The real beauty of a coral reef is in the way it renews itself and creates the strongest of structures in the world with the most delicate of life forms. If the fragile polyps are damaged, the reef crumbles. You could say the same of us, and our world: that which is most fragile in us, and in our world, is what makes us — and gives us life. It is a lesson we, as humans, have been slow to learn.
The ocean has been a presence for me since my earliest days. Growing up in Sri Lanka, going into the ocean was a regular outing. A Sunday sea bath, we’d call it. It would be dipping in, not swimming, because the currents and the surf of the sea near Colombo would be too strong. Not everyone in Sri Lanka grows up by the sea even though it is an island. There were boys I met inland who had never seen the sea. It was a mystery to them. What does it look like? What does it sound like?
The sound of that surf pounding the beach was a drumbeat that has stayed with me; a pulse of the planet, a herald to the sea-god Triton rising from the waves, blowing his ‘wreathed horn’ and asking us to look after the sea so that it may look after us. But look after it is exactly what we, the most powerful species on the planet, have failed to do. And the cost is catastrophic.
Although recent alarm makes it seem as though human damage to the oceans has been sudden and new, people have known about it since at least the 1960s — the characters in my first novel, Reef, set in the sixties, worry about it. The difference is that back then people thought the damage was to marine life, to coral reefs, and to the state of the ocean. Not many realized it was a threat to our lives as well. Not until the tsunami of 2004, which showed the tragic cost of a broken reef. The ban on dynamiting fish, the attempts to control the pollution of coral reefs, marine preservation, and the too slow attempt to control plastic in the ocean, all may have started as initiatives to protect the life of the ocean, but now we can see they are necessary to protect life on earth.
And then, there is climate change.
A two-degree change in the temperature of the ocean would mean not only the death of coral reefs but a trail of devastation that would lead up to all of us: a rise in sea levels; the drowning of islands — nations even; the loss of krill which would reduce fish stocks; a shift in ocean currents and the weird situation of having more plastic than fish in the seas becoming a reality even sooner than is already expected.
Twelve million tons of plastic go into the ocean every year, and that is according to the UK government. You can find graphics of this on-line at Oceana and other sites. Most startling is the idea that it is the equivalent of 16 shopping bags full of plastic for every metre of coastline in the world; a garbage truck full of plastic tipped into the sea every minute.
But all this — the plastic, the overheating, the damage — is not inevitable. It happens not as a result of natural laws but as a result of thoughtless choices. And because of human laws that privilege narrow self-interest over global needs.
- Oil spills from tanker accidents such as the Wakashio in Mauritius shouldn’t happen, any more than a disastrous explosion of ammonium nitrate stored in a port like Beirut.
- Shipping lanes should not cut through whale migration routes causing collisions and whale deaths. (The Sri Lanka National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency has estimated that up to 20 blue and sperm whales were being accidentally killed off the island coastline annually by ships; the Independent quotes a study that reckons at least 80 endangered whales die in collisions off the West Coast of America every year.)
- A billion tons of plastic should not be in the guts of fish any more than it should be in ours.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours …
So Wordsworth mourned over 200 years ago, but the Triton he invokes later in that poem would say there is still time to do better.
The ocean can be looked after to provide energy — thermal, tidal, wind, food — and carbon sinks that are more efficient than the Amazon rain forest. The blueprint is out. The initiative of protecting at least a third of the oceans, instead of the global 2.5% at present, is gaining support (UK is committed to it). It could allow a regeneration of the ocean, but we also need a rapid cut in emissions without which the oceans will overheat.
Pollution and climate change are two parts of the one challenge.
Marine life, human life and the blue planet itself can be saved — if we listen to Triton’s plea and do the right thing while we still have the chance.
Romesh Gunesekera is internationally acclaimed for novels and short stories that explore key themes of our times – political, environmental, economic – through books of wide appeal.
His first novel, the Booker short-listed Reef, is told by Triton the servant of a marine biologist who is trying to preserve endangered corals while society around him is fast eroding. Heaven’s Edge, his 2002 novel, a forerunner of current eco-fiction, is set in a dystopian world where Marc and the eco-rebel, Uva, try to renew a devastated island.
His latest novel, Suncatcher (shortlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize), is a story of divided loyalties and endangered friendship in the turbulent 1960s of Ceylon and a celebration of the natural world. It is now available in paperback and as an audiobook.
Born in Sri Lanka, he also lived in the Philippines before coming to Britain.
Call to action:
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