Reposted in part from Mother Jones.com, Environment, November/Decmber 2006 Issue. Written by Julia Whity. We believe her article is of Pulitzer Prize worthy status. Read the entire article at https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2006/11/thirteenth-tipping-point/
Twelve global disasters and one powerful antidote.
Illustrations: Guy Billout
WE’VE BEEN DIVING SHIFTS through the night for a week, donning clammy wet suits long after bedtime in order to hover above coral heads and peer into the pools of light from handheld strobes. We are examining the coral polyps, those goose bump-like swellings decorating staghorn, elkhorn, brain, fan, lettuce-leaf, and plate corals. Virtually all of the scleractinian, or reef-building, corals are readying themselves for the greatest sex show on earth, preparing to unleash an orgy of fertilization, self-fertilization, hybridization, and every other manner of fruitful and unfruitful coupling Mother Nature can dream up.
The 12 Tipping Points are:
- Amazon Rainforest
- North Atlantic Current
- Greenland Ice Sheet
- Ozone Hole
- Antartic Circumpolar Current
- Sahara Desert
- Tibetan Plateau
- Asian Monsoon
- Methane Clathrates
- Salinity Valves
- El Nino
- West Antarctic Ice Sheet
The pink and orange gamete bundles that look like caviar eggs but are actually hermaphroditic clusters of eggs and sperm are migrating up the polyps toward the oral cavities, the corals’ single, multipurpose orifices. Each night these bundles have been growing and stretching the polyps until they resemble nothing so much as minuscule pregnant bellies. On this night, the fourth night after the full moon of the austral springtime, the gametes are beginning to crown, like human heads in their birth canals.
I check my watch. When I glance back to the coral, the ocean is transformed. I blink, thinking I’m seeing things. But it’s really here—the black water engulfed in a pink and orange blizzard flowing toward the surface. Within seconds, countless billions of magenta and tangerine gamete bundles have been birthed from their polyps and are floating upward on the buoyancy of the fatty eggs.
Those of us underwater at this moment are also transformed by the bundles, which collect under the folds and angles of our wet suits, buoyancy control devices, dive masks, and regulators. Colorful gametes tangle in our hair. If we could breathe water, we’d be breathing them. The rate of the blizzard amplifies until the light from the strobes blinds us. Clicking to a lower setting, I see eruptions of milky white sperm pulsing rhythmically from nearby sponges and sea cucumbers, polychaete worms and giant clams.
On this night, as many as half of the reef-building corals—perhaps 150 species—plus a host of other invertebrates inhabiting the 1,200 miles of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, are spawning. It’s an ancient ritual, maybe as old as the 200 million-plus years that scleractinian corals have been alive. These corals emerged in the darkest days after the Permian-Triassic extinction, when the planet was impoverished nearly beyond repair by massive global climate change, and when almost all life died in hot, dry, and iceless conditions. Since then they have survived two subsequent mass extinctions, including the one that killed the non-avian dinosaurs.
Already, manta rays with six-foot wingspans are sailing into view, mouths open, filtering the eggs from the water. At the outer range of our strobes, reef sharks are circling, preparing to gorge on those that have come to feast. From the cold and perpetually dark reaches of the deep known as the mesopelagic, fish that glow in the dark, and live a mile or more below the tidal, lunar, and seasonal influences that trigger the mass spawning, are rising toward it now, preparing to devour the bonanza they have perceived in ways we can’t.
No modern human knew of the mass spawning of corals on the Great Barrier Reef before 1982, when marine biologists accidentally happened upon it. Since then, other spawnings adhering to their own unique schedules have been discovered on many reef systems. Somehow, spineless, brainless, eyeless, earless, immotile marine animals that meet all our criteria for zero intelligence manage to synchronize their activities to ensure survival. Otherwise, all their gametes—a year’s investment in energy—would launch off into open water without ever finding suitable partners. While an individual animal might survive such behavior for the term of its natural life, the species could not.
12 ASTEROIDS AND EVOLVING INTO WISDOM
In 2004, John Schellnhuber, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet. Odds are you’ve never heard of most of these tipping points, even though your entire genetic legacy—your children, your grandchildren, and beyond—may survive or not depending on their status.
Why is this? Is it likely that 12 asteroids on known collision courses with earth would garner such meager attention? Remarkably, we appear to be doing what even the simplest of corals does not: haphazardly tossing our metaphorical spawn into a ruthless current and hoping for a fertile future. We do this when we refuse to address global environmental issues with urgency; when we resist partnering for solutions; and when we continue with accelerating momentum, and with what amounts to malice aforethought, to behave in ways that threaten our future.
A 2005 study by Anthony Leiserowitz, published in Risk Analysis, found that while most Americans are moderately concerned about global warming, the majority—68 percent—believe the greatest threats are to people far away or to nonhuman nature. Only 13 percent perceive any real risk to themselves, their families, or their communities. As Leiserowitz points out, this perception is critical, since Americans constitute only 5 percent of the global population yet produce nearly 25 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions. As long as this dangerous and delusional misconception prevails, the chances of preventing Schellnhuber’s 12 points from tipping are virtually nil.
So what will it take to trigger what we might call the 13th tipping point: the shift in human perception from personal denial to personal responsibility? Without a 13th tipping point, we can’t hope to avoid global mayhem. With it, we can attempt to put into action what we profess: that we actually care about our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.
Science shows that we are born with powerful tools for overcoming our perilous complacency. We have the genetic smarts and the cultural smarts. We have the technological know-how. We even have the inclination. The truth is we can change with breathtaking speed, sculpting even “immutable” human nature. Forty years ago many people believed human nature required blacks and whites to live in segregation; 30 years ago human nature divided men and women into separate economies; 20 years ago human nature prevented us from defusing a global nuclear standoff. Nowadays we blame human nature for the insolvable hazards of global warming.
The 18th-century taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus named us Homo sapiens, from the Latin sapiens, meaning “prudent, wise.” History shows we are not born with wisdom. We evolve into it.
Click the link above to read the rest of this award deserving article,
including the following headings:
CLIMATE CLIQUES AND NAYSAYERS
THE ALARMISTS AND THE ACROBAT
SOCIAL FACILITATION, REWARDING PRUDENCE
SOCIAL LOAFING, THE MEDIA, THE OZONE HOLE
THE GAME THEORY OF COCKROACH DEMOCRACY
SEQUESTERED KNOWLEDGE AND SNOW MIRRORS
THE RECIPROCAL ALTRUISM OF VAMPIRE BATS
THE CLATHRATE GUN HYPOTHESIS
LET THEM EAT CO2
WE ARE THE ANTIDOTE
This morning, in the aftermath of the coral spawning on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the surface of the sea is slick and pink with eggs. From the air or from afar it looks like an oil spill and smells like a fish kill, drawing in creatures from the deep and creatures from the land, including crocodiles cruising the reefs. Underwater, the fish that make their living picking plankton are hyperactively at work—the day shift toiling alongside the night shift, as lobsters, cuttlefish, and flashlightfish forgo sleep to feast. Above, the air is crowded with seabirds plucking at the surface with pink-stained beaks.
In the coming days the gamete cloud will travel on prevailing currents, triggering the corals below to spawn. Seduced by moonlight, spring, and the tides, stimulated by the chemistry of other spawners, the tiny creatures that build their own world will build it again.
So too with us. The difference between people and corals is that if we build our world poorly, we can rebuild it well. We know what to do. We know how to do it. We know the timeline. We are our own antidote.