Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Book Review: Alanna Mitchell's Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

I bought this book when it first came out, but didn’t read it until I found myself in the coronavirus lockdown, some ten years later. The book is terrific, and I have found out that she later turned it into a one-person play, which she performed across Canada and around the world until, I assume, the pandemic began.

A Canadian journalist, author, and playwright, Alanna Mitchell says on her website that she is “fascinated with the intersection of science, art and society.”     

She titled this book Sea Sick – not “Seasick,” please note. She writes intelligently and passionately, and travelled around the world to do her research. The book is strongly based on science. “The issue is that all over the world,” she writes, “groups of specialists who rarely put their information together, are finding that global climate change and other human actions are beginning to have a measurable effect on the ocean. The vital signs of this critical medium of life are showing clear signs of distress.”

Mitchell writes about a much greater problem than the well-known idea that oceanic fish and other species are in decline. The ocean, she explains in the prologue, contains some 97 percent of Earth's water, covers more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, and makes up 99 per cent of our world’s living space. “Even more significant than the ocean’s breadth and width is its depth, or third dimension” she continues. “That total volume, with its immense biological importance, is what I came to think of as the deeps – both the source of life and the future of life on the planet.”

To research this book, she visited the ocean’s threatened areas, where she saw the tragic results of human ignorance and irresponsibility, and talked to scientists who may be able to suggest solutions. Her writing is riveting; her travels, delights; and her findings, intellectually stimulating. Here are a few examples.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef she calls “The Last Best Place on Earth.”  But the corals that made the reef are dying, she says. “The worldwide decay of coral reefs – caused by the pollution from land, too much fishing, nasty practices to capture wild fish for the aquarium trade and waters that are too hot because of global climate change – has already started to take its toll.”

Another example, closer to home. In the Gulf of Mexico, there are enormous “dead zones” – oxygen-free regions where nothing can live because of the toxic chemical runoff into the delta of the Mississippi River system.

In Plymouth, England, she visited a marine laboratory where a precipitous decline in plankton is being studied, a problem she calls “maybe the most important question human beings will ever grapple with.” Plankton forms the bottom layer of the entire oceanic food pyramid, so anything that happens to plankton affects everything that lives in the ocean. Also, it affects land animals whose diet includes seafood – for example, people on every continent  including, one assumes, research scientists active in Antarctica.

Her book is not only backed up by travels, but by interviews with researchers, and by reference to their work. For example, she cites a 2006 paper titled “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services” led by two profs at Canada’s Dalhousie University – Boris Worm and Ransom Myers – that is dreadful in its conclusions. According to these researchers, in the half-century since industrial fishing took hold in the world’s oceans, 90 per cent of all oceanic predatory fishes - cod, tuna, swordfish, sharks - were gone. Today, we are fishing the few remaining percentages. Fish farms are today’s answer to the virtual absence of wild fish in the ocean – an absence brought on by overfishing. More than half of the seafood we and our pets consume today – a decade after Mitchell published her book – is the product of aquaculture. Raising saltwater fish takes place in farms in the ocean itself, with species confined  in mesh cages too deep for them to escape, with much of their food being sea creatures that can float or drift on currents through the mesh.

She also went to China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, where the waters are polluted – often by the vast pens the Chinese use to raise more farmed fish than any other country. China now provides 62 per cent of the world's farmed fish.

Mitchell’s final trip is to the Florida Keys, the last research expedition of the book, where she had the opportunity to go to the ocean’s bottom in the submersible vessel Johnson Sea Link. When offered the ride, her immediate reaction was, “Why keep going? Why should another research trip make any difference?”

It did, though. As the submersible sits on the bottom, she had a kind of epiphany. “Shivering in my undersea womb, peering at these wondrous, ancient life forms,” she writes, “it occurs to me that we are in an era that holds out the potential of magnificent regeneration. We could, if we wanted to, form a new relationship with our planet. We could become the gentle symbionts we were meant to be instead of the planetary parasites we have unwittingly become.”

In conclusion, I cannot recommend this book too strongly; it dazzles. Mitchell explains the oceanic problems grippingly. Many of her chapters chronicle adventures in which she accompanies scientists at various research missions around the world. At least as importantly, her writing is engaging and balanced. This book rocks.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

America's Conspiracy Theories

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

I am old enough to remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1962 – one of only half a dozen dates that are clear in my memory. Glued to the television that night, I saw a nightclub operator named Jack Ruby murder Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV – the first murder ever broadcast live. It was a bizarre reality for those of us who lived it.

Kennedy’s assassination soon became the subject of widespread debate and spawned numerous conspiracy theories and alternative scenarios. Polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that as many as 80 percent of Americans suspected a plot or cover-up. Welcome to the strange world of zombie ideas.

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman defines a zombie idea as “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.” Science notwithstanding, there are those who believe in a flat Earth, a hollow Earth, a geocentric universe or perhaps all three. An entry in the online Skeptic’s Dictionary offers other examples.

