Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

The World Is Blue
How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One
National Geographic, $15.95 paper
ISBN 978-1-4262-0639-9

World Without Fish
Workman Publishing, $16.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-7611-5607-9

Let Them Eat Shrimp
The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea
Island Press, $25.95 cloth
ISBN 978-1-59726-683-3

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, . . . the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. —Albert Camus, The Plague

Since long before the Industrial Revolution, we humans have generally assumed the world, our planet, to be a horn of plenty that can never be exhausted, endangered, or despoiled by anything other than natural (or preternatural) forces. This attitude helped formulate what we in Western cultures have believed for centuries, writ large in the Judeo-Christian holy books. While we have seldom acknowledged that our own exploits might be fraught with irreversible error, we came quickly to expect the occasional natural disaster—a hurricane, tornado, a drought the size of the Dust Bowl, a tsunami, an avalanche, a devastating flood, etc.—and perhaps even the purposeful destruction of the world as imagined in biblical terms by an angry god, as the only inevitabilities that lie in the path of our survival. Within the context of this assumption, a dangerous mythos has formed that goes something like this: Because the Creator has placed humankind at the center of worldly importance, and at the top of the food chain, He/She/It has favored us above all other creatures of the earth, and will, if we are “good”, supply us with an inexhaustible plenitude of all that we require to maintain our lives forever and forever until the “end of days.” We bear the responsibility only of being “good” and exercising our mandate to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Though this is a prelapsarian determination of the status of humankind, it persists among Christian, Muslim, and other Judaic cultures especially, though many other creation myths bear the same assumptions about humanity’s exalted status, unto the present day.
Running counter to this mythos are the lessons of science, particularly those that derive from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which not only challenge creationism but also delve deeply into how life on earth actually transpires and set forth sound natural laws, derived through observation, applicable to the interdependent survival of all that we know to be carbon-based life forms—mammals, fish, birds, plants, us, et al. Throughout the two centuries since Darwin’s discoveries, however, we have continued to live our industrious lives as a grand opportunity to more efficiently harvest and utilize in countless ways the material prosperity that is part and parcel of our semi-divine birthright, all the while ignoring and even scorning the dictums of Darwin. We have also procreated and procreated, as our biblical mandate has set forth, so as to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). During much of this process, we have seldom also recognized ourselves as stewards of the earth and its resources; we have largely ignored the possibility that we ourselves—overcome by greed, arrogance, need, and a habituated loss of what the poet John Milton called “right reason”—could put an end to our plenitude, befoul our own nest, and render the bounty of the earth into a toxic wasteland. The books under review here, and many others besides, seek to restore our sensibilities and help us avert such a self-made apocalypse. They focus principally on the current state of the oceans of the world, without whose healthy waters of life we will certainly perish, and bear witness to their rapid deterioration.
The best overview of our present predicament lies within the pages of Sylvia Earle’s The World Is Blue, who views the fabric of planetary life as an interlocking matrix of essential elements and life forms that make life on Earth suitable for human existence. But her focus is on the vitality of the oceans, wherein, as she says, “Water—the blue—is the key to life. With it, anything is possible; without it, life does not exist. Those seeking life elsewhere in the universe focus first on this: Find the water.” [p. 15] Certainly anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the earth sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, geology, etc.—can easily confirm this dictum, but what Earle wants to ask is, Who’s listening? Who cares? “Knowing is the key to caring,” she avers, “and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions.” [p. 256] And Earle—the recipient of 19 honorary doctorates—is the consummate teacher; her credentials as an oceanic scientist are beyond reproach, and as she makes clear throughout this book, they stem from a profound lifelong love affair and physical interaction with the ocean itself.
Earle makes it crystal clear that what we once regarded as an inexhaustible resource is quickly becoming a dying sea, and that this accelerating deterioration is due largely to human activities, from overfishing to pollution to climate change. The statistics over the last 60 years are staggering:

• Since the middle of the 20th century, hundreds of millions of tons of ocean wildlife have been removed from the sea, while hundreds of millions of tons of wastes have been poured into it.
• Ninety percent of many once common fish have been extracted since the 1950s; 95 percent of some species, including bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, American eel, and certain sharks have been killed. . . .
• Every year industrial fishing wantonly kills thousands of marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles and hundreds of millions of fish and invertebrate animals [that are simply discarded as bycatch].
• Half of the shallow coral reefs globally are gone or are in a state of serious decline since the 1950s; in much of the Caribbean, 80 percent are dead. . . .
• The ocean’s pH—the measure of alkalinity or acidity—is changing owing to increased [anthropogenic] CO2, that in turn becomes carbonic acid [a known threat to most all forms of oceanic life]. [p.19]

