On Earth Day Lydia, David, and I basked in the presence of Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. In “The Other 70%: Understanding Underwater Ecosystems,” Cousteau touched on many ocean tragedies, some which we are already aware of, like the plastic soup in the Pacific and the devastating introduction of toxic chemicals into the food chain. But two phrases he used throughout his presentation at Northwestern got me thinking:
If an astronaut had been looking down on the Earth at the time it was named, he would have seen a world of waters – with a tiny fraction of landmass hugged by the seascape. This little landmass is earth, and the name of our planet. But, Costau says, it would more aptly be named Planet Ocean.
Time for perspective. Though it seems like humans have taken over every inch of the globe, we really are dwarfed by a world that’s not ours. It’s the world of the beluga whales, bluefin tuna, gorgeous coral, and seabirds like the mighty albatross. We, in Cousteau’s words, are just “temporary visitors” here.
And as temporary visitors, we should be gracious, thankful for the opportunity to visit this world, and respectful to its inhabitants. But we’re not so courteous, alas. Just think of how you might behave as a guest in someone else’s home and let us know which social code, if any, would allow you to do the following:
- http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/04/23/ships-race-to-contain-the-gulf-of-mexico-oil-spill/. Set up your oil rig in someone else’s house without asking, knowing there’s a high probability of disaster.
- http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/opinion/27thu3.html?_r=1. Litter their home with tons of plastic waste that breaks down into tiny pieces and seeps into their family’s food supply.
- http://www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/aquacalypse-now. Helps yourself to everything in the fridge. Don’t bother restocking.
- http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/06/18/ocean-warming.html. Turn up the thermostat until temperatures become unbearable. Refuse to ask if anyone else is comfortable.
Unlike disgruntled hosts, however, the ocean doesn’t have the power to kick us out and never invite us back again. Far more subtle, it is slowly changing in response to our actions and is becoming ever less hospitable: warming temperatures, increased acidification, fewer marine species swimming through its depths, more violent storms brewing at its surface. Subtle, powerful signals that we’ve abused our welcome.
Living on this planet is a privilege. Think about this next time you enjoy a salty ocean breeze, watch a crab scuttle across a pristine beach, take comfort in a tree’s shade, or watch a sunset or moonrise. These are all the perks of being alive. They are privileges. Let’s act accordingly and respectfully. As Cousteau said to us that night, everything on this planet is connected; we need everything else not just for economic value but for “happiness, for a smile, to be part of a system.”