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Our Oceans Are Dying--And Obama Wants to Let Shell Drill for More Oil in Arctic Waters

If the major energy companies have their way, there will be no turning back until the oceans are a garbage dump.

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Later, novelist Edward Abbey showed us how to walk in the desert, and also gave us a recipe for “ monkey wrenching” -- forms of sabotage to protest environmental destruction and in defense of conservation that is  alive and well today. There have been so many others who have written about walking on, and in, the land: Mary Austin, Margaret Murie, David Abram, William deBuys, Rebecca Solnit, and Terry Tempest Williams, among others. But this simplest of free and democratic ideas that helped make public lands familiar and inspired their conservation against industrial destruction falls away completely when we enter the oceanic realm.

We cannot walk in the ocean, or hike there, or camp there, or from its depths sit and contemplate our situation and nature’s. All we can do is stand on its shores and watch, or swim or surf its edges, or boat and float across its surface. The oceans are not us. We lack fins, we lack gills. We are not naturally invested in our oceans and their riches, which are such potentially lucrative assets for those who want to profit off them -- and destroy them in the process.

Nonetheless, for their conservation, somehow we need to learn to walk those waters. It’s not enough to have the necessary set of grim facts, figures, and information about how they are being endangered. We need a philosophy, an “ocean ethics” akin to the “land ethics” that environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote about in his seminal book  A Sand County Almanac. We don’t have it yet, but a good place to start would be with the idea of “interconnectedness.”

It’s a very old idea, as German poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The truth was known already, long ago.” Rachel Carson, for instance, gave meaning to interconnectedness on land in her famed book  Silent Spring, published in 1962, by linking the fate of bird species to the rise of industrial toxins. She symbolically linked the potential extinction of species like that national symbol the bald eagle, whose numbers had  plummeted from an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states to about 400 in the early 1960s, to our own sense of well- or ill-being. The time has come to connect in a similar way the fate of marine life with the rise of offshore drilling, climate change, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, and industrial overfishing.

As I can attest from my decade-long engagement with the far north, the Arctic is no longer the remote place disconnected from our daily lives that we imagine. In fact, I often think about it as the most connected place on Earth.

The tiny semipalmated sandpipers, a shorebird I can see along East Coast beaches any fall, is the same species I saw nesting each summer along the Beaufort Sea coast, near where Shell plans to drill. Hundreds of millions of birds migrate to the Arctic from every corner of the planet annually to rear their young -- a celebration of interconnectedness. But so do industrial toxins migrate to the Arctic from every region of the world, making humans and animals in some parts of the far north among the  most contaminated inhabitants of the planet -- a tragedy of interconnectedness.

What happens there will also affect us in frightening ways. The rapid  disintegration and melting of Arctic icebergs, glaciers, and sea ice is projected to raise global sea levels, threatening coastal cities across the northern hemisphere. And the melting of the Arctic  permafrost and of frozen areas of the  seafloor is likely to release huge amounts of methane (about 20 times more potent than CO 2 as a greenhouse gas) that could prove potentially catastrophic for the planet. This is why the time has come to focus on oceanic interconnectedness -- if we hope to save our oceans and the planet as we have known it.

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