Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Home in the Sea

"African female elephants dropping tusks may be an epigenetic adaptation similar to Surfers Ear."

 I am fortunate these days to find myself in a place where I can swim every day. I will head offshore about 250 yards and then paddle along, parallel to the beach for a quarter mile, before returning to where I started. Tucked inside the Mayan Reef, the shallow turquoise waters in this part of the world are usually safe from sharks and jellyfish and the waves are calmer, making swimming easier on this old body.

We are of the oceans, you and I. Floating in the sea, gazing up into a blue sky, I return to humanity’s womb. Indeed, the amniotic fluid I “breathed” for my first nine months in 1946 was about 2% salinity, about a third less than the ocean’s.

George Freeth
While we speak reverently of Madre Tierra and Terra Firma, all life depends on water; the élan vital, the universal solvent, aqua mater. Our mythology is full of these stories of great deliverance — the raising of Mount Ararat out of floodwaters to heel Noahs Ark, the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, George Freeth’s heroic rescue of 11 fishermen caught in a gale off Venice Pier in 1908. In a small fishing village in Japan, they still light candles to remember that deliverance and rebirth.

In Evolutionary Water: Wombs, Seas, Tears and their Utraquistic Relation, Shè Hawke writes that this is why the catastrophe of birth and expulsion from the ocean are a connected theme — our ancestors began in aquatic environments and, like salamanders or mosquitoes, passed from something like gill-breathing to air breathing. When animals emerged from the ocean to live on land, they needed lungs — to take oxygen into their blood and exhale the wastes of cellular metabolism. Lungs function to charge the blood so that vital oxygen and just the right trace of nitrogen can reach all other body cells.

Land-dwellers also needed a colon to retain and conserve internal body fluids by removing excess water from digestive wastes. Our marine skin needed to adapt to shield the body from stronger solar radiation, especially ultraviolet, and to better regulate heat, using hair follicles and sweat glands.
When animals left the ocean, they chose to carry water with them as internal stores since they could no longer be continuously supplied. The skin converted the body into a portable canteen. Over 70% of us is water, and the lymph system is the internal ocean we carry about with us. All our organs float in this sea of fluid, our intracellular, pericardial, blood, cerebral and spinal fluids fed by electrolytes regulated by kidneys. Our respiratory tracts — nostrils, sinuses, trachea, bronchi, and lungs — and digestive and reproductive systems are lined with another salt-watery ring of protection — mucus membranes.

Some of our kind returned to the oceans some 50 million years ago after having already evolved to mammalian creatures resembling dogs or cats. Earlier in their evolution, without water to provide buoyancy, these animals had lined their skeletal joints — including between vertebrae — with synovial tissue to pad and lubricate joints against the greater force of gravity. Once freed of the gravity of land, their pelvises reduced in size and separated as their vertebral columns extended to improve locomotion. Dolphins and whales swim with horizontal tailfins that move up and down, rather than back and forth like the vertical tailfins of fishes. Cetaceans’ backbones bend up and down like dogs or cats when they are running.

Humans share with elephants, iguanas, turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, seals, and sea otters our ability to weep salt tears. Other primates have no tears or any sort of nasal gland. Of the various salts found in solution in our bodily fluids and in oceans, by far the commonest is table salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl). On average there is a little over 6 milligrams (mg) of NaCl dissolved in each milliliter (ml) of our tears’ lacrimal fluid. Average ocean salinity is 3.5%, or nearly 6 times our tears (35 mg/ml). Most of that salt is the same as in our bodies — sodium chloride.

‘Knudsen salinities’ are expressed in units of parts per thousand. Average seawater is euhaline, in the range of 30 to 35 Knudsens. Metahaline bodies, like the Red Sea, range from 36 to 40. In some places, inland seas can go as high as 300 Knudsons. The saltier a body of water is, the less likely it is to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and the more likely it is to give it off. This is an important recovery element at the end of ice ages, when salinity peaks due to ice impoundment of fresh water from rain or snow, causing more CO2 to off-gas to the atmosphere and positively force the greenhouse effect (6.5% more CO2 at the end of ice ages from this), re-warming the world.

The degree of salinity in oceans is a driver of the world’s ocean circulation, where density changes due to both salinity changes and temperature changes at the surface of the ocean produce changes in buoyancy, which cause sinking and rising of water masses. This is what drives major ocean currents like the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) to exchange warm water from the surface and equator with cold water from the depths and the poles, stabilizing interior climates of continents by thermohaline circulation.

Last November The National Geographic ran an article revealing that female African elephants have been evolving to lose their tusks so as to better protect themselves from ivory hunters. At first, this seemed nonsensical to me because I had been led to believe that evolution is a very long and slow process. And yet, if true, it leads to stranger speculation.

Dropping tusks may be a morphological adaptation that elephants have latent in existing genes waiting only for the right epigenetic triggers to switch on. It is similar to when the ears of surfers bend inwards as protection against relentless cold from air and water, a condition called Surfer’s Ear. Darwin knew nothing of epigenetics.

