4 Reasons to Give Thanks to Our Oceans (Without Them We're Screwed)
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Thanksgiving is a good thing. I'm not talking about the more dubious aspects of the holiday, what with the industrial turkey farms, and the genetically engineered corn, and the stories of martyric pilgrims and murderous Indians (or, more likely, the other way around) coming together to share a feast before they slaughtered one another. That stuff is messed up.
At the core, it's the simple eponymous value of Thanksgiving that is important: the giving of thanks. Our world moves quickly these days, and the distance between our day-to-day existence and the processes that support our elevated lifestyles have never been greater. It's important to take some time now and again to reconnect and to identify the foundations and sacrifices involved in the simple things, like the food on our table, the air in our lungs, the snow on the mountaintops, and soft, warm breezes on our shoulders.
In honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, I'd like to offer acknowledgement and gratitude for the essential role that the ocean has plays in the core components of our lives and our comfort.
1. We give thanks for the air we breathe.
The yin-and-yang balance of plant and animal life on Earth is manifest in many ways, but perhaps none quite as poetically as it is in our breath. As we all learned in elementary school, while animals absorb oxygen and emit carbon dioxide as waste, plants do the opposite, soaking up CO2 and enriching our atmosphere with oxygen. Together, we perpetuate a balanced system that allows for the coexistence and further evolution of all of Earth's organisms.
What is somewhat less well-known is that the army of plants we assume to be doing the work of scrubbing our exhaled CO2 out of our breathing space -- the trees in our towns and cities, the grass in our fields, even the vast forests of the boreal and the equatorial regions -- are really more like the ceremonial guard than the actual workhorse infantry. In actuality, between 70 and 80 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced not by our neighborly terrestrial trees, ferns and grasses, but rather by algae, phytoplankton and other marine plants in our oceans.
It's interesting to think about what could happen to our atmosphere and to our ability to exist as human beings if our oceans continue to sicken. Current trends indicate a general decrease in large, complex organisms in favor of what certain doom-and-gloom (albeit seemingly quite accurate) scientific papers are referring to as "the rise of slime" -- an ocean picked clean of predators, where the dominant populations are simple organisms such as jellyfish and worms. The marine plants of today have evolved in a balanced kinship with co-habiting marine animals, just as the animals of the land have evolved alongside terrestrial plants. Without bees, for example, there would be no need for flowers... and without flowers, no sustenance for bees. Surely there are similar symbiotic bonds among oceanic plants and animals. What might the decline of complex aquatic life mean for the ocean's ability to cleanse the air of carbon dioxide and to provide oxygen for us to breathe?
2. We give thanks for the food that sustains us.
The productive nature of the ocean is, while not exactly boundless, bountiful in the extreme. We catch, capture and harvest millions of tons of food from our oceans every year. While some of this is taken in a sustainable and responsible manner, a dangerously large portion is not. This is a significant challenge to our future as a global society, as illegal and unsustainable fishing practices threaten the ocean's ability to sustain us.