Ebb Tide

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Sea bird nurseries in Orkney and the Shetlands. Fulmars with chicks. The Orkneys and the Shetlands, Great Britain, 1995.

This will not make world headlines and most likely will not trigger most people around the world into a mass hysteria, but when I read the news in the Independant yesterday about the massive drop in sea bird populations in the North Sea, I couldn’t help but feel a great chill sweep through me akin to the shock I felt when first hearing the news of the New York tragedy. In fact, as I sat contemplating the repercussions of what is happening in the Orkneys and the Shetlands, and broadened my perspective by connecting the dots between what is happening there to all the interconnected ecosystemic failures around the world, a slowly dawning horror spread through me like a pool of blood. Global warming is no longer just conjecture. It is no longer the day after tomorrow. It is happening right here, right now. And the consequences to us are truly terrifying; they make the New York tragedy look like a garden party in comparison.

And of course, there will be lots of debating whether there really is any danger at all, whether the data is slanted, whether the loss of the seabirds will have any bearing on us financially or in disrupting our merry lives. The focus will remain on Iraq and the American election and our global habitat be damned. It’s always about just us, and always we disassociate ourselves with any relationship to the respiration of the planet. We like to think of ourselves as astronauts within our own homes.

I traveled to both the Shetlands and the Orkneys in 1995. I sat on the cliffs for hours gazing at the teeming millions of Fulmars, Guillimots, Black Guillimots, Razorbills, Gannets, Cormorants, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Arctic Skuas, Great Skuas, Arctic Terns, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, Common Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Shags and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the sheer clouds of wings and metropolis-like vertical cities on the cliff sides. To think that by next year this will have vanished, like a great hand sweeping across a clock face, defies belief. It is like my heart has been raked over and my own existence and culpability questioned.

Here in Japan, a supposedly temperate climate, this summer the days are troubled by daily tropical storms, exactly how the Philippines, a tropical country, receives its summer costume. Mornings beamed into by a beating sun, followed by afternoons of thunderous showers. This is not Japan at all. The gods must be playing the wrong game up there among the clouds. Could it be a shift in values? Are the regions playing musical chairs and roles reversed? Am I going to have to learn to grow bananas and papayas now? Or will the Great Ocean decide to clean house and inundate the lowlands with an angry bath that will have us running for the hilltops in our shoving, thoughtless billions?

How much longer will the pastoral last? If the structure of the world we know falls into chaos, how long, for instance, will I survive without the medical elixir of insulin to keep my diabetic blood from consuming me? (a few days, perhaps? A month, as my body slowly eats itself to death and I crash into a coma?). Will we be left alone among the heat waves, to contemplate our mass stupidity and finally, but too late, take the blame for our irresponsibility?

Or can we learn now, before our brothers and sisters who sustain us vanish, that there is no hierarchy and that our ape-like motivations coupled to immense power makes for a time bomb that we must learn to deactivate now, or we all perish?

People want soft words and comforting scenarios. They cringe at the the idea of the romance disintegrating. But the natural world is as real as the hard knocks of the real human world. They are, in fact, one and the same. So when are we going to wake up and manage our home (the “eco” of ecology and economy) the same way that we are so compelled to do in our workaday lives? When will the natural world become our work and our livelihood? When, if we can imagine it so, will we become animals once again?

7 Responses

  1. We’ll become animals again when our collective stupidity destroys civilisation.

    I don’t think your gloom is unfounded.

    But what can *I* do? Even were I permitted to cast a vote, I could vote every time for the Green party candidate, only to watch him lose. Today, I’ve been taught that my voice, precisely because it is divisive, is of no value, and I’ve concluded that influencing adults who have already made up their minds is a foolish goal.

    The best I can hope for is that by not driving, by taking as much care as I can myself, I’ll have done my part. It won’t be enough. Not nearly enough. But I’m powerless to do more. I can only hope I don’t live long enough to witness complete environmental collapse.

  2. Yes, the gloom is what comes up every time, isn’t it? The reality is that there is not much each of us can do. And that is gloomy.

    Perhaps we ought to live as animals do: struggling to make it out of the leg trap even as the trapper comes striding up, and then struggling to make do even when our leg has been severed, never giving up, clinging to the hope of being alive and valuing above all else the gift of life we carry inside and all around us, never questioning the legitimacy of being alive.

    Being fierce. And steadfast. And knowledgeable. And willing to hold all the pain until the fever breaks.

  3. What can we do? I suppose we can do what we can: our own small gestures; like using the bus, cycling or walking instead of driving; using less electricity by being conservative; et cetera. That, and by advocating technological change, for research into alternative energy sources, for the search for replacements for our current inefficient transportation systems, for the necessity of funding research into a range of new, enabling technologies.

    We’re not dead yet. If there is one thing I’ve learnt, it is that as long as we’re alive, we have the ability to “choose again”. We’ll change. Probably not until the uncomfortable fact is _rammed_ down our throats and we choke on it, but by Jove we’ll change when we must. And we’ll build new ways of existing, ways that integrate the modern, the cities that I love with every fiber of my being, with the natural world around us.

    Technological change is accelerating at a level I believe is exponential, and it promises to liberate us from so much of our old dependencies. There will come a time when we’ll give birth to a star. I don’t usually mention it, but in some areas — science and the promise of a better world that it has given me — I’m still an optimist.

    We’ll have to go into the crucible, and we’ll be burned away. But what emerges will be refined, purified, and tempered. I like to think that we’re like the phoenix. We always emerge from the ashes of our past failures. We’re human. We make mistakes. But being human, we have the capacity to learn. And the capacity to choose a new path.

  4. It’s that kind of knowing, anticipation which is so denied on a broader scale that it is hard to work out how to stay sane. Perhaps N. is right and that part of the answer is to act coherently with one’s own perception…..

  5. even though we feel powerless, one thing that still allows us to do our part is to slow down long enough to appreciate the beauty around us.

    open our eyes, and remember

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