Let’s Not Lose The Big Picture

By Phil Walsh

Bill Bryson’s brilliant A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, 2003) should be mandatory reading for anyone about to start college. At the very least, the book will give them a profound sense of gratitude for the experience that lies ahead, make them glad they’re alive, and perhaps even allow them to understand the importance of their own existence. Chapter headings like Lost In The Cosmos, The New Age Dawns and The Bounding Main, are introduced with notable quotes like, “A physicist is the atom’s way of thinking about atoms” – anonymous, or “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, Let Newton Be! And all was light.” – Alexander Pope.

The strain of understanding the scientific breakthroughs Bryson speaks to are interspersed with wonderful comic relief, usually in the form of detailed descriptions of the eccentricities of those who’ve made significant scientific discoveries, like Henry Cavendish (1731 – 1810), without question the most gifted scientist of his time. Notoriously shy, those who approached him to seek his views on their discoveries at the few scientific gatherings he attended were advised to “…wander into his vicinity as if by accident and to talk, as it were, into vacancy.” If their remarks had merit, they might receive a mumbled reply, but more often than not “…hear a peeved squeak and turn to find an actual vacancy and the sight of Cavendish fleeing for a more peaceful corner.”

My mental strain was also relieved by his unending stream of astounding facts. “There are 320 million cubic miles of water on Earth and that is all we’re ever going to get. The system is closed; practically speaking, nothing can be added or subtracted. The water you drink has been around doing its job since the Earth was young.” He later adds, “Of the 3 percent of Earth’s water that is fresh, most exists as ice sheets. Only the tiniest amount – 0.036 percent – is found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs.” So much for the Great Lakes!

In a later chapter, The Bounding Main, Bryson tells us much we’d just as soon not hear – that for ten years our government dumped fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive waste in the waters surrounding Northern California’s Farallon Islands, home to eighteen species of whales and dolphins. I went the Woods Hole Institution a few weeks back to see the Alvin, our nation’s fabled submersible, and fell into a conversation with a man who’s had a firsthand look at these drums. He said that “…for about two feet around each one, in a perfect circle,” the mud surrounding each drum is of a different color and consistency than the rest of the mud on the seabed.

Bryson also tells us that of 1995 (the book is dated, unfortunately), some 37,000 industrial-sized fishing ships, plus a million smaller boats, were taking twice as much from the sea than had been harvested 25 years earlier. My experience at a U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue Station on an island off the coast of Massachusetts in the early 70’s bears this out. Looking east from Nantucket, bright lights extended across the entire horizon every night, and making our way through the distant water fleet to medevac an injured crewman from a factory trawler was no simple task.

Having blown a hole in the ozone layer, we’re now doing the same thing to the tectonic plates we live on. “Fracking” may well help our balance of trade and keep our pump prices down, but the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc., so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas, has an unknown downside, the size of which we cannot fathom, as we’re in uncharted waters. The number of 3.0 magnitude quakes (or above) rose from 2 in 2008 to 889 last Oklahoma last year, this according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Our tectonic plates float on Earth’s core of molten lava, and some think it might be wise to listen to our planet, particularly when she speaks to us so bluntly.

We’ve had five major extinction events in the last 450,000 years, and are now at the tail end of a warming period that’s lasted longer than most. The effect of releasing over 30 billion tons of carbon into our wafer thin atmosphere every year is incalculable.

We are the most intelligent beings ever to inhabit this planet. Technology, only recently released from religious constraints, has made great achievements. We’ve eradicated diseases that routinely killed us, we’ve doubled our capacity for advancement in every field by enabling women to (almost) fully partake in our endeavors and we cut the world poverty rate in half during the last 20 years. It now stands at the crossroads of biology, mostly to the good, with aquaculture leading the way. Warren Buffet selflessly added the bulk of his fortune to that of Bill and Melinda Gates to further their good works. We’re good people, but we’re capable of fatal mischief. We’re plundering, pillaging, and poisoning this magical planet as if hastening the next extinction event, and the time to stop and begin working together is upon us. “We are gods; we may as well get good at it.” – unknown.

We domesticated livestock and tamed the grasses some 10,000 years ago, and while aquaculture dates back some 5,000 years, the technology to make it capable of feeding the world didn’t exist until recently. (I have the honor of teaching at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the hands-down leader in the development of modern aquaculture). There’s no question from any scientific corner that domesticated livestock and fowl cannot begin to address our world’s near term protein needs, and that aquaculture is our only option. The decimation of wild caught species has gone beyond the point of debate and probably recovery, yet there remains an almost superstitious opposition to aquaculture from an otherwise evolved demographic. Their support is critical to the success of aquaculture, just as the success of aquaculture is critical to the success of our species.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

The Times, They Are a Changin’, by Bob Dylan, American bard, Nobel Prize laureate and, apparently, prophet.

Philip C. Walsh,

Father, Teacher and Seafood Peddler


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