Hate speech is a special case in this range of thinking. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it includes “communications of animosity or disparagement of an individual or a group” because of “group characteristic such as race, colour, national origin, sex, disability, religion, or sexual orientation.” Most liberal democracies – for example, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, and India – ban hate speech. In many ways, such countries enjoy greater freedom when you weigh the negative liberty to express harmful thoughts against the positive liberty a society enjoys if it disallows the intimidation of minorities.

Some people argue that the purpose of laws that ban hate speech is merely to avoid offending prudes. I cannot think of a single democracy, however, that excises comment from the public square merely because it provokes offense. Rather, hate speech has been so widely proclaimed unlawful because it attacks the dignity of a group.

Among the world’s great democracies, only in the United States is hate speech legal. With few exceptions, America’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is constitutionally protected by the first amendment right to free speech. There have been a few exceptions to this. For example, in 1952 the United States Supreme Court upheld an Illinois law making it illegal to publish or exhibit any writing or picture portraying the “depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens of any race, color, creed or religion.” The case provided a legal argument against hate speech by making it possible to sue some offenders for libel. Especially in the world of social media, such a suit would be difficult to apply.

Despite the efforts of Facebook and other well-intentioned sites, hate speech in America now seems to be on the boil. As evidence, Humboldt State University compiled an online visual chart of a series of homophobic, racist, and otherwise prejudiced tweets sent out during an 11-month period; you can take a look at it here. If you are American, it will not make you proud.

Conspiracies: An important offshoot of conspiracy theory is the attempt to explain ordinary events or situations by invoking secret and unseen actions – often politically motivated – of sinister and powerful actors. The term has a pejorative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence. Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proved or disproved.

Conspiracy theories about moon landings followed conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK. There were six crewed U.S. landings between 1969 and 1972 – unless you believe the conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were hoaxes. The gist of the argument is that the United States lacked the technology to transport humans to the moon and back. They claim that NASA faked the landings in order to make people believe the U.S. had fulfilled President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon before 1970.

What is the evidence? Well, on the lunar landing videos you cannot see stars in the sky. NASA says that’s because the moon’s surface and the astronauts’ suits were so reflective that it was too bright for the camera to pick up the comparatively faint stars. Also, while planting the American flag in lunar soil, the flag appears to wave. With no air in space, how is that possible? NASA says it happened because the astronauts, wanting the flag’s pole to remain upright, moved it back and forth while planting it in the lunar soil. The rotation of the pole caused the flag to move back and forth as if rippling in a non-existent breeze.

Conspiracy theory is essentially the attempt to explain harmful or tragic events by ascribing them to the actions of small, powerful, and secretive groups. One classic example is the one I began this commentary with, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the mindset of many theorists is that the official version is further proof of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories increase in prevalence in periods of widespread anxiety, uncertainty, or hardship – for example, during wars, economic depressions and in the aftermath of natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemics. This fact is evidenced by the profusion of conspiracy theories that emerged in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Perhaps two thousand  volumes on the JFK assassination have been published, many of them purveying conspiracy ideas. Such notions have been spread through countless other media as well.

Perhaps conspiratorial thinking is driven by a strong human desire to make sense of social forces that are self-relevant, important, and threatening. The content of conspiracy theories can be emotionally powerful, and its alleged discovery can be gratifying to those who hold the associated beliefs. Factual support for conspiracy theories is typically weak, and they are usually resistant to falsification. The survivability of conspiracy theories may be aided by psychological biases[1] and by distrust of official sources. Such distrust did not develop in a vacuum. Starting in 1932 and continuing for 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service working with the Tuskegee Institute studied the effects of syphilis on 399 African American men. The researchers conducting the Tuskegee syphilis study withheld treatment and allowed more than a hundred men to die, despite the discovery of penicillin as a standard cure in 1947.

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist myself, that does sound like government conspiring against its own citizens.

An extraordinary commentary on these matters can be found in Kurt Andersen’s best-selling history Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire. His take on the past five American centuries involves a series of skillful deconstructions of myths and fantasies that have evolved since the country’s foundation. He dissects such matters as the Salem witch hunts and Scientology. As the story proceeds, he presents a picture of a country in such steep decline that the founding fathers would have wept into their beards.

“By my reckoning,” he writes in his introduction, reality-based people in the US “are a minority – maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half.” Only a third, he claims, “believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming[2]. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis is not a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.”

“A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today,” he says. That percentage also believe that government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures, and that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.

And the beat goes on. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world,” he writes. At least half are certain Heaven exists, “ruled over by a personal God” – not an abstract force or universal spirit “but a guy.” More than a third of Americans believe global warming is “a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.”

“A quarter believe vaccines cause autism,” he says. Twenty-five percent believe in witches. No more than a fifth believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables, he says – about the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials “were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.”

These myths are contrary to the growth of science, which has accelerated by leaps and bounds over the centuries of America’s settlement and growth. They will not go away, however. What can be best described as a national paranoia within “the land of the free and the home of the brave” is a loss to the country’s dignity, and to the integrity of the democratic alliances that have played such important roles in the world since the end of the Second World War.

[1] See Gorman SE, Gorman JG: Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016

[2] Although the number of people who agree that human activities are responsible for the Earth’s warming may be increasing.