On the day that the slogan “Save the whales!” became cliche not just outside the environmental movement, but with in the movement as well, a deep rift was made. This rift signaled conclusively just how badly our vital connection to one of the most important indicator species of the largest ecosystem on our planet had been broken. There are three simple reasons for this: first, general public apathy regarding ecology, second, shifting priorities with in the environmental movement, and third, just plain human ignorance.
Finishing this post as I as am on “Black Friday” after watching a video of people fighting each other over 2$ dollar waffle makers, it’s a real challenge not to give in to that part of me that feels we are doomed, very doomed, never to wake up, never to see what’s really going on. In all fairness to the human race, we shouldn’t be too hard on our ignorant selves for our transgressions on this planet. Only in the last couple of decades has humanity had the proper tools (yes I do mean the internets) for us be able to see the mind boggling effects of our cumulative actions in any quantitatively precise way.
Personally, I feel that our collective consciousness right now is at a similar stage to that of a first grader’s, bright, curious, and without a clue as to who cleans up all the crayons that get mashed into the carpet. When we are confronted with the bigger picture how often have we exclaimed with wonder, WOW! If you really look at how very connected and interdependent our world is, then WOW! is right, but what does it mean for us to live by and respect those ancient truths. Will we ever give up our cheap consumer goods before it’s too late?
I currently put my faith in storytelling. Stories were, and will always be, the main means by which we keep the threads of wisdom alive through the generations. Stories are knowledge put into context, hard data that comes wrapped in sticky emotion so that it actually stays put in our minds and they can guide us in this century just as they have in centuries past. Whales have a long and amazing story to share that embodies a wisdom desperately needed in our modern age. The fact that whales were related to land dwelling mammals that then returned to the sea for good one day is in itself astonishing, but their story also has a supporting cast. I’m talking about some very small, but extremely important creatures that all too easily we’ve taken for granted, phytoplankton.
While there is a almost endless variety of shapes that the little plants take (see slideshow below), they all share three critical ecological functions, the create oxygen, sink carbon, and provide the basic foundation of the oceanic food web. In the last fifty years phytoplankton have been on a serious decline and one part of the problem is temperature change, although the corresponding decline in whale populations is another significant factor only recently being evaluated.
Whales, the great behemoths of the deep, bio-accumulate iron, an essential mineral needed for phytoplankton and photosynthesis. This iron comes from the zooplankton and krill whales feed on, and it is then release in their excrement on their long migration routes across the vast oceans of the world. This process allows phytoplanton to live in regions of the ocean that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to survive, thus increasing the overall amount of oxygen created and carbon stored. Yes, without whale poop there may have been significantly less oxygen created on our planet and perhaps we never would evolved our big oxygen loving brains at all.
Regenerative “closed loop” cycles like this are found through out natural world the logic of which underlies the basis of all permaculture principals. This link between phytoplankton and iron is so essential to the regulation of our climate that some scientists have even proposed dumping iron fillings in the oceans as a geo-engineering scheme to head off global warming. But, just because you’ve dumped iron in the ocean that doesn’t mean it’s likely to be biologically available. In fact, recently scientist discovered that it’s the little creatures call zooplankton who make regular dives towards the ocean floor and gather the iron near volcanic vents that then becomes biologically available first to whales and later phytoplankton. What is most remarkable is that the food web link between phytoplankin, mostly microscopic creatures, and whales, a decidely macroscopic creature, is one of the shortest known. From small to big and from big to small interdepence and collaboration operate at every scale
Recongnizing our connection and interdependence is our first step on the path to healing. Perhaps no region could stand to learn more from whales than the country of Japan. The Japanese long criticized for their refusal to stop illegal whaling also control most of the world’s fish markets and are extremely dependent on the protein they get from the sea to feed their populous nation. If they were to learn the harm that whaling was having on fish stocks would it convince the government to outlaw the practice? If we were all to learn just one thing from this story it’s that nature always devices systems to give back, to regenerate, and to close the cycle so that it may continue on into the future. We will never be able to see the solutions to our ecological problems without seeing how they started in the first place, without closing the rift that prevents us from knowing our connections.