Up and Down the Food Chain

Food webs describe who eats whom in an ecological community. In the aquatic food web, humans feed down the food chain, consuming lesser and lesser ocean predators and marine species without a consciousness of the consequences of our actions at the microscopic level. How do we persuade citizens to adopt a different perspective? How do we articulate an optimistic and realistic way of looking at who we are in relation to all the elements of the natural world? This week we look at the aquatic food chain from the bottom up, and ascribe value to the base elements and fundamentals of ocean life so that all life may thrive and provide and endure.

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Phytoplankton (and algae), at the lowest trophic level, form the foundation of the aquatic food web. Credit: NOAA | www.noaa.gov

I once wrote a story about a wise man to whom people came to solve all the problems of the world. He sat on the beach, looked out to the ocean, and saw clearly the way forward for the benefit of everyone. One day, however, all was lost. His view became clouded, vision dimmed, perspective dissolved, until he found himself without wisdom for anyone. What to do? A child came along and asked him what was wrong. “I can’t see, I don’t know,” the wise man responded.” I despair.” The child instructed the man to stand up, turn around, and sit down again — one full, clear circle of movement by which all past assumptions were disrupted and upset, all old visions discarded and fresh ones evolved, to settle down into a new perspective, albeit from the same sandy place, one simple revolution by which the wise man’s ocean view was filled with fresh ideas, re-arrangements, and new counsels for the future.

On a recent lecture tour, I found myself challenged again and again by my inability to penetrate fixed thoughts and opinions about our ocean world, by my failure to find the right vocabulary by which to answer questions, to ignite attention, to attack a convention, to introduce a different way of thinking or response to frustrating circumstance, to persuade listeners to adopt a different perspective. At one point we were talking about the marine food chain and the dynamics of the ocean water column. We spoke of “feeding down the food chain,” the process by which we, the dominant human species, consumes marine species downward, harvesting without limit lesser predators who in turn are harvesting without limit lesser predators still until we reach the microscopic world of diatoms and other phytoplankton and the myriad other creatures that inhabit the bottom where the insidious consequences of our actions now reach.

At one point in that conversation, it occurred to me that there was a very different way of describing this phenomenon; it was as if an invisible small child had picked me up and turned me round. What if we look at this chain from the other end? What if we stop framing the argument by arranging the science to focus first on us, and on our fear of consequence as this structure of predation descends toward depletion, endangerment, indeed extinction of the species we so desperately need to survive? What if we started from the opposite point of view: from the bottom, from the base elements and fundamental value of ocean life, and described the process as an upward spiral of production, each piece adding value to the piece above, as an elegant, self-affirming cycle of increase, not decrease, of abundance not loss?

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What would such a system look like? It would look exactly the same actually, but for the fundamental premise of its being, its conservation, its proliferation shifted from unlimited, indiscriminate harvest to manageable, sustainable growth. What if our policies and actions were re-focused on the total health of the water column as a place where every creature, providing protein up the ladder would be protected and nurtured and available for the next? If we could accept such a perspective, we would have a rationale for maintenance of water quality, the water cycle from mountain-top to coast to abyssal plain, at the highest level of purity and availability for every species from the bottom up to thrive and provide and endure