As a proto-marine scientist I am always looking for inspiration regarding the ocean’s many mysteries. I’m also a self-proclaimed literary snob. In an attempt to kill two birds with one nineteenth century Western classic, I decided to take a break from reading manuscripts and dive into the submarine adventures of Jules Verne’s infamous Captain Nemo.
I downloaded Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea onto my kindle and set off for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama in order to assist in some coral reef research. Armed with countless cryovials and falcon tubes, I was very excited to partake in the annual pilgrimage of the Vollmer Lab from Boston to Bocas del Toro. I was decidedly less excited about the substantial time at altitude that the trip requires. My plan was to immerse myself in the gripping narrative of a 20,000 league maritime journey so that I could forget about being more than 20,000 feet above the ground.
For the majority of the plane ride I was well-entertained. Between battles with 25-foot sharks and ridiculous physical and biological liberties with early SCUBA technology, my nerves were easily distracted. All was well until I read this line:
“Captain Nemo pointed to this prodigious heap of shellfish, and I saw that these mines were genuinely inexhaustible, since nature’s creative powers are greater than man’s destructive instincts.”
I don’t think that this statement was meant to be more than a passing thought, a demonstration of the impressive fecundity of a particular oyster garden. However, it stuck a chord with me. In fact, this sentence bothered me throughout my entire stay in Panama and continues to bother me now that I am back in Nahant. I hear the echo of Verne’s words when I screen diseased coral samples for pathogenic microbes, when I listen to the bleak lecture conclusions of nearly every ecology speaker that I’ve ever heard, and even sometimes when I read the news. Every chilling story from illegal whaling to oil spills sets off a loop in my mind: “nature’s creative powers are greater than man’s destructive instincts.”
Quite simply, this statement is 100% wrong. Perhaps the ocean seemed inexhaustible in 1870 but only the willfully ignorant would argue that point today. Scientific evidence is overwhelmingly on my side but I’m not going to spout off statistics regarding the imminent collapse of coral reefs, fisheries, coastal habitats, etc. A quick google search can give you more gloom and doom related to your specific area of interest than I can provide in a blog post. For me, the most disturbing part of this narrative is the speed with which we’ve decimated this planet’s most productive ecosystems. Suffice it to say, that in less than 150 years, man’s destructive instincts have nearly overtaken nature’s creative powers.
I don’t think mankind has fundamentally changed within the last 150 years. If you ask me, our destructive instincts are pretty apparent throughout all of recorded history. The twentieth century didn’t somehow magically transform human beings into the scourge of the earth. The truth is, we’ve never been particularly kind to the environment. However, for the vast majority of our past, we were simply too few and too primitive to throw a wrench into the works of Mother Nature. It is the inevitable evolution of technology that has ultimately made human beings a real threat to the health of the world. There are far too many of us and we are far too good at taking what we want. The point is, we are running out of time. We could afford to be careless in Captain Nemo’s day but that luxury is long gone.
I know that it’s easy to overlook the environment in times of economic stagnation. In fact, projects that benefit the environment are usually among the first to be slashed when Congress is predictably incompetent. Indeed, the sequester is a decided step in the absolute wrong direction. But that’s exactly why we need to step up to the plate. How can we justify draining the sea of all life because it is good for the economy at this moment? We must rise above our destructive instincts in order to preserve the creative powers that have served us since the beginning of time. The very existence of humans as a species is at stake since we can’t possibly survive on this planet without a healthy and productive ocean. Ironically, we have to save mankind from itself. Almost every day in Panama I dove on coral reefs riddled with disease and overgrown by algae. In a few places, trash outnumbered fish. Perhaps in 1870 these same reefs were as breathtaking as Jules Verne’s descriptions. As it is, marine ecosystems are a shadow of their former selves. We can’t afford to ignore the problem any longer. We need to take drastic measures before another 150 years go by and we have nothing left.