In one of the most beautiful essays ever written in the English language, the 17th century courtier, poet, adventurer, priest and lecturer, John Donne, reflected on the meaning of a tolling funeral bell. His Meditation 17, when rendered in a modern idiom, reads like this:
“No man is an island unto himself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. When one man dies, it diminishes me for I am a part of all mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Ernest Hemingway used a few of these words for the title of one of his famous books. But “for whom the bell tolls” has another relevance today that is more poignant, one encapsulated by a visitor to Hawaii who casually noted that the islands’ coral reefs are dying.
Indeed, they are. And they are dying elsewhere, too: throughout the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, the Red, the Indian — everywhere there are coral reefs. Perhaps the most spectacular casualty is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Scientists give it another 10 years before its corals will no longer be able to adapt to warming oceans. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s corals, the Great Barrier’s corals use a heat-sensitive single species of symbiotic algae for energy. And the reefs are not mobile enough to migrate poleward 15 km per year to cooler water (New Scientist, Apr. 9/11). As these reefs die, so too will the myriad species of spectacular fish that make these ecologies so rich and beautiful.
Reefs, as marine biologists attest, are the oceans’ nurseries. With about a quarter of all marine species living there, they are key to maintaining healthy fish stocks and biodiversity. If these multi-hued corals turn into bleak and grey gravestones of death, then the impacts will be dramatic and global.
Ocean acidification, an even more serious consequence of the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning fossil fuels we burn, threatens the entire marine ecosystem. The 500 billion tonnes of CO2 that has dissolved into the oceans since the Industrial Revolution is now threatening the foundation of the marine food chain with rapidly dropping pH levels. If phytoplankton, krill and the micro-crustacea are no longer able to form their carbonate shells, then the entire system collapses, from the smallest of creatures to salmon and great whales.
But the funereal bell is tolling almost everywhere these days. About one third of all mammals, plants, fish and birds are expected to be extinct within a human lifetime, victims of a fatal combination of climate change, habitat loss, exotic species, disease, pollution, commercialization, greed or any of the litany of ills sponsored by human indiscretion and ignorance. Amphibians are suffering some of the worst declines. People now travel the globe to get a rare glimpse of the few remaining tigers, white rhinos, frogs and rare birds. Over-fishing has brought most large fish to the edge of extinction.
We still live mostly in isolation from the consequences of our actions. The industrial machinery that makes our consumer products, the fossil fuels that generate our electricity, the cars that drive us to work, the airplanes that skitter us around the planet add 70 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each day. In the myopia of our daily lives, we don’t notice that about 30 percent of that CO2 is absorbed into the world’s oceans to form carbonic acid. Our oceans are now 29 percent more acidic than they were 250 years ago, and by 2050 they will be 70 percent more acidic. The consequences are already being felt. Along Washington’s coast, for example, the water is now so corrosive that oyster larvae cannot form shells — Pacific oysters there have been unable to reproduce in the wild since 2004 (Strait Talk, Spring 2012). This increasing acidity will eventually threaten squid, starfish, shrimp, sea urchins, mussels and abalone. Even fish at the larval stage may be unable to survive. Hardy jellyfish will be the last survivors in an excessively acidic ocean (Ibid).
Somehow, by a perverse and dexterous trick of self-deception, we have failed to duly personalize the wholesale environmental crisis that surrounds us. The outer limit of ourselves too often ends at our skin, as if an imaginative handicap prevents us from realizing that everything else on our planet is a part of us, too. All the things we know and experience derive from the diverse wealth of nature that contains us. It is the frame of reference for all our understanding and meaning. Time, rhythm, perspective, size, shape, colour, sound, taste, smell, distance, relationship — our very sentience — are all anchored in nature. Earth itself is only unique because of the living species that enliven it. As our treasured surroundings are threatened, degraded or lost, a justified response should be outcries of trespass, theft, anger and outrage, not indifference or vague expressions of concern. Environmental destruction is an assault against our person. At the very least, the measure of our present situation and the weighing of our future prospects should warrant silent mourning and inward weeping.
Donne’s Meditation 17 is an apt reminder that each death on our planet diminishes us because we are part of the whole. Each species that is endangered or goes extinct narrows the breadth, depth and richness of our experience as human beings. Each loss shrinks and withers the quality of our lives. How ironic and tragic that, just as we are discovering the incredible intricacy, complexity and intelligence of nature, we are destroying this astounding miracle with unprecedented efficiency, as if the same bell that is celebrating life is also tolling its death.