When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
John Muir

Our Oceans Our Lives blog focuses on four (4) key threats to the health and sustainability of our oceans and our lives:

  • Climate change – and its impact on ocean warming, acidification, and loss of marine life
  • Ocean pollution – everything from plastics to agricultural runoff, from chemicals to human waste, and from coal to mercury… to our dinner plates
  • Overfishing – and its impact on marine life and the sustainability of coastal communities
  • Estuaries – including loss of habitat, pollution and human impacts on the health of wetlands (nature’s aquatic nurseries).

In order to solve these problems, we have to understand a key principle of ecology: everything is connected to and dependent upon everything else. Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. We can’t live and thrive by ourselves. No individual organism can exist alone (no human, no banner-maine-2400x1000-progressiveother animal, no plant). Animals depend upon the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide exhaled by animals and the nitrogen fixed by bacteria in their roots; and through a delicate web of life, plants, animals and microorganisms regulate conditions in the entire biosphere – symbiotically co-creating life on planet Earth.

For four billion years, Earth’s ecosystems have evolved the capacity to sustain a healthy functioning web of life. For most of this time, Earth’s ecosystems have self-regulated and self-sustained themselves in a natural and balanced way. Over the past couple of thousand years, however, one species has evolved the capacity to alter the health and sustainability of its local environment, and for the past several hundred years, the entire planet. Human engendered problems such as climate change, overpopulation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and over-extraction of resources are destroying the very life-sustaining systems on which all life on Earth depends.

We must wake up and alter course if we, and other life forms with which we share this planet, are going to survive. And ecological literacy, a knowledge of how we are interconnected with an intricate web of life, a love for and sense of wonder about the natural world, and a commitment to live in harmony with nature, is essential if we are going to thrive. Indeed, if we are to survive, we must understand that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. We must design human systems patterned after nature as architect.

Our ability to thrive depends on our understanding and respect of the fundamental ecological principles that empower life on Planet Earth:

  • The energy that drives all ecological cycles flows from the sun. Solar energy warms the earth and spurs the process of photosynthesis where green plants produce food for themselves, us and most other animals.
  • Diversity = Resilience. The astounding variety of organisms and ecosystems in which they live, provide countless ways for life to adapt to changing environmental conditions. The greater diversity of life in an ecosystem, the more resiliency exists within it. As we lose diversity of life, we lose the capacity of global ecosystems to adapt and survive.
  • Waste = Food. Nature is constantly recycling nutrients that plants and animals need to stay alive and reproduce. There is little to no waste in this process. We need to learn from nature and design zero-waste human systems where “waste = food.”
  • Population control – competition for limited resources among different species places a limit on how much populations can grow. Humans have disrupted most natural predator – prey population controls in most wild places of the world. Additionally, our own exponential population growth is stressing the global resources needed to sustain our growing population. Without healthy population control, species and the ecosystems in which they live, collapse.

To live sustainably we need to value and employ these ecological principles – principles that have enabled the natural evolution of life on Earth. We need to mimic nature’s wisdom in our human design: from zero-carbon buildings to sustainable agriculture, from renewable transportation to sustainable communities. And there is a side benefit: sustainable communities are also healthy, happy, generous, and satisfying places to live. Below is a comparison of unsustainable vs sustainable choices.

Sustainable Solutions

Current Emphasis

Sustainability Emphasis

Pollution cleanup

Pollution prevention

Waste disposal (bury or burn)

Waste prevention

Protecting species

Protecting habitats

Environmental degradation

Environmental restoration

Increasing resource use

Less resource waste

Population growth

Population stabilization

Depleting and degrading natural capital

Protecting natural capital

Focus on the problem(s)

Focus on solution(s)

Focus on parts

Focus on whole systems

Focus on the individual

Focus on community

Adapted from Principles of Ecology by Miller and Spoolman

The above table identifies some shifts involved in bringing about a sustainability revolution. Questions: Which of these shifts do you think are most important? Why? How do we design human systems so that “waste = food? How do we value the principle of “diversity = food” in both human and natural systems? How do we move from pollution cleanup to pollution prevention? How do we protect species while at the same time protect habitats? How do we do more than simply survive; how do we thrive?

Understanding life requires a shift of focus from individual species to relationships among all living and non-living components of a community. For example, each species in the ocean helps to sustain the entire ocean food web. Two hundred years ago when we had a large diversity of ocean life, if one species died, the ecosystem was still resilient as there were other species that could fulfill similar functions. Today, however, with climate change, overfishing, pollution, loss of diversity, and loss of habitat, our oceans are dying. The future of our oceans (and, indeed, all life on Earth) depends on our collective understanding and appreciation of the ecological, as well as economic, and social value of our oceans and other natural habitats. If our oceans die, eventually, so will we. But it is not too late.

Healthy living systems depend on healthy relationships among the system’s components. That’s true for human and natural systems. Building sustainable human communities and protecting natural habitats and ecosystems requires thinking in terms of the interrelationships that exist within the entire ecosystem and amongst all the individual players.

To learn more about what you can do to protect our oceans, check out these resources:

Help Protect Our Ocean (video)

Protecting an Ocean at Risk (video)

Protecting Our Oceans (video)

10 Things You Can do to Save the Ocean

5 Simple Things You Can do for the Ocean