This article was published in Italian on 23 June 2011 on the website of “Il Fatto Quotidiano”
A group of leading experts in marine conservation met in London last April to take stock of the condition of the oceans, and days ago a report with their conclusions hit the world’s media. Not much to be rejoicing about, really, although the depressing picture which emerged from the workshop is certainly not a surprise. The oceans’ waters are getting warmer, their acidity is increasing, hypoxic and anoxic zones are expanding. The speed of phenomena often matches the worst case scenario foreseen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and some times it is even worse.
The cumulative effects of the various impacts are greater than expected, while the timelines for action are shrinking. Furthermore, the oceans’ resilience to the effects of climate change is hampered by other types of pressures such as overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. In short, many ecosystems are near collapse, and the number of species threatened with extinction keeps increasing. The loss of biodiversity, until now largely confined to local scales, is becoming global; within a single generation we risk losing entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs. “Unless action is taken now – concludes the report – the consequences of our activities area at a high risk of causing [ … ] the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean”. Such extinction is caused solely by human action; it is not by chance that the era in which we live has been named Anthropocene.
The most urgent comment to offer in the face of such an expected disaster is that it affects us all greatly. Demolishing ecosystems is no trivial matter, particularly marine ecosystems that provide essential services to humankind, such as the production of oxygen and nutrients, water depuration, maintenance of hydrological balance, absorption of atmospheric CO2; and we know that biodiversity is essential for the proper functioning of ecosystems. Furthermore, oceans are not solely providers of services of fundamental importance to humans; they do much more than that. The seas are a powerful source of inspiration, of awe, and attraction for humankind. The seas move us to compose music and write poetry; they make us dream and conjure us to fall in love. All these feelings become impossible when facing a rotting and lifeless puddle, no matter how large it is.
The explanation of why we are rushing towards disaster like passengers of a train without a driver resides in the realm of social and political sciences rather than in that of ecology. A key component of this malaise resides in the divorce from the natural world that has progressively developed within the most cultured layers of modern societies, which also affects many of those who read blogs. These people thrive within a super-protected bubble which is totally cut-off from the universe, and for this reason they are misled into thinking that their bubble is the universe. When a tsunami hits, it destroys the bubble and reduces its unwitting inhabitants to pulp.
To be clear, this warning against the effects of a clear absence of adequate environmental policy plaguing humankind is not equivalent to a prophecy of doom. The Cassandras have never been endearing characters. I remember well the sense of annoyance that the unlucky Trojan princess elicited, when reading Homer in my school days: “stop whining – I almost wanted to tell her – do something instead”. The poor girl couldn’t do much, really, since the destruction of her world was ineluctable. Herein lies the difference. In our case there still is time for action, but if we want to succeed we need clear, determined and effective political will. Alas, there is still no sign of such political will above the horizon.