Remember the 1970s? Bell bottoms, disco fever, Billy Carter, the Bicentennial, and twice the number of fish, birds and marine mammals in the world's ocean? That's right, overfishing and other environmental disasters have cut the population of the ocean's most evolved creatures (those with spines) nearly in half, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund. Not coincidentally, human population has about doubled in this same period from 3.7 to over 7 billion Homo sapiens, the precipitant cause of the planet's sixth mass extinction now underway.
The WWF report, which looked at 1,234 species of mammal, bird, reptile (sea turtles), and fish, found that between 1970 and 2012, populations declined by 49 percent, with some species of edible marine wildlife like tuna and mackerel hit far harder. Habitats such as sea grasses have declined by a third along with mangrove forests, salt marshes and coral reefs that could be all but extinct by mid-century. Of course the WWF report ends on a note of optimism, as do many of today's environmental reports, often for marketing purposes, responding to the now widely accepted claim that environmentalism is failing because it's message is "too negative."
So along with promoting more cheerful peer-reviewed science let me tell a joke reflecting the lighter side of the apocalypse. What did one Baiji river dolphin say to another? Nothing. As of five years ago they're extinct!
The late coastal activist Dery Bennett once was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. "Depends on which day you ask me," he responded. Unfortunately on the same day I read the WWF report I saw a NOAA report that this summer - June through August - was the hottest on the planet since scientific record keeping began in the 19th century. 2015 is now on its way to breaking the record for the hottest year in history, a record previously held by 2014 and 2010 before that according to NOAA and NASA. Notice a trend? Unless that trend is Biblical End Times, none of the presidential candidates in the recent GOP debate saw one. Asked briefly about climate change they all rejected regulatory (or any) action to keep fossil fuel-fired disaster in check, some arguing that you can't really know what's going on. Like Author Upton Sinclair once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary [or campaign donations] depends on his not understanding it." Same for Carly Fiorina.
At the same time those of us living in California have been reduced to hoping for a major disaster, the big El Nino pattern predicted for this winter that likely will reprise the destructive storms, flooding, mudslides and coastal erosion we experienced in 1982-'83 and 1997-'98 in order to relieve us from an even worse disaster; the 300-year drought we're now going through that scientists say is cyclical but also 10-15 percent exacerbated by human-caused climate change. More extreme and more frequently extreme weather patterns are one indicator of a warming world. A hotter, more acidic ocean unable to hold as much dissolved oxygen as it does today is another.
Still I hold firm to my mantra that I'm more frustrated than despairing. We know what the solutions are to these cascading disasters we just lack the political will to enact them even with the Pope on our side.
Instead of posting a selfie or frowning emoticon here, let me quote from my book, Saved by the Sea - Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World:
Today I don't really expect a revolution in either politics or consciousness to radically alter the cascading ecological collapse of our ocean planet. I do, however, note a rising line of ecological mindfulness approaching the declining plane of biological diversity on our water world. Where that X crosses will tell us how much is left to save and restore if we can.
At my ocean conservation and policy group Blue Frontier (www.bluefront.org) we believe that saving some is better than saving none.