Monday, April 25, 2011

“Modern Times” Really Akin to the “Dark Ages”

Contributed by Sherwood Ross

Humans may believe we live in enlightened times but future historians, (if there are any) will look back at our era as “dirty, crowded, superstitious, dangerous, and primitive” as the Dark Ages, ecologist Carl Safina, president of Blue Ocean Institute, says.

To avert imminent catastrophe, he calls for replacing “the no-accounting, throwaway, boomeranging, soot-powered economy with a clean, renewable, no-waste, recycling economy.”

“In accounting terms,” he points out in an article published in the May-June Utne Reader, “we're running a deficit, eating into our principal, running down and liquidating our natural capital assets. Something's getting ready to break.”

Safina---a marine conservationist and recipient of Pew, MacArthur, and Guggenheim fellowships---says, “I hope humanity survives” yet warns that “Since 1970 populations of fishes, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds have declined about 30 percent worldwide.” He notes, “Species are going extinct about a thousand times faster than the geologically 'recent' average; the last extinction wave this severe snuffed the dinosaurs.”

Humans are devouring 40 percent of the life that Earth's land produces and “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.”

As the UN estimates Earth's human population will exceed 9 billion people by mid-century, Safina sees trouble ahead sustaining a growth equivalent to “two more Chinas.” He explains, “We'd still probably have to expand agriculture onto new land, and that means using more water” when water supplies are drying up. “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.”) While Americans comprise just five per cent of the world's population, they use roughly 30 percent of the world's nonrenewable energy and minerals.

Safina warns, “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 era of America's founding, ozone is thinner and carbon dioxide denser by a third; 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.'”

“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,” Safina writes.

“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.”

As humanity pushes the planet toward destruction, it is incredible that half of all the taxes collected from the American people---who are principal players in this rush---are used for warfare rather than to rebuild and rejuvenate the planet they are ravaging.

The Blue Ocean Institute is located in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and works to restore living abundance in the ocean.

(Sherwood Ross is a publicist “for good causes” who formerly worked as a reporter for major dailies and as a columnist for wire services. To comment or contribute reach him at

Carl Safina / Conservationist
By Elise D'Haene

It is apt that Carl Safina is being featured in our "Who's Here" column. One could say that Safina is more immersed in the "here" of this long spit of land surrounded by water than most. A prominent ecologist, marine conservationist and award-winning author, Safina, to his core, has always been "a minnow-chasing boy." He remembers his childhood time spent fishing for bass with his father in the Long Island Sound. He has memories of walking out into the shallows with a butterfly net to catch minnows. He vividly recalls the day his mother led him through tall sea grass to where gulls were nesting so he could see their brown, speckled eggs amid a flurry of swooping and screaming birds.

All of these experiences were indelibly etched into Safina's evolving identity. For decades he has been coming to Montauk to fish. Eventually he bought a weather-beaten, dilapidated cottage on Lazy Point. He had no idea at the time that this place would become the central character in his latest book The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. He had entertained the concept before moving here of writing a "place-based book," and soon discovered that "Lazy Point was a rich, rich place-perfect actually-for doing such a book." It is right on the flyway, a flight path for migrating birds and fish-two other central characters in Safina's life. "And a big part of it," he said, "is that the big sky and wide horizons here make some of the migrations-especially the seabirds-more visible."

"But if you have your eyes open, you can see the whole world from wherever you're based," Safina added, and meant what he said, as he has spent his life traveling, "seeing the whole world" from vantage points as far flung as the Arctic to Antarctica and across the tropics. These are the places that Safina also explores in his book, offering the micro and macro of seasons, the ocean, global warming, conservation, and the human heart.

Born into a middle-class Italian-American family in Brooklyn, his family moved to Syosset when he was 10. His father was a teacher. And it is clear that both parents instilled in him a deep curiosity about the natural world. He put himself through college by playing drums, attending the State University of New York at Purchase and receiving a Master of Science and Ph.D. degree in ecology at Rutgers University. In 2000, he received a MacArthur genius grant.

Safina, who has been called an "ecologist with the soul of a poet," is the president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, an environmental organization that works to inspire among humans a closer relationship to the sea and its inhabitants. His other books include Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas, Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival, Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur and Nina Delmar: The Great Whale Rescue. His next, A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout, which comes out next month, deconstructs the series of calamities that led to this manmade disaster and reviews the consequences of the blowout, including problems that have largely been overlooked.

Also in April, PBS will air "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina." He said that "rather than being a gloomy show about problems, it's about people who have solutions. Every episode will profile a person or group working to make something better, from scientists to African Muslims who find in the Koran inspiration for protecting their coral reefs. It's a different kind of show."

His research, work and personal life always leads him back to the fascination he had with the ocean of his youth. "We are, in a sense, soft vessels of seawater. Seventy percent of our bodies is water, the same percentage that covers Earth's surface. We are wrapped around an ocean within," he has said. And even though "the collective weight of humanity may rest on land," he writes, "we levy heavy pressure on the sea."

As described by Safina, a simple walk on the beach with his dog Kenzie at Lazy Point is a ritual to being present to the natural world. The book covers 12 months of these walks on which the cacophony of migrating species-coming and going, thriving and dying-continues to do what they've done for eons throughout the seasons. "Every walk is a product of the present and a relic of the past," he writes.

Lazy Point, he said, "is a good spot in which to wake up." He lives with his partner, Patricia Paladines who works for the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, and her daughter Alexandra. They have several pets, including Kenzie the dog, a king snake, a rose-haired tarantula, a rabbit, and a goldfish. Like his work, Safina's leisure activities take him outdoors; besides fishing, he enjoys snorkeling, scuba diving, clamming, kayaking, and bird watching.

Despite the seemingly endless stream of bad news concerning our environment and the role that our species has in causing significant damage to it, Safina's hope has been buoyed by the knowledge that when people back off of the pressures that kill wildlife, wildlife tends to recover, like the once-rare falcons and ospreys on the East End and the resurgence of striped bass.

"I sometimes tell friends it's possible to see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point," Safina writes. "In the circle of a year you may see around here everything ranging from Arctic seals whose summer home is Canadian pack ice to tropical reef fishes that have ridden up from the Caribbean in flickering tongues of warm water."

The message of his book is a message about survival-ours, the planet and the creatures that call this place home, too. Among the obstacles in our way, he said, is "a major disinformation campaign being waged by the forces that cause some of the problems, like the fossil fuel industry," and our institutions-the economy, Western philosophy, and our religions-institutions that form "our identity, how we value things, and how we do business. And they're all centuries or millennia old. They are all from a time when humanity was small and the world was large, and they reflect how people understood the world when they didn't understand the world at all," he said.

"Compared to the possible oceans of improvements, humanity is still dog-paddling in the shallow end of the kiddie pool. Sometimes we seem determined to drown there just because we won't stand up," he writes.

We have a choice, Safina said. Compassion. He believes widening our "circle of compassion" from beyond our species to include all of nature is the solution. Every morning Safina walks along the beaches of Lazy Point watching the creatures there striving mightily for survival. And every day his vocation is dedicated to teaching humans to do the same, to find our compassion, the compass that will show us the right direction.

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