If humans so screw Earths atmosphere and contaminate the planets surface that life on land is no longer a viable option for mammals, might we not consider following the example of the cetaceans and return to our ocean home like so many Jacques Cousteaus, but eventually shedding scuba for gills? That may not be an option we are leaving ourselves. The ocean is as badly damaged, if not worse, than the land and skies. We just can’t see it as well from where we are.

More than 80 percent of ocean pollution comes from land-based activities. From coral bleaching to sea level rise, entire marine ecosystems are rapidly changing.
  • Through the thermal expansion of water and ice melt, climate chaos is causing sea levels to rise, threatening coastal population centers.
  • Many pesticides, fertilizers and animal pharmaceuticals end up in rivers, coastal waters, and the ocean, resulting in oxygen depletion and toxins that kill or maim marine plants and shellfish.
  • Factories and industrial plants discharge sewage and other runoff into the oceans. This too results in oxygen depletion and toxins that kill marine plants and shellfish. In the U.S., sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil each year as tanker spills or drilling disasters.
  • Oil spills and nuke spills like Fukushima pollute the oceans, although air pollution is responsible for almost one-third of the toxic contaminants entering water. Microplastics dumped by cruise ships, container ship spills, or factories and garbage dumps on land or rivers will soon outweigh all the fish in the sea.
  • Invasive species such as poisonous algae, cholera, and countless plants and animals have entered harbor waters and disrupted the ecological balance.
  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 31.4 percent of fish stocks are either fished to capacity or overfished. As climate changes rapidly and microplastics take their toll, the capacity of fish stocks to replenish will drop dramatically, leading to fishery exhaustion, fish population extinctions, and widespread famines.
Another UN report, the Global Resources Outlook, released in Nairobi on March 15, tells the story behind the story. The real story is the increasing material weight of global civilization.

As I swim along looking at the coastline, I am seeing massive new hotels and homes of concrete and steel, the materials brought in by barge, literally weighing down the sandy beach. More arrives each day, the sand and gravel from quarries in Yucatan, the steel from China, the cement from factories in Mexico City. From where I sleep, I can hear the barges start to unload even before the first chirps of the dawn chorus.

Each year, more than 92 gigatonnes (Gt) of these materials — metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass (mostly food) are drawn out of the Earth and deposited in places like this — and this number is growing at the rate of 3.2% per year, or doubling roughly every 20 years.

Since 1970, extraction of fossil fuels has increased from 6 Gt to 15 Gt, minerals such as sand and gravel for concrete have gone from 9 Gt to 44 Gt, and biomass harvests from 9 Gt to 24 Gt, but accelerating now. Land use change — for agriculture and mountaintop removal — accounts for over 80% of biodiversity loss and 85% of water stress, even before the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are applied. The entire extraction economy accounts for 53% of climate change, even before the fuels are burned. What will it be at the next doubling? Without change, the report said resource demand would more than double to 190 Gt per year, greenhouse gases would rise 40% and demand for land would increase by 20%.

Jonathan Watts, writing in The Guardian, observes that for rich countries, this works out to the weight of two elephants per person per year. In poor countries, it is about the weight of two giraffes, but appearing less as second homes on the beach and more as smaller items like mobile phones. The piles of materials that went into making them are invisible to the consumer.

The UN report said it is essential to decouple economic growth from material consumption. They have to say this because many of the Sustainable Development Goals speak of “economic growth.” Goal #8 calls for “sustained and inclusive economic growth” which it proposes to accomplish by expanding access to financial credit to create more jobs. If production cannot be decoupled from consumption then the UN is chasing a paradox. It has about as good a chance of catching that as it would a pair of ducks. 

There is good news in that at least some of these problems can be addressed, as we have outlined in BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, by redirecting sewage flows, arresting agrochemical overuse, and reversing climate change through a multitude of natural means.And yet, to date, none of these things are being done at any significant scale, and that scaling seems dangerously far off.

But I also wrote about this subject from here, this very place in México, in 2006 in The Post Petroleum Survival Guide. Back then, I was also grappling with this question, because if we were then, and are still, at the point of peak everything and poised at the edge of the Seneca Cliff. We will need to find a better way down than leaping without a parachute. This is not BREXIT, after all. The analogy I came up with then has guided my choices in life ever since.

The analogy was that of a surfer. What do they produce? What do they consume? Are they healthy? Are they happy? Can that sort of lifestyle be sustained? What would it take, extrapolated to world population scale?

I decided and wrote at the time that indeed the surfer lifestyle could be sustainable if it could find a permacultural balance with coconuts, fish and other staples. Growth, whether of material “wealth” or population, however, could not be sustained and some serious degrowth was overdue. I referenced the Odums’ classic work, “The Prosperous Way Down.” (2001)


The oceans are not merely our birth home, they sustain us now. It is possible to live within their limits and the limits of the good earth. The sooner we can learn that lesson, the better off we will be.



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1 comment:

ken sasucke said...

you remember Vonnegut's " Galapagos"

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