The Age of Breathing Underwater

Environmentalists have long struggled to save Nature from humanity’s negligence — and still we’ve reached the brink of catastrophe. How can we learn to thrive in the climate we’ve created? The answer begins beneath the sea…

Were this a traditional environmental narrative in the Thoreauvian vein, now would be the part of the story where I would shift summarily to lamentation. The tragedy is obvious, its scope impossibly huge, the loss beyond measure. But we have enough laments. More than our share. I wonder, actually, if it isn’t the lamenting itself that led us here, at least in part.

Paul Crutzen traces the birth of the Anthropocene to the invention of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century, and modern environmentalism was born in that kettle as well. Thoreau’s legendary trip to the wilderness of Walden was, after all, a reaction against all that the steam engine had wrought. For 150 years thereafter, an elaborate and often achingly lovely philosophy of the purpose of the human experiment held sway in green-minded circles, predicated on Thoreau’s recommendation “to front only the essential facts of life,” to go to the woods and “live deliberately.” To become in some sense part of the woods, indistinguishable in action and impact from a fish or a frog or a fly. Finding a place of eternal harmony with Nature — ideally one sufficiently pristine to be worthy of Romanticism’s awed capitalization of the word — became the goal of the environmental movement. The earth thrived in an exquisite equilibrium, and the enlightened seeker sought to find a human place within it.

If, however, that equilibrium is permanently altered and transmuting as never before, what do we even mean by “harmony”? What does it mean, moreover, when we know that this new order — whether we choose to call it Anthropocene or simply acknowledge its complete lack of historical precedent — was wrought in large measure by human hands? What is the proper goal of an Anthropocene conservation effort? How do we go about being sensitive to an Anthropocene ecology? What, in short, does it mean to be human in an ecological order of our own design?

I can’t answer any of these questions definitively. These are early days, in turbulent weather. All new regimes are for now provisional by necessity. But I think I know where we should start. We need a new kind of story, a new template for our ecological philosophy — one that acknowledges what we have lost and the emerging limits of what can be saved, but does not lament. To borrow the terminology of the linguist George Lakoff, we must first change the frame.

The weight of a story is not just the sum of its details but also — maybe even primarily — a function of its structure, the way its plot points and archetypes map onto the ur-narratives (classical, Biblical, market triumphalist, what have you) that are deeply etched into our collective consciousness. A lament is by its nature nostalgic, downbeat, defeatist. It is predicated on a loss presumed to be absolute. Adventure stories, on the other hand — heroic narratives of victory against impossible odds in heretofore uncharted realms — these are the tools of transformative myth. This is what we need: a new myth of the frontier.

We are headed somewhere unknown, somewhere surely dangerous but also perhaps blessed with unexpected beauty. The terrain will be at least partially alien, the logic and rules of the place governed by inversions and seeming perversions of the natural order we’ve always known. Some of the tools we’ll need to traverse this new landscape safely may at first appear unfamiliar, unwieldy, inconvenient. We may only comprehend their vital necessity once we’ve taken the plunge into this tumultuous sea. But we will learn to thrive. Feel exhilaration in the place of anxiety and lament. We will all learn to breathe underwater.

glenogle, british columbia / 51°18’ n, 116°49’ w /
trans-canada highway, eastbound / august 2008

In terms of mythic import and sheer physical presence, the Rocky Mountains are as close a Canadian analogue as you’ll find to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and they cast my little Honda in deep shadow as I drive east out of Golden toward the Alberta border. There’s a new four-lane bridge over the Kicking Horse River a little way east of town, a staggering feat of modern engineering that has to be the tallest structure in the Canadian Rockies. Just on the far side of it, I find myself staring straight at a towering wall of rock covered in the rust-coloured skeletons of pine trees. The devastation on this slope appears total; the entire mountain face is a carpet of eerie orange-red. Around the next bend, the vast green blanket of forest is marred by blotches of the same sickly rust, as if stricken by some exotic rash or pox.

I can remember driving this stretch of highway only five years ago, and the green of the pines was everywhere and eternal, muted only by the winter snow. The mountain pine beetle, its population no longer sufficiently culled by winter cold to protect these forests from its wrath, has taken an Anthropocene toll so ruinous and rapidly exacted it’s almost monumental. It could paralyze you to stare at it too long. You might decide there’s not much more to be done, really, besides compose another lament.