We could add to this list the fact that over 70 million sharks are killed each year to support the shark fin trade in China (shark fin soup for everyone! says Chairman Hu Jintao), and over 3 million whales were killed during the 20th century by Norway, Japan, the USSR, and the United Kingdom. “The question is,” Earle goes on, “what can we do to take care of the blue world that takes care of us?” [p.20]
Roughly 70 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere (and in our lungs) is supplied by ocean-dwelling photosythesizers—notably microscopic bacteria and other phytoplankton equipped with chlorophyll that convert the sun’s energy, in combination with carbon dioxide and water, into oxygen, just as terrestrial plants do. Phytoplankton also serve as the basic food source for hatchlings and several small species of fish called copepods (krill) or menhaden (sardines, anchovies, herring), which in turn provide food for ever larger and larger fish all the way up the ocean food chain. Thus phytoplankton, and the small creatures that feed on them, are what biologists call “keystone species,” for without them there would be no ocean-dwelling creatures at all, so far as we know.
Humans, by eating our way down the ocean food chain, are accomplishing the same end, except in reverse. Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish is a history of fishing and fisherman; he was once a fisherman himself, and has a deep understanding of the problems engendered by overfishing, coupled with a delightful youth-oriented writing style that captivates without a lot of scientific jargon getting in the way. Graphically interesting font styles, interspersed with one-page segments of a graphic novel that introduce each chapter, lend accessibility to the essential scenario of oceanic collapse.
Relying on Darwin, not dogma, Kurlansky introduces simple scientific concepts to show how the survival of ocean species depend first of all on biodiversity—“The greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification” (Darwin). [p. xix] As fishermen, especially since the invention in the 1880s of large factory ships that trawl and dredge the ocean bottom with huge nets, began to catch more and more of the larger fish that humans prefer to eat—tuna, cod, halibut, flounder, swordfish, grouper, salmon, etc.—“fishermen were able to hunt down every last fish in a dying population without realizing that it was dying.” [p. 74] For example, cod virtually disappeared from the Grand Banks in 1992, where they had flourished for centuries, and have not recovered to this day, illustrating another Darwinian precept: “Rarity [of any species] . . . is the precursor to extinction” [p. 63]
The sudden appearance of orange roughy in fishermen’s nets in the 1970s, and its equally sudden disappearance in the 1990s, illustrates another of many problems with deepwater fishing. At first, roughy became so fashionable to diners in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (among others) that demand grew and commercial fishermen responded accordingly, without knowing one crucial thing: orange roughy can live approximately 150 years, and don’t reproduce until they are 20 years old. Because they were being caught extravagantly before they could reproduce, this species is no longer available.
Which leads Kurlansky to yet another common misconception that has survived among fisheries scientists for centuries: “that it was impossible to catch too many fish because fish produced so many eggs,” as many as 3 million per fish among cod, for example. [p.53] “Only recently,” writes Kurlansky, “has science come to understand [as Darwin did] that a fish will usually only have between one and six surviving babies, just like a mammal or a bird.” [p. 55] In short, Kurlansky concludes that by overfishing—abetted by warming seas and, with the melting of the polar icecaps, declining salinity and increasing acidity in the world’s oceans—we “have upset nature’s balance [and] it becomes extremely complicated to put it right again.” [p. 148] If these destructive trends are not reversed, and soon, Kurlansky predicts that the world’s oceans’ ecosystems will collapse within 50 years, leaving only species such as reddish-orange algae, jellyfish, and certain bacteria that don’t need oxygen to survive.
Both Earle and Kurlansky imagine that sustainably raised and harvested land-based fisheries, i.e., human-run enterprises in aquaculture, might take enough pressure off our overfished oceans to allow open-water species to recover over the coming decades. Indeed, the idea and practice of aquaculture has caught fire since the 1970s in many nations around the globe, but there are grave problems associated with many of these operations that further threaten the complex integrity of the seas. In Let Them Eat Shrimp, veteran journalist and mangrove ecologist Kennedy Warne takes us on a worldwide journey into the mangrove forests, which he calls the “rainforests of the sea,” that are being widely decimated by aquaculture ventures and land developers. A native New Zealander, Warne developed an early fascination with the relationships between mangroves and the margins of the sea in which they thrive, introducing us along the way to the thousands of local people whose main sources of survival depend on a reverent reliance on mangrove environs.
From Bimini to Florida to Belize to Panama, to Equador and Brazil, and then on to Malaysia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Eritrea, and Tanzania, Warne’s picaresque inquiries into the fate of various mangrove populations lead him to almost every exemplary locale. Here’s what he discovered, in a nutshell, and why his arguments against mangrove deforestation make sense, vis-à-vis those for aquaculture and resort development. First and foremost, aquaculture projects most of often involve ocean-side sites that include ancient mangrove forest that must be simply bulldozed up to allow shrimp-farm ponds, for example, access to the tidal waters they occupy. This practice has traditionally gone on for decades without any environmental study into the true value of mangrove forests and the coastal populations they serve, not to mention their value to the ocean waters they have their roots in.
So what exactly is their value, calculated not only in economic terms but also in human and ecological terms? Warne’s extensive research divines the following answers: (1) as plants, “they consume carbon dioxide, release oxygen, and create carbohydrates during photosynthesis,” just as the great rainforests of the world do; (2) “they form soil, store and sequester carbon, and cycle water and nutrients through the ecosystem”; (3) “they act as biofilters, controlling nutrient [and toxic] runoff from the land and maintaining the quality of coastal waters on which other ecosystems such as coral reefs depend”; (4) “they are key suppliers of organic carbon to the oceans, drip-feeding a source of primary productivity to marine food webs”; (5) “they provide nursery habitats and havens for marine organisms” that later migrate into open waters (up to 90 percent of commercial fish species), “and nesting and roosting space for birds”; and (6) “they are a source of pollen and nectar for bees, and a source of fodder for browsing herbivores.” [pp. 149-150]
Thus a 100-hectare (250-acre) shrimp farm constructed by clearing mangroves incurs an annual environmental deficit of $1 million—a cost that, if it were included in the price of the product, would take farmed shrimp off the fast-food menu. . . . Since the Industrial Revolution—the commencement of the era of carbon profligacy—developed nations have racked up a huge debt with one particular ecosystem service: carbon dioxide storage in atmosphere and ocean. Now that bill is being collected. [p.150]

