American Style Environmentalism Part 2 (Misguided Perceptions)
This article is part 2. Click here for part 1
People that care about the environment don't want to do it great harm but our misguided perceptions about our world cause us to do so anyway. For many during the formative years of youth, growing up in a world that is cleaned and sterilized, it is learned that anything smelly or dirty is bad for the world, bacteria and micro-organisms are things to be feared and eradicated. It is also taught that medicine is good, and should be taken whenever one might have the slightest of symptoms. Learning about nature and the natural world later in life these misguided principles are brought along making issues of personal health, and the environment over protected immune systems need to be symptom free one of the cornerstones of environmental thinking. The creatures of our world at the bottom of the food chain are left behind, their crucial importance not worthy of consideration or even the smallest of environmental campaigns.
One of the most misguided and damaging premises in American environmental policy and thinking is that a clean environment is a healthy one. When environmental groups actually concerned themselves with pollution, a large amount of the steps taken were about getting the unsightly and often smelly solids out of the environment (Like sewage). Issues of public health, sanitation, and the overall perception of cleanliness in the environment are often mistaken as activities that help wildlife. To persons raised in pristine households and sterile environments, it must surely seem that way. Unfortunately for wildlife a sterile environment is far from ideal. A world in which the bottom of the food chain has been badly damaged loses much of it's ability to sustain life.
In New England a lot has been done over the last few decades to create a pristine environment that is friendly to tourists and nature lovers both. The clean harbors initiative, zero discharge (of any kind) laws, conversion of septic systems to sewer systems, and the installation of lots and lots of chlorinating systems to ensure that nothing gets out of the sewer system alive have left the harbors and waterways of New England crystal clear and lovely. A little slice of paradise, but something happened on the way to heaven that was not foreseen. The creatures at the bottom of the food chain began to disappear. There is very little science available to document when it started or how bad it may get, but anecdotal and scientific evidence is mounting that somewhere along the way the best of intentions has become the worst of realities.
The little scientific evidence for the subject relates to the fact that New England is very low on phyto-plankton ( The micro organisms at the bottom of the food chain that convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into oxygen and provide food for the entire marine eco-system). Studies show forage fish weights down 30 to 40 percent over the last few decades and mal-nutrition a leading cause. When forage fish go hungry their behavior changes as they begin to forage continuously on anything they can find. Other fish stocks (Like Cod) suffer and collapse due to large schools of starving fish preying on their eggs and juveniles. Cod fish weights (at age) are down as well as other fish, relating to the fact that the starving fish they prey on are not as nutritious as they were when properly nourished. Marine biologists have been repeatedly surprised by the failure of their models to accurately project the ability of fish populations to reproduce themselves. Reproduction is an energy intense activity that malnourished fish aren't as capable of doing and the survival rate of juveniles and eggs lowers dramatically in areas with large populations of malnourished fish.
There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that near coastal areas are severely affected. The muscle beds around New Bedford that have survived horrendous amounts of pollution and a harbor full of PCB's are reported to be for the most part gone. The vessels I work for used to have no end of trouble with muscles growing out of every pipe, opening, sea chest, and the seeds getting past strainers to grow in the most unlikely places. Scuba divers, drain cleaning cutters, and a lot of effort was needed to keep sea water flowing in the life filled waters of New England. Today that isn't true anymore. Very few muscles grow on anything at all, filter feeders like them that rely on the microscopic organisms to live don't spring up everywhere like they used to. Unfortunately there is very little science devoted to them. The growth of muscles first diminished in the south but has now moved northward to the Portland, Maine area where we used to have no end of trouble with muscles, but now don't have any problem at all. They were a nuisance that I was glad to be rid of before I began to grasp what their loss means.
Perhaps it is just coincidental that the muscles went away, and the fish started losing weight and size at age at the same time that it was decided that rivers of chlorinated grey water should be run into the sea cleaning up those nasty old harbors and beaches and creating the American environmental ideal of a clean, tourism friendly environment. The raw sewage pipes that are run into the sea from other nations seem to have no negative affect on fish populations and in most cases a fertilizing effect. Let's do a thought experiment and explore what for many may be difficult to understand.
Let's take the average farm that raises animals for example.
- The fields grow grass.
- The grass gets fed to the cows.
- The cows poop.
- The poop gets spread on the fields.
- More grass grows.
Luckily that is fairly simple. Now just take all of the poop and run it through sewage processing, removing any possible nutrients and solids. Then chlorinate it and spread the grey water onto the farmer's fields. Do you think any grass will grow? Do you think the cows will go hungry? Do you see a problem with replacing a fertilizer with chlorinated grey water, or even wonder why anyone would think rivers of that stuff flowing into the ocean would be a good idea?
