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Dead Zones: Industrial Agriculture versus Ocean Life

Dead Zones: Industrial Agriculture versus Ocean Life

Worldwide, there are now over a thousand coastal areas where fish can’t breathe. The nitrogen that makes crops grow is also destroying offshore ecosystems.

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.” —Frederick Engels 

Talk about bad timing. This year’s Shelfwide Hypoxia Cruise, the annual scientific expedition that measures oxygen-depleted waters off the Louisiana coast, started on July 25, just after Hurricane Hanna raged through the area. High winds and waves continued through the cruise, thoroughly mixing the water column: high-oxygen surface waters were forced deep, and low-oxygen bottom waters were pushed off the continental shelf.

As a result, the official area of year’s dead zone is 5,048 square kilometers, the third-smallest since surveys began in 1985. Future charts and graphs will require a footnote, explaining that weather conditions produced a misleading result.

Northern Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone after Hurricane Hanna, July 2020.[1]

If the survey had been done a week earlier, or a couple of weeks later, the low-oxygen area would likely have been three or four times as large, because the conditions that deplete oxygen on the continental shelf haven’t changed.

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In the summer of 1972, an environmental assessment study for a proposed oil facility off the coast of Louisiana found something unexpected — an area below the surface, where the water contained little or no oxygen. In waters that had long supported a large and profitable fishing industry, there were areas where fish couldn’t breathe.

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What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?

What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?

Fifteen thousand scientists have issued a dire warning to humanity about impending collapse but virtually no-one takes notice. Ultimately, our global systems, which are designed for perpetual growth, need to be fundamentally restructured to avoid the worst-case outcome.

For a moment, the most important news in the entire world flashed across the media like a shooting star in the night sky. Then it was gone. Last month, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

This is not the first such notice. Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world. In ringing tones, they called for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.”

This second warning contains a series of charts showing how utterly the world’s leaders ignored what they were told twenty-five years earlier. Whether it’s CO2 emissions, temperature change, ocean dead zones, freshwater resources, vertebrate species, or total forest cover, the grim charts virtually all point in the same dismal direction, indicating continued momentum toward doomsday. The chart for marine catch shows something even scarier: in 1996, the catch peaked at 130 million tonnes and in spite of massively increased industrial fishing, it’s been declining ever since—a harbinger of the kind of overshoot that unsustainable exploitation threatens across the board.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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