Ocean post Feb 2020I recently viewed an incredible TED talk by marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson entitled “How we wrecked the ocean.”  It’s hard to believe that this talk is already ten years old, but I am certain it has only grown more relevant over time.

I was struck by several parallels to the global food waste challenge (and to the larger food system) in Jackson’s talk, which began with the story of the destruction of the coral reefs in the Caribbean through overfishing and habitat decline – leading to the replacement of coral reefs there (and similarly worldwide) with seaweed and slime.

Jackson referred to this as “my little depressing story” – noting that there are tens of thousands of such stories among others – and claiming that “it is hard to conjure up a sense of well-being” because the damage to the oceans keeps getting worse.  This reminded me of the food waste challenge, which due to its sheer size (one to two billion tons of food lost or waste annually) can lead individuals to feel that it is too daunting to impact through changes in their behavior.

He went on to describe humanity’s destructive impact on the oceans in three main ways – overfishing, pollution, and climate change.  Regarding overfishing, Jackson first described the collapse of the cod fishery in the 1980s and 1990s, citing it as the turning point from “bigger and tastier species to smaller and not-so tasty species.”  He also pointed to the fact that we can all buy cheap fish – a reference to the fact that environmental externalities of its acquisition are not included in the price.  He followed with a powerful visual, comparing pictures of trophy fish taken by anglers from the same boat, same dock, and same place in Florida in the 1950s to pictures from 60 years later.  The decrease in size of the fish in such a short time period was indeed stunning – and it reminded me of the speed with which we have transitioned from a culture of frugality around food from the War years (just 75-80 years ago) to our current, highly wasteful culture of abundance.

From there, Jackson described the impact of industrial fishing on species decline – including big machinery, 20-mile long nets and longlines with 1-2 million hooks.  I couldn’t help thinking of highly automated machinery churning out high volumes of bread and baked goods, so much of which is casually wasted today.

Jackson also described the impact of trawling, where “you take something the size of a tractor trailer truck which weighs thousands and thousands of pounds, put in on a big chain, and drag it across the sea floor to stir up the bottom and catch fish.”  He likened this to the bulldozing of a forest, noting that “the habitat destruction is unbelievable.”  And he supported this commentary with an image of the sea floor, which was starkly desolate – barren and denuded.  Following trawling, what was once a forest of sponges and coral, Jackson pointed out, is now mud.  Notably, the image revealed grooves in the mud, resembling a field that had recently been plowed to plant corn.

The scale of this impact is immense.  Jackson noted that the area of the ocean floor that has been transferred from forest to mud is equivalent to the entire area of all of the forests that have ever been cut down in the history of humanity.

The image of the sea floor was incredibly powerful, clearly revealing the downside of the invisible nature of trawling.  Yet few individuals have insight into its destructive impact on habitat, and particularly the scale of that destruction – so the problem receives insufficient attention.   There’s a strong parallel to the food waste challenge here as well.  Our culture of abundance involving food involves entrenched overproduction and overconsumption that leads to the waste of one-third to one-half of our food supply — or perhaps even more.  And yet most individuals don’t “see” that vast amount of waste; it remains invisible because our highly automated retail operations and cheap disposal processes efficiently move it to landfills before we take notice, where it contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that destroy our habitat (and the oceans as well).

Jackson also covered the impact of ocean pollution from excessive nutrients – the Nitrogen runoff from farms that leads to oxygen blooms and algal depletion – as well as the extensive coral bleaching resulting from climate change.

His conclusion was stark – noting that if we continue as is in 20 to 50 years there won’t be any fish in the oceans, the water will be dirty and polluted, and dead zones will be larger.  The obvious parallel to food waste is that if we continue on our current pace, we will continue to accelerate climate change and our current “overshoot” condition.

I should note that while I am intentionally drawing parallels between ocean and land here, they are components of the same food global food system and we also must view them together.

Coming full circle, this comparison brings me back to comments by Marco Lambertini in World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet report.  That report promotes the theme of Aiming Higher to get on a healthy path to save biodiversity and the planet – and that is obviously something that humanity must come together to do.  We are now “in” the decade of action – with just ten years remaining to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – and with warnings of the extreme costs of failing to meet the Goals growing louder every day.

In the report, Lambertini notes that humanity is at a truly historic crossroads.  He states that we are driving the planet to the very brink, citing a 60% decline in wildlife populations over the past 40 years, while also noting that the science has never been clearer about the consequences of our actions – our impact – on the planet.   And we’ve never been more aware of that impact.

Lambertini goes on to describe humanity’s choice, indicating that “we can be the founders of a global movement that changed our relationship with the planet, that saw us secure a future for all life on Earth, including our own.  Or we can be the generation that had its chance and failed to act; that let Earth slip away.  The choice is ours.”

Significantly, after clearly illuminating humanity’s negative impact on the oceans through overfishing, pollution, and climate change in his talk ten years ago, Jeremy Jackson came to a similar conclusion, stating that the real question is “how are we going to respond to this?”

And Jackson continued, pointing out that we can try all kinds of things to fix the ocean, “in the final analysis, the thing we really need to fix is ourselves.”  He stressed that “it’s not about the fish, it’s not about the pollution, and it’s not about the climate change.  It’s about us…and our inability to imagine a world that is different from the selfish world we live in today.”

And he closed with a question – asking “Will we respond to this or not?”

Jackson speculated that the future of life depends on our response.  And I am struck by the similar nature of Lambertini’s comments in the Living Planet report eight years later.

Both Jackson and Lambertini are highlighting the need for individuals to change our behavior to reduce our negative impact on the planet – and we need to do so with urgency – particularly with respect to the food system.

And as the images in Jackson’s powerful TED talk reveal, we would do well to start by making the impact of our actions more visible.