In addition, citing a study in the Gulf of California on only the value of mangrove forests to marine fisheries, we might add another $15,000 per acre per year just for “fish-related services,” putting the annual total value of an acre of mangrove forest at $19,000, which is over “600 times the value that the Mexican government places on mangrove land.” [p. 151] And still we have not yet included the cost of human suffering by the displacement and/or impoverishment of coastal dwellers through the ruination of their ancestral homes.
We are all familiar with the “inconvenient truth” of anthropogenic global warming and the many reasons behind it. Whether we believe it or not is a matter of personal responsibility, and if ignorance is our bliss we will refuse to even consider that it might be true, and this plague will continue until we perish of it. If instead we choose to do what we can to mitigate the effects of carbon dioxide in our air and oceans, we will listen to the science and the advice of scientists and other researchers, we will read all we can about it, we will petition our government about it, we will seek out new sources of energy for our homes and cars, we will eat sustainably raised or caught seafood (I was recently gratified to learn that Whole Foods, for instance, has a highly responsible rating list for its offerings of both farm-raised—no mangrove destruction allowed—and wild-caught seafood), and we will refuse to add any toxic waste to our rivers and public water systems. There are long lists of changes we can and must make, available in the books above, along with equally long lists of what will most certainly happen to our planet if we continue on our present course. The earth’s ecosystems will naturally recover over time, with or without our help. The question is, do homo sapiens want to be here when it happens.
To borrow a quote from Earle’s book, “Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, has declared”:

For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands, for humans to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air and its life with poisonous substances, these are sins. [no citation listed]

One hopes that such sentiments from this so-called “Green Pope” will help close the divide between science and religion when it comes to the salvation of our planet from human folly.

REVIEWER: Scott Vickers lives in Denver. He took up scuba diving in 1992; since then he has logged over 700 dives, and over those 20 years has noted some disturbing changes among the reef systems of the Caribbean. He would without hesitation call his intimate relationship with the oceans vital to his own existence.
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