Better not to dwell on it. But look just long enough, if you’re still unconvinced, to recognize that this is not a regional conservation issue, not a problem limited to places of abundant coral life. Look just long enough — it shouldn’t take more than a moment — to know in your bones that this is about much more than the quality of the scenery on your next vacation. That this, too, is the exotic undersea world where we must make our home. Look just that long. And then check the gauge on your tank, bite down hard on the mouthpiece, breathe slowly and steadily through your regulator, and carry on. If you linger too long, you could drown.

This is the scarred Canadian face of the problem, and it’s a particularly tidy irony that some of the planet’s most visible evidence of its proximate cause is embedded in the mountain rock just a little way farther east down the Trans-Canada. I crane my neck a bit to watch for mottled striations midway up the bare slopes of exposed rock — telltale evidence of the verdant tropical reefs that thrived here hundreds of millions of years ago.

Just before the border, I spy one particularly notable example, a rock formation known as the Burgess Shale. Discovered in 1909 near the base of Mount Burgess and excavated by a Smithsonian scientist named Walcott, the shale outcropping contained the remains of 65,000 different plants and animals — the best fossil snapshot ever discovered of the teeming life that thrived on earth between 530 and 542 million years ago, during an age so verdant it was dubbed the Cambrian Explosion.

The ancient tropical sea that is now Alberta was for many millions of years the site of a great many other reefs, built in those times by algae instead of coral polyps. And there was one in particular, beneath the soil of the town of Leduc down on the prairie, where the porous reef rock of the Late Devonian period trapped the remains of a staggering abundance of carbon-based life about 400 million years ago. Across the intervening millennia, those remains were slowly crushed into pools of thick black ooze buried a mile underground, and in February 1947 a drilling rig struck the largest pool anyone had ever tapped in Canada. Within five years, 137,000 barrels of crude oil were being extracted from the liquefied boneyards of the ancient reef every day, and the economy of Alberta has been driven by the search for energy-dense Devonian fossils ever since.

As well, it has become increasingly fashionable in this country to think of this as merely a regional issue, some kind of late-blooming prairie madness. But of course the produce of Alberta’s Devonian bounty is a substance virtually all Canadians use in one form or another pretty much every day of their lives. If it is not in the tank of your car, then it is heating your house, or protecting your daily bread from mould, or keeping your body erect in place of the hip joint you were born with. And Alberta is just one relatively small outpost in an inexhaustible global campaign of seemingly limitless scale to extract ever more of the stuff, to burn it as quickly as possible. And thereby to release that ancient carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, in clouds of such prodigious volume, we’ve recently discovered, that they are well on their way toward extinguishing the abundant life from the reefs of today. Creating readymade oil fields for whatever civilization comes to thrive 400 million years hence.

Understand: the heroic narratives of the Anthropocene are nothing if not ironic.

airlie beach, queensland / 20°16’ s, 148°43’ e /
depth: approx. 4 metres / july 2008

The obvious response to the bonfire of the fossils that afflicts Alberta and everywhere else would be to impel those who are stoking it to cease and desist. Like, now. Stand before the majestic and plentiful landscape they are condemning to death and block the march of industry bodily. And so here, then, is what would appear to be an Anthropocene hero’s pose: two divers in black neoprene floating defiantly astride a particularly photogenic patch of Great Barrier Reef coral, little vertical clouds of exhaled air extending from the tops of their heads like cartoon exclamation points, a neon yellow banner unfurled between them that reads keep the reef great. And below that, in an instantly recognizable faux-scrawled font that has for a generation now denoted selfless action on behalf of Mother Earth: greenpeace.

The photo of this scene is dated July 22, 2008, and it is in many ways a textbook Holocene protest. And that’s the problem. It’s a symbolic act, staged with no intent other than to be photographed, disseminated, blipped to newspapers and websites around the world. Which publications may or may not publish it; which have over the years published a sufficient number of similar scenes of unfurled banners bearing strident messages composed in the imperative mood to render this one commonplace; and which in any case won’t likely provide much in the way of context other than a blurb a few lines long about the proposal to drill into the shale seabed near this spot to extract oil, and the long-standing, vehement, and virtually unanimous disagreement of environmentalists with that kind of proposal.

