, humans are changing the world at rates and scales previously matched mainly by geological and cosmic forces like volcanoes, ice-age cycles, and comet strikes. That’s why everything from aardvarks to zooplankton are feeling their world shifting. As are many people, who don’t always know why.
I hope that someday, preferably this week, the enormity of what we’re risking will dawn on us. So far it hasn’t. True, without the environmental groups, much of the world would probably resemble the most polluted parts of Eastern Europe, South Asia, China. Then again, it does. Still, if not for Sisyphus’ efforts, the stone would merely stay at the bottom of the hill.
There are those for whom the dying of the world comes as unwelcome news. Many others seem less concerned. Yet maybe to have hope is to be hope. I hope life—I don’t mean day-to-day living; I mean Life, capital L: bacteria, bugs, birds, baleen whales, and ballerinas—I hope Life will find a way to hold on, keep its shape, persist, ride it out. And I hope we will find our way toward quelling the storm we have become.
We make our lives in a world not of our making. We feel in a world that does not feel. Yet it’s become a world in which our presence is felt.
What attitude might confront such a world? An attitude of curiosity, for the complex world? An attitude of admiration, for the beautiful world? An attitude of gratitude, for the improbable world? Of respect, for the elder world? Of awe, for the mystery? Of concern, for consequences? If these attitudes guide action, we may not always be certain which choice is right, but we may travel a path that is wise.
Early people, including writers of Scripture, saw in nature an awesome power that demanded respect or took retribution. The operating systems people invented to organize themselves into the defensive circle called civilization originated when we were tribes in the wilderness. Since then, of course, our knowledge-acquisition skills have exploded. Science and medicine change at the rate of discovery; look how far they’ve come at such an accelerating pace. You’d think our religious, moral, and economic institutions would limber up in the face of so much that’s new. But they remain dogmatic, remarkably stuck. Some are just old; others, ancient. Maybe we should have noticed that their “use by” date expired centuries ago.
So, we’re navigating a changing world with concepts that aren’t up to the task, concepts that lack—or reject—modern comprehension of the world.
Consequently, most of civilization remains uninformed about the two great realities of our existence: All life is family, and the world is finite. That is why we keep making choices that threaten our own monetary economy, the economy of nature, and the economy of time; otherwise known as the future of the world. What I’m saying, basically, is that in very consequential ways, our modes of conduct are so out of sync with reality that they’re essentially irrational.
Yet maybe we need just a little more time to catch up. After all, only in the last few decades have we understood anything, really, about how the world actually works. Only since the late 1800s—and mostly since the 1900s—have we understood that all living things are related by ancestry and that sunlight powers life; that things like carbon, water, nitrogen, and nutrients flow in cycles through living systems; and a little of why plants and animals live where they do. We’ve learned that we can eliminate the most abundant herds and birds, and the fishes of even the deepest haunts; take groundwater out faster than it goes in; change the composition of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the ocean. Svante Arrhenius’ 1906 claim that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide could intensify the greenhouse effect and warm the planet—which he believed would be beneficial—was widely dismissed until about 1960 (and not widely accepted until after the new millennium). Starting just in the mid-20th century, we’ve created chemicals and plastics and nuclear material that will affect living things for centuries.
I hope humanity survives and civilization develops. Just as we look back on the Dark Ages and shudder, people will look back at our time as dirty, crowded, superstitious, dangerous, and primitive. To get onward, we’d need to replace the no-accounting, throwaway, boomeranging, soot-powered economy with a clean, renewable, no-waste, recycling economy. We thank the thinkers and martyrs who gave their lives for Reason, that we might step into a few rays of sunshine. If our children, and most of our nonhuman co-voyagers, can get through the troubles of our time, there will be a brighter day. We can describe and measure what is needed, and show it in graphs and tables. The information is there. We don’t lack information. We lack a new ethical relationship—and the new inspiration that is waiting.
Health, peace, humanity, creativity, life’s grand and thriving journey, its epic enterprise, the miracles that float us, shimmering: These constitute the realm of the sacred. In this realm, the market analyst and the head of state find themselves beneath and behind the child, whose world and adventure it will be. And if, in an attempt to explain how simple it is to arrive at this realization, we must provide some translation harking back to the primitive clutch of market economics, we can say that things have no price and but two values, right and wrong.
The values, called ethics, acted on as morals, answer the age-old question “How ought we live?” No small matter, indeed. We are not just consumers but citizens, not just citizens but members of a living family, miracles of evolution, manifestations of the awesome mystery of creation, singularly able to perceive and consider the universe, our place in it, and our role. Our goal as human beings can be to elevate what is uniquely human; to see that meaning lies in relationships, that satisfaction comes from serving, that the creature who alone can consider and affect the future must alone maintain it; that science and all ethical, moral, and religious traditions that have come this far have converged in agreement: The place is ours to use but not ours to lose. All such traditions say we serve each other, the creation, and our children.
Why don’t we? Can we? When will we?
Carl Safina—winner of the Pew, MacArthur, and Guggenheim fellowships—is an ecologist, marine conservationist, and president of Blue Ocean Institute, which mines science, art, and literature to inspire environmental solutions. Excerpted from The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, published in January by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Carl Safina. All rights reserved.
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.