In Hot Water

There seems to be little doubt that the world’s oceans are in trouble. Here in Cape Cod, which was named for shoals of fish once so numerous that you could “walk across the water on their backs”, the fishing industry is all but gone, the result of near-total depletion of a fishery that once seemed limitless. It now appears, as we read here, that fertilizer runoff is leading to algal blooms that cause oxygen-deprived “dead zones”, and in this article we read about the “rise of slime”:

Areas that had featured intricate marine food webs with large animals are being converted into simplistic ecosystems dominated by microbes, toxic algal blooms, jellyfish and disease.

In Jared Diamond’s fascinating but dour book Collapse (which I have already mentioned in a previous post), he described a process that has brought societies to ruin again and again: a tendency to move into an area with abundant biological resources — in the form of game, forests, arable land, and so forth — and to enjoy a period of luxuriant growth during which the resources are voraciously consumed (Diamond refers to this consumption of resources without regard to their renewal “mining”). During this period the region can support a large human population, and indeed the community grows rapidly, supported not only by its native resources but also by the goods that trading those resources can provide.

But the larger the population, the greater the demand, and the pace of resource depletion accelerates. Ultimately this arrangement leads to a catastrophic failure — due not simply to reaching the Malthusian limit of what the land can renewably produce, but due to a large population having been built upon an illusion of unbounded wealth. It is like a startup company living high on the hog on its initial round of funding, without ever solving the problem of how to generate sustainable profits. (You can watch a presentation by Diamond about all of this here.)

It seems that we are reaching this point of collapse in the world’s oceans. It is rather a grim prospect.

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