If the chlorine and all of the soaps and chemicals that come with diverting all septic systems to the sea aren't bad enough then consider this. Just under 50 percent of all Americans are taking prescription medications at any given time many of them are on a number of different medications. When those medicines are cleaned out of the blood streams of millions of individuals, they are pissed out into the sewer system. The effects of all of the millions of doses of medication flowing into the sea are completely unknown. Very little thought or study is given to what effect medications have on the environment once the patient has passed them. I would not be surprised if someday it is discovered that modern medical and pharmaceutical practice was one of the most environmentally damaging parts of the industrial revolution. The decision to flow all of this in rivers into the sea with no concern about the effect that current or future concentrations of these medicines will be (Which was implemented during the die off of so many filter feeders like muscles) is one that I strongly suspect has a lot to do with the problems we are seeing in near coastal areas and the marine eco-system that depends on them.
It is becoming apparent that the life giving waters of the North Eastern US aren't as capable of producing life as they once were. There is strong evidence that is due to a collapse in the bottom of the food chain. While fishermen that once fed the world wait for food stamps and aid checks the fish in the sea go hungry, their mandated population levels apparently unsupportable by a marine eco-system that used to feed a growing nation. Environmental groups funded by big energy have every seat at the table in these matters and zero solutions to the issues. Stop fishing and the marine biology associated with it and use the ocean as an industrial area for energy production appears to be their only answer. This lack of vision and distorted view of what the natural world should be does a sad disservice to the environment, the ocean eco-system, and the future of our world. The ocean is far too valuable to treat like real estate but that is for a future installment.
I don't believe it is any particular environmental group's fault that we are chlorinating and medicating the ocean. I do know that their demonizing, blame campaigns are becoming more difficult to support. At what point do we stop blaming the few remaining fishermen and begin to look for answers as to why the ocean is losing it's ability to sustain life. With all of the agenda driven science being funded it is enlightening to realize that on the really important topics like this one, where there is no one to blame (and dis-enfranchise) they have nothing to offer at all. The supposed saviors of the environment have many campaigns which increase their power and control over natural resources but no help for real problems.
Q and A
Why do they chlorinate the water flowing into the sea?
It's called, " Tertiary Sewage Treatment," and it is used to keep coastal areas clean and sanitary for swimming, sunbathing, and long walks on the beach. Some micro-organisms found in fecal matter are able to survive in saltwater causing illness, and public health problems. In Europe the same issue is solved with oxygenating agents like hydrogen peroxide which is considerably better for the environment than chlorine. They also use less medication and have higher waste water and chemical standards possibly due to the fact that they value the food production of the ocean and seafood more than we do in the US.
Why is the loss of phyto-plankton in near coastal areas a big deal, the ocean is so big there must be tons of it everywhere else?
Phyto-plankton is the primary food source for the entire marine eco-system, without it the entire population of fish, mammals, and most of the birds (The ones that dine at the dump would probably be fine) would all die from starvation. It also produces half of the oxygen in every breath of air you take (so on your next one you can thank the micro-scopic creatures that nobody cares about). Even though the ocean is very large only one percent of it is capable of producing phyto-plankton. Polluting and industrializing these important ocean habitat areas can destroy the ocean's ability to feed the life it contains. Phyto-plankton population decline also contributes to global warming by reducing the ability of the world to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide.
Why is seafood an important food source, can't we just stop fishing and all eat hamburgers or vegetables?
Seafood is the only food available that doesn't require fresh water and farm land to produce. The world's supply of available fresh water is in decline (It's outlook is poor enough that forward thinking individuals are investing in ownership of it and pushing for increasing privatization). To feed the world with animals and vegetables instead of fish, you would have to cut down all of the remaining rain forests and convert them to farm land. The effort would produce massive amounts of carbon (land conversion to food production now accounts for 12 percent of atmospheric carbon due to the fires used to clear the land). The good news is fish are made from carbon and sunlight. Every time you start your car 26 percent of the carbon produced goes into the ocean, fishing is the only way it is removed. If we find ways to help the plankton thrive we will always have lots of food and a healthy eco-system that is able to produce oxygen.
Why don't the environmental groups do something about any of this?
Their style of cause marketing requires easily identifiable bad people to blame and victims that are a heck of a lot cuter than algae and plankton (Even Sponge Bob doesn't have cute plankton). Since large amounts of donations to environmental groups come from the wealthiest people in the world it is not surprising that they tend to keep their focus on issues that don't adversely affect profits and big business. If you depend on the pharmaceutical industry for donations the last thing you should do is point out that they are polluting the world in an un-regulated fashion. The environmental industry is a business that in many ways serves the interests of the largest, most demanding donors. Like politics I don't think the wishes of the small donor mean that much.
Professor Ray Hillborn Discusses the state of the marine eco-system and the world's fish population and health and points out some of the flaws in both environmental thinking when it comes to fishing and the agenda driven science being produced for the foundations and trusts that fund (own) many environmental groups.
This article was written on George's Bank on the fishing vessel Western Venture. I would like to thank the US taxpayers for providing us with a marine biologist on the trip, and I would like to thank all of the people who took the time to campaign for more marine biologists to sail with us. It is really helping my writing.