Sustainability (and such)

“The Sea Around Us”

Posted by Nancy Van Leuven, Ph.D. on June 28, 2010

 “Revisiting Rachel Carlson’s ‘The Sea Around Us’ ” – op-ed commentary in South Coast by Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, a Melville biographer and poet and English Department adjunct, Bridgewater State College (Saturday, June 26, 2010):

      June 2010 is an especially poignant time to be teaching Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us” (1951) to teachers.

      The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a wake-up call to end our deadly addiction to fossil fuels and a tragic reminder of how little we have learned about the ocean since Carson’s masterpiece appeared more than half a century ago. A masterful writer, marine biologist Carson combines informed observation, solid scientific knowledge and mindful contemplation of the geology, history and biodiversity of our ocean.

      Sadly, too many people take the ocean for granted or don’t think about it at all, and many people don’t know the basic facts. Recklessly and with deplorable irreverence, we’ve used oceans, rivers, streams and ponds as dumping grounds for everything from sewage to nuclear waste and other toxic substances. In response, a number of federal agencies have composed Ocean Literacy Standards—in plain English, basic facts designed to encourage people to treat the ocean responsibly.

      The ocean comprises three-quarters of the blue planet called “Earth” and is one ocean, not many. Subject to the action of many different currents and the force of the winds, the ocean washes the shores of every continent and island, and the sea floor is both a vast cemetery of previous generations and the source of future biodiversity.

     The ocean shapes the topography of our earth; yet, we know less about the bottom of the sea than we know about the surfaces of most planets in our solar system. Do we know, for instance, what the long-term impact of drilling for oil in the seabed will be on the height of the seacoast? Will drilling cause sinkage of the sea floor and greater-than-predicted sea level rise?

     The ocean produces 70-80 percent of the oxygen we breathe, so how can using toxic chemical dispersants and burning millions of gallons of oil, as BP is doing right now on the surface of the Gulf, be healthy for humans and other living organisms?

       The ocean produces, regulates and stabilizes our global climate. “Without our ocean,” writes Carson, “our world would be visited by unthinkably harsh extremes of temperature.” “The Sea Around Us” often sounds as though it was written yesterday, even though many discoveries have been made since 1951, as Carson anticipated.

       Even then, the planet was warming and sea levels were rising, but most scientists assumed these small changes were cyclical, not man-made. More recently, however, scientists agree that the sharp increase of measurable carbon in the atmosphere and the rapidly accelerating rate of ocean warming are attributable to the industrial world’s “heat, beat and treat” technologies.

      Human beings and the ocean are inextricably linked. As Carson puts it, “as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.” The chemistry of our blood replicates the chemistry of sea water because our biological ancestors came from the sea to live on land.

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