They likely won’t report any of the most salient details. That there is, for example, a flotilla of more than ninety vessels just four metres above the heads of these two beseeching divers, bobbing in solidarity in the Coral Sea’s current. Nor that much of this solidarity comes from the nearby resort community of Airlie Beach, whose economic health depends — as does an estimated $5.8-billion share of the Australian economy — on the health of the Great Barrier Reef. And nowhere will it be reported that the reef is, in the opinion of the diver on the right in the photo, almost certainly not going to be kept great, regardless of whether oil drilling is permitted nearby. And most of all that the diver on the right is, yes, Charlie Veron, the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs, and that until the moment he clutched the left side of that banner in his hands he’d spent a career of thirty-plus years as a marine scientist never once having participated in an environmental protest.

For Veron, the path to Greenpeace-branded activism began shortly after the publication in 2000 of his life’s work, Corals of the World. Probably the most thorough taxonomy of the planet’s corals ever assembled, it is a lavishly illustrated three-volume reference work cataloguing 800-plus species, almost 200 of them photographed by Veron himself. For his next project, he gave himself five years to research the big-picture story of the Great Barrier Reef — to move beyond coral taxonomy into the geological past and troubled climatic future of the natural wonder he’d spent thousands of hours studying at close range through the tempered glass of a dive mask.

“When I started writing my book,” he later said on Australia’s abc Radio National, “I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs. But the big picture that emerged, quite frankly, left me shocked to the core. This really led to a period of personal anguish. I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in that big picture. I was depressingly unsuccessful.”

Instead, Veron wrote the only book he felt he could honestly write. A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End is a densely detailed and often highly technical natural history of the reef ecosystem from prehistory to near-future. Veron assembles a thorough analysis of the health of reefs globally, using the Great Barrier Reef as his case in point, and examines the five mass extinctions that have afflicted coral reefs to date. As scientists must, he entertains a wide array of causal theories for these extinctions before coming to the conclusion that the deciding factor each time was the reduced pH level of the oceans, caused by absorption of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air above them.

Nowadays, about a quarter of the carbon dioxide humanity emits each year is absorbed into the seas, where it forms weak carbonic acid and nudges down the ocean’s pH, reducing the quantity of ionized carbon available for algae to fix along with coral skeletons as permanent limestone reefs. Thus bringing us, Veron argues, to the very precipice of the sixth mass extinction. When he takes up this possibility, his writing is propelled by a frankness and passionate urgency seldom seen in a science text. “Our tampering with the Earth’s climate,” he writes, resembles “a game of Russian roulette, with every chamber of the cylinder loaded. We must take the bullets out — all of them, quickly and at any cost — for this particular gun has a hair trigger and devastating firepower.”

Veron’s gravest concern is a tipping point in the ocean’s chemistry that he calls “commitment,” which comes freighted with the darkest of Anthropocene ironies. “Commitment,” he writes, “embodies the concept of unstoppable inevitability, according to which the nature and health of future environments will be determined not by our actions at some future date but by what is happening today.” In the case of ocean acidification, “the lag time of the ocean will make acidification a fait accompli before it has barely started.” By the time we know for sure we’ve reached the tipping point, in other words, it will be far too late to alter the process.

Ocean acidification is in its infancy as a field of scientific inquiry. The term was only coined in 2003, and the first major research mission dedicated to its study was launched off the coast of Florida in late 2008. We are only beginning, that is, to discover the gravity of the crisis. As recently as 2005, scientists believed this commitment point (under a business-as-usual emissions scenario) was as far off as 2050, but many now date it to about 2030. Veron, ever the iconoclast, believes our current emissions trajectory could reach commitment “within a decade.”

I wish I could report a note of caution or qualification from my own conversations with him. A few days before Christmas last year, he sent me a grim sort of season’s greeting by email: “I have just come back from a three-week trip to the far northern gbr — although it seems impossible I really think the whole place is going to die before I do. Rather takes the edge off diving.”
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2 comment(s)

Philip C.September 22, 2009 10:27 EST

Kudos to the author for the depth of research and level of thought and emotion invested, and the near-flawless execution. I am impressed, and have a lot to think about...

MilanSeptember 23, 2009 13:28 EST

Here, rather:

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