This article was originally published here and is reproduced with permission.
Author: Anna Hitchcock
NB: The opinions in this article are the author’s own.
It seems incredible to me that so many people have such a hard time accepting that human activity might be to blame for some of the ecological (and human) disasters out there.
As a scientist, I simply look at the facts first.
And the first thing I need to accept – for the proof is right in front of me – is that everything I do, from breathing to drinking a cup of coffee, has an impact on other aspects of my world. After all, my choices create the personal world I live in.
I chose to live in this house, I chose this sort of breakfast, I chose this brand of coffee at the supermarket.
Each one of those choices (large or small) has consequences for my external environment. I choose to shop at this supermarket over that one. Therefore I am partially responsible for that supermarket’s success. Therefore I am partially responsible for when they remove koala habitat for their next store.
Now if you take all those consequences to their logical extreme, you would be paralysed into doing nothing at all. But even your death has consequences for the world. There is energy used to deal with your body, to redistribute any wealth you may have built up, to grieve your passing.
And this is why I find it very peculiar that people object when we dare to suggest that a major cumulative human impact like the dredging of Gladstone Harbour might have further reaching impacts down the years.
Apparently we are ‘blaming everything that happens on the dredging’. No we are not. But the science regarding extra nutrients causing algal blooms has been settled for a long time.
We know that algal blooms in this area are a ‘natural’ occurrence. But the scientist in me says this – for how long have these blooms been occurring? What size were they in 1900 compared to now? How frequent were the fish kills and how large were the fish that died? Just how ‘natural’ are they? Algae is of course a natural part of the ecosystem, and ecosystems ebb and flow and occasionally get out of balance. But why is it taboo to suggest that human activity may have intensified the algal bloom? I don’t know to what percentage until someone does the science, but excess algae is a sign of a sick ecosystem. Is it so hard to accept that we might have contributed to this?
Similarly with the large muttonbird or shearwater die off this year. It is very easy to dismiss this as a ‘natural’ occurrence. But what if our continual pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere has intensified winds to the point that 20% more birds die each migration than they used to?
What if our decision to stop eating these birds has led to a population explosion which now shows up in increased numbers washing up on our beaches?
What if there is something else going on – like radiation exposure at Fukushima has reduced some birds’ immune systems to the point where they can’t cope with the migratory flight.
Until these things are properly investigated, we can’t know whether we have had any input into this or not.
Dismissing these events as ‘natural’ and therefore not investigating the causes does everyone a disservice.
Who knows what else might be going on?
The dead turtle we recently pictured has a break in its shell which looks like it is from a boat strike. Why couldn’t it get out of the way? Maybe it has a belly full of plastic bags and couldn’t submerge to avoid the strike. But if no-one investigates the stomach contents of dead turtles to find out why it died, you can’t make that link and deal with the cause. The cause in this case being plastic bags which we all use to take groceries home.
For those who don’t know, turtles, being otherwise reasonably sensible, have a serious weakness for jellyfish and they get very greedy. A floating plastic bag looks like a jellyfish in the water and they will eat any they see. Plastic in stomachs is not confined to turtles either, seabirds also suffer from eating plastic and from getting it tangled around themselves.
Now plastic is not a ‘natural’ product. It is entirely our creation and therefore our responsibility. It has tremendous advantages to it as a product, and some disadvantages too. The major issue is that some forms do not biodegrade, but get chopped into smaller and smaller pieces and hang around as a kind of toxic soup. More plastic in the belly – less food.
Taking the blame for plastic then, is reasonably easy. Taking the blame for messing about with the climate and ecosystems when the interactions are complex is harder for anyone who doesn’t understand how these systems work.
Unfortunately most people have been conditioned to think of the ocean and the air as an inexhaustible and infinite resource. This is not so. Even the mighty Sol (the sun) at the heart of our solar system will one day exhaust his fuel, contract, explode and die.
So to get back to our local situation and a more personal time scale. Yes, the dredging will continue to have an ecological impact long after the initial work is done. The scars on the sea floor and the fine sediment washing about will take a long time to heal and settle. The change in currents due to the Western Basin will change what can grow where. And the dugong may never come back.
The CO2 which in the form of coal we are shipping out of Gladstone Harbour will be burnt overseas and contribute to more intense storms. This gives the people of Gladstone some part of the responsibility for the tragedy in the Philippines. And some part of the responsibility for the more intense and more frequent bushfire season here. And some part of the responsibility for the algae and the dead fish and the dead birds.
I don’t know how much is my responsibility. I only know that I need to do whatever is in my power to reduce the burden on an already overstretched ecosystem.
I accepted blame a long time ago, it’s time for everyone else to do the same.
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