Monday, October 5, 2009

The World Is Blue: review of Dr. Sylvia Earle's new book


How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

Dr. Sylvia Earle’s new book declares that conservation is promoting the wrong color

In her latest book, The World Is Blue, famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle makes a passionate and methodical argument for conserving the world’s oceans – not as one more item to be added to an ecological wish list, but as an issue that needs to be at the top of that list. The oceans need our undivided attention as it is these life-giving bodies of water that impact, regulate, and govern the environmental processes on land and in the air on which we depend.

“Even if you never have a chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”

At a time when going “green” is both necessary and trendy, Earle takes nothing away from our current terrestrial focus, but makes the strong case that the health of the oceans – the “blue” that makes up over 80% of the earth’s surface – must be of equal, if not primary, concern. Using facts gleamed from recognized scientific research and anecdotes from personal experience and those of other oceanographers, scientists and conservationists, she weaves a complex tapestry of interdependent marine processes that give us the majority of our air, the source of our weather, and the greatest diversity of life on the planet. But it is a fabric that is being torn to shreds through our historically misplaced belief that the ocean is ours for the taking.

Earle takes you through the current state of the ocean step by step. First, she examines the taking of ocean wildlife, from mammals to fish to shellfish, and our belief in the ocean’s limitless bounty as personified in the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – which drove much of our fishery management policies since the 1930s by assuming that a sealife population, when heavily fished, will respond with maximum reproductive efficiency, thereby producing a surplus that will sustain the population. Great plan, but no one remembered to tell the fish, and so, by the mid-70’s, MSY was unsustainable as were many commercial fisheries as a result.

From there the book takes the reader through the other major issues threatening the seas today. Plastics and their consequences on sealife and fundamental chemical processes in the ocean; the loss of biodiversity – from minute phytoplankton to some of the ocean’s largest animals; drilling, mining, and shipping; and the controversial topic of today: climate change.

“It has taken about four billion years for living systems, mostly in the sea, to transform the lifeless ingredients of early Earth into the Eden that makes our lives possible, and less than a century for us to destabilize those ancient rhythms. Present climate change policies focus on the atmosphere, largely neglecting the ocean, despite ample evidence that the ocean drives and regulates planetary climate, weather, temperature, and chemistry.”

Policies. This is a key word as the book moves into an overview of the opportunities and solutions that can make a difference. Whether discussing the need for ocean exploration, reviewing the potentials and pitfalls of commercial aquaculture, or promoting the importance of Marine Protected Areas (a proven idea which currently only covers less than one percent of the total area of the sea), Earle’s experience in the federal and international arena comes through.

As a former chief scientist for the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and, currently, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, and active participant in a long list of policy-making organizations and marine think tanks, Earle brings a subtle political perspective that you do not find in many other books on the subject. Personal involvement is important and she has plenty of suggestions for each of us to consider. But the book is peppered with indications as to what is being done in the decision-making circles, which kept reminding me of the need for making our elected officials accountable.

“Knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions. They might not care even if they know, but they can’t care if they are unaware.”

The World Is Blue is an extremely accessible book, one that would provide a conservationist with logical arguments and reassurance while providing enlightenment and a new way of thinking for the yet unconverted. This is not a tome to doom and gloom. Yes, it pulls no punches and lays out the consequences if we choose not to act, but what makes this book an uplifting call to arms rather than a scolding is Earle’s enthusiasm and sense of wonder with the ocean. It’s obvious to the ear at her many speaking engagements and when I have been fortunate to chat with her one-on-one – and it comes through loud and clear in The World Is Blue. This is someone who truly loves the sea and loves life and knows how they are forever intertwined. A must read.

Richard Theiss
RTSea Productions
RTSea Blog: keeping an eye on Nature
Copyright 2009 RTSea

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