Which will go first: the ocean or fossil fuels?

The latest ocean news: scientists are gearing up for the next few decades of continued decline in marine populations, the extinction of shallow-water coral reefs, and major perturbations in current physical and chemical stabilizing systems. The first ever interdisciplinary, international workshop on the state of the ocean concluded that conditions are shaping up to mirror the conditions of other historical mass extinction events.

In a shrewd, albeit truthful, sense, we may simply have to acclimate our diets to a lack of seafood. After all, very few people eat dolphins, whales, sharks, dugongs, rays, or many of the other large biota that are most vulnerable to marine disturbances and stressors.

But this means more than just the potential elimination of all marine food sources. The ocean system could probably accommodate the lack of marine mammals; what it cannot accommodate, and what humanity cannot afford, is the reverberations of dramatic declines or extinctions at any particular level of the food web. As the first article’s graphic depicts, thriving marine populations contribute to maintaining homeostasis in the ocean; introduce too many stresses on the system, and that homeostasis is threatened – only carbon flow is illustrated, but the same basic processes regulate the flow of other influential substances, such as heavy nitrates, methane, and hydrocarbons.

Bottom line: Marine fauna do not just provide us food to eat; they also act as stabilizing forces for the ocean physically and chemically. Still, why care about the health of ocean biota and marine homeostasis?

The broad-strokes answer is that the atmosphere is intimately connected to the ocean. Winds drive major ocean currents, but currents also redistribute heat, which impacts the force, direction, and stability of wind patterns, and thus, climatic patterns. England, for example, would be as frigid and, in some parts, uninhabitable as its neighboring Scandanavian countries if not for the heat delivered by the Gulf Stream.

The ocean is a powerful regulatory force on short-term and long-term atmospheric conditions, and its accompanying aquatic life is integral to safeguarding against unstable climatic shifts. Since we are intimately tied to the atmosphere, a ‘healthy’ ocean is tantamount to our capacity to survive on a planet that we are rapidly engineering into an inhospitable environment; thus, the urgency of discarding the multitude of political distractions standing between the state of things and an appropriate response to it.

In light of this big picture view, I think the author’s question at the end of the article – whether we should continue to rely on fossil fuels or abandon them – must be taken as blatantly rhetorical. The question is not whether we ought to continue our assumption of limitlessness (i.e. we will be able to continue living the way we do); it is how we are going to begin to live within our environmental limitations. For history has demonstrated time and again that species and civilizations attempting to do otherwise always fail.

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