I have been wanting to write a piece about ocean acidification for several months, but it has not come together. Nor is this piece exactly what I wanted to write. But it seems to be the case that – horrible as the BP oil spill is – even this catastrophe is not leading us to take seriously the fact that fossil fuels are poisons, whether spilled or burned, and we need to stop using them. For me, the untold lives lost from this leak will have been lost in vain unless we learn this lesson. Oil, and coal, are poisons. We have to stop using them. Whether they visibly leak and spill on land or sea, or whether we burn them and make them invisible, they are deadly poisons.
We have an opportunity here to awaken at last from our oil-soaked dreams of unending wealth and gain, which have turned into a nightmare of unending disease and untimely death, for us, for the Ocean, for the whole Earth.
It’s no fun being so gloomy. But how are we ever going to change this situation if we don’t look in the mirror and see that we are what has to change? All of us. You and me. No exceptions. That might sound depressing, but it is actually empowering. Because it means change is in our hands, not someone else’s.
Spills and leaks are not the only way that oil disrupts the life of the Ocean. A much bigger threat to the Ocean – at least over the long term – is carbon-induced acidification. Despite a comprehensive article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker in 2006 (still available online) and a 2009 movie called “A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish,” very few people know about ocean acidification.
The Ocean absorbs about half of all the carbon that is pumped into the atmosphere. It has been thought that this is a good thing. If not for the Ocean, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be much higher than it is, and we’d already be living in a much warmer world. But increased CO2 in the Ocean is leading to ocean acidification, and that could be even more catastrophic than global warming. The Ocean is not actually becoming acidic, but it is becoming less alkaline. In the past 250 years, average surface ocean pH has dropped from 8.179 to 8.069. That is a 28% increase in acidity (or decrease in alkalinity). We have believed that the Ocean, like the Atmosphere, is too big for its chemistry to be changed by our activity. We have been wrong.
The declining pH of the Ocean is already affecting organisms that are essential to the marine food chain: corals and pteropods. Lower pH inhibits these and other organisms’ ability to build calcium carbonate shells and bodies. As ocean pH continues to decline many essential organisms will be affected, including oysters and clams, shellfish, krill and many other forms of zooplankton, essential food for many species of fish, bird and marine mammal. One blue whale eats about two tons of krill every day. No krill, no blue whales. No fish. A severely diminished ocean.
It will take time for the Ocean to reach catastrophic pH levels, but the problem is it will take even more time for the Ocean to balance itself. If we were to stop burning all fossil fuels right now, it would take thousands of years for the pH of the Ocean to return to what it was prior to the industrial/fossil-fuel revolution, because of the extremely slow circulatory patterns of ocean currents. But we continue to burn fossil fuels, adding carbon to the atmosphere and the Ocean, at ever increasing rates.
We commonly hear now that to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% in the next 40 years. Hard enough to do that. But to avert the crisis of ocean acidification, it is probably not enough to reduce the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. We have to stop it. Get to zero. Soon. Pteropods and corals are already showing signs of carbon-related distress. Any further decrease in ocean pH could have devastating consequences for the marine food web. As the Ocean goes, so go we all.
This needs to be our goal: eliminate all fossil fuels from our diet. As soon as possible. Say what? How is that even possible? Our entire economic system, how we work, how we live, how we move around, how we make money, how we stay warm, how we manufacture and ship all the stuff we need and want and throw away, how we light our homes and businesses, all is dependent on the energy stored for millions of years in decaying plants, dragged out of the ground and used up in the course of a couple of hundred years. Oil is our fuel of choice for transportation and heat. Coal is our fuel for electricity. Transportation, electricity and heat provide us with the kind of life we take for granted..
Our way of life is now so bound up with the burning of coal and oil and gas that such a change feels impossible. It is not simply a matter of stopping a habit. It means changing how we live. It means changing our politics, our means of living and moving around, the ways we do our work. Almost everything we do.
It is amazing, almost unimaginable, that a mere 250 years ago there was essentially no oil (except whale oil). There was no gas. Coal was known and used, but little. The world we consider unalterable and our birthright began less than 250 years ago with the invention of the steam engine. The carbon orgy really got going a mere 60 years ago, following World War Two, when consumerism became a way of life. Our lives now are so bound up with buried sunlight, our sense of who we are and what we need most essentially is so aligned with this particular way of living, that it is very hard to imagine doing without oil or coal or gas. But most humans have, and some still do. And so can we.
We cannot go backward. We know that. We cannot snap our fingers, turn off all the oil and gas wells, shut down the coal mines, and go back to the way we lived three hundred ago or even sixty years ago. We certainly can’t go back to burning whale oil. For one thing, there are now many more of us and many fewer whales. Three hundred years ago the human population was about six hundred million. Now it is nearly 7 billion. That ten-fold increase in population was made possible largely by industrial agriculture, which is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels. We can’t snap our fingers and suddenly start fueling our current way of life with windmills and solar panels and organic agriculture. We will need all of those, but adopting them will require big changes in how we live. Fossil fuels have made possible a way of life that I believe cannot exist without them. We have some tough choices to make.
