On Science

Crimes against nautical nature

By Anthony Doerr
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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An island of plastic trash twice the size of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean. In much of the Caribbean, 80 percent of shallow coral reefs are dead. By the end of this century, as many as half of the Earth’s species will be extinct.

Oh, and don’t forget: Our collective carbon emissions appear to have committed us to a future that’s about 1.8 degrees Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels. That’s hotter than the planet has been for millions of years.

Have you stopped reading this column yet? “Human kind,’’ says a bird in the first of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,’’ “cannot bear very much reality.’’ Eliot’s bird is probably right: On how many mornings have I flipped past the latest doomsday statistics and headed straight for the sports section?

And yet, in her new book “The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One,’’ eminent oceanographer Sylvia A. Earle warns, “Diminishing the diversity of life as we are now doing translates to diminished chances for our continued prosperity.’’

In “Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse,’’ Oberlin professor David W. Orr, puts things more directly. “It is clear,’’ he writes, “that we are headed toward a global disaster that has the potential to destroy civilization.’’

Maybe it’s time for all of us to start bearing more reality. Lots more.

“I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future,’’ says Orr. The vision of our greenhouse future in “Down to the Wire’’ is not one of pleasant January walks on Cape Cod in T-shirts while farms of windmills turn happily in the background. What Orr foresees instead is absolute global destabilization.

For Orr, climate change is the only issue, not one among many. Ignore it, he argues, and we’ll guarantee our own extinction. Even if we do manage to cap carbon emissions and start the atmospheric system on a path toward rebalancing itself, Orr insists that we’d better start preparing for cataclysmic droughts, repeated acts of terrorism, massive human migrations from the coasts, a Midwest unsuitable for growing wheat by 2050, and the potential inundation of New Orleans, Miami, Washington, Baltimore, and Boston (yes, Boston), along with dozens more coastal cities.

I don’t mean to make “Down to the Wire’’ sound like disaster porn; this book is nothing like “2012’’ or whatever new doomsday movie is detonating in our cinemas. Rather it’s a grave assessment of our government’s incapacity to withstand the massive challenges that lay in the decades ahead.

If you want a list of a dozen cheerful things to buy to “green’’ up your life, “Down to the Wire’’ is not your kind of book. But if you can bear a dire, relentless, and daunting series of proposals for what we should do now to ensure that our grandchildren can live recognizably decent lives, give it a read.

In “The World is Blue,’’ Earle is slightly less grim as she whisks her reader through a hit list of humanity’s various oceanic felonies. Earle is a brilliant defender of the seas, and she’s lived long enough to see firsthand just how much we’ve damaged them in the past 75 years, from spilling oil, to taking 90 percent of the big predatory fish, to acidifying the oceans with our carbon output.

“The fact is,’’ Earle writes, busily mixing metaphors, “that our actions relative to the natural living world, land, air, and sea, have taken us to a precipice, a tipping point, a crossroads with ourselves in the crosshairs, the ones responsible for the fix we’re in.’’

Thankfully her book is urgent without becoming indignant, and her prose is interspersed with lots of personal anecdotes from a lifetime of diving and peering out submarine windows. This is not just someone who laments the fate of, say, the spiny lobster, but someone who can write, “Even in the 1950s, during my first underwater explorations of the Florida Keys, it seemed that spiny lobsters were everywhere, their long antennae seeming to sprout like whiskers from ledges and crevices.’’

Fundamentally Orr and Earle are making moral arguments, not scientific or philosophical ones. If our current course of action imperils the lives of our descendants, they argue, we are obligated to change course.

Here’s Earle: “We cannot magically go back to a time when the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere was less, when fish, trees, and wild places were more, but we can make the future better than it otherwise would be if we do nothing.’’

Here’s Orr: “I believe there are grounds for hope, but since we have frittered away our margin of safety, they are a century or more ahead in an unknown future when we have stabilized the carbon cycle, reduced the concentration of greenhouse gases to preindustrial levels, stopped the hemorrhaging of life, and finally ended the curse of violence.’’

Can we transform media, divorce money from politics, build a carbon-neutral society, protect large sections of our oceans, and find leaders who can put sustainability into a moral context? If we fail, the lives we’ll ruin will be not only those of tree frogs or spotted owls or people who live in low-lying coastal cities.

The lives we’ll ruin will be those of our children.

Anthony Doerr is the author of “The Shell Collector,’’ “About Grace,’’ and “Four Seasons in Rome.’’

How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

By Sylvia A. Earle
National Geographic, 303 pp., illustrated, $26

Confronting Climate Collapse

By David W. Orr
Oxford University, 261 pp., $19.95

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