Short of the discovery and wide implementation in the next few years of some new, clean and safe, nearly unlimited form of energy (none of which describes nuclear fission), radical change is needed. Unimaginably radical. Change at a pace and a scale humanity has never seen. How is such a change possible?
There are only two things I am sure of here. One is that as long as we think it is impossible, it will be impossible. Our only hope of achieving zero carbon emissions from fossil fuels is to devote all our creativity to the task. Eighty percent reduction in 40 years is a start, but not enough. We have to get to zero. Not just because of the carbon, but because of all the other ways fossil fuels poison our world and our bodies.
The other thing I am sure of is that the easiest thing that we can do, the fastest and the simplest and the least painful, is the one thing that most of us won’t even consider. Slow down. Live with less. Adjust our expectations. Simplify. Own less. Travel less. Share more. Experience more discomfort. Live more like the other animals, taking no more than we physically need and giving more back to the Earth. Accept that much of the “progress” of the last three hundred years has not been progress at all, it has been poison. Abandon the psychological need for more and more and more and shrink materially. Go back to using non-polluting technologies of the past that could still work for us now.
Among the modern technologies, the ones that seem to me most promising and helpful are wind and micro hydro, passive solar heating, ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling, and to some extent photovoltaic electricity. But there’s no way those are going to provide the power joy ride we’ve been on for the past 60 – 300 years. Scaling back radically has to be part of the solution.
Hard as that sounds, it requires no technological breakthroughs. We simply have to change our minds, which can happen in an instant. We simply have to accept that it is okay to do less. Alot less. We don’t have to be so busy. We don’t have to accomplish so much. It’s not good for us anyway. We can slow down. And then we can relearn manual skills that are rapidly being lost. I think the hard part is not the physical change, but the psychological change. Our sense of self has become bound up with carbon-fueled progress and speed, so what has to change is who and what we think we are.
In order for us to stop using fossil fuels, “who I am” cannot be bound up in owning a car or a big house, or a constant increase in income and possessions, or jetting around the world, or always having instant comfort at our fingertips, or instant communication around the globe*, or the instant gratification of driving to the mall whenever the mood strikes, or a calendar full of ten different activities in ten different places in one day. “Who I am” cannot be bound up in endless electronic and fossil-fueled entertainment. *[All the computers and all the server farms need to be manufactured and powered, and right now that takes a lot of fossil fuels – I recently read that server farms have now surpassed air travel as the single largest contributor to carbon emissions. At least Google, the owner of the servers on which this blog is hosted, is looking at wind power. Don’t get me started about Facebook.]
I don’t for a moment think it is likely that we will shift to a mentality, to a sense of “who I am” that is more like indigenous people who have lived in balance with their land for thousands of years, or like the great whales, who have lived in balance with their environment for tens of millions of years. That is a long way to shrink from where we are now. But I still maintain that that is exactly what we need to do, at least temporarily, that it is the only thing we can do fast enough, and that doing so now, when we have options, is a lot easier than waiting until the change is forced on us by an Earth pushed beyond endurance. And I still maintain that doing so is faster and simpler and more realistic than trying to fuel our current lifestyle with new forms of renewable energy, or waiting for some technological miracle to save us. We have to slow down. To accomplish less. To empty out our lives, to decide what is essential and discard all that is superfluous.
Maybe that’s just my bias. I’m a contemplative. That’s what contemplatives do. We try to whittle life down to its essentials.
But I don’t know why most of us are so resistant to this idea. It is not as if most of us really enjoy the stressful, accelerated, polluted, noisy, nonstop, war-ravaged, economically polarized, world that fossil fuels have made possible. It’s not as if most of us really benefit from it (did you make 6 billion dollars in the first quarter of this year, like BP did?). It is not as if we are all relaxed and playful and in love with our lives. It is not as if fossil fuels have made our world healthier and more vibrant. It is just that we have forgotten how to live any other way, and we have been conned into believing that this is how we want to live, how we must live. We have been taught to believe this is progress, that “more” is the meaning and purpose of life. But it isn’t, and it never was, and it never will be, and right now “more” is killing us, not just like a cancer, but often enough in the form of cancer itself, and it is killing the Earth and the Ocean.
The good news is that although the Earth is already greatly diminished, it remains resilient, creative, and abundant with diversity of life. It has great powers of healing and regeneration. It is beautiful and helpful and peaceful and supportive. That is the real world. That is what we are too. If we realign our sense of “who I am” with that world, the real world, the living world — the Earth, the soil, the Ocean, the air, the plants and the animals and the microorganisms, deep silence, the heart of everything, silent listening, watchful stillness, loving, uncompromising honesty — our lives will truly improve, will be less stressful, more peaceful, more enjoyable, more real, more beautiful, more adaptable, more creative. All of that comes from Life itself, and we cannot be that unless we are aligned with reality, with Life, the living truth which is alive within us and around us, always in everything.
Whether it’s oil spills or global warming or overfishing or ocean acidification, we tend to think that there is a technological or political solution that will rescue us – you and me – from having to change. I am suggesting that there is a solution, an earth-centered solution, but it does require us to change. It just happens to be a blessed change, a sacred slowing back down to an Earthly pace, that is quite possibly the very thing we are searching for in our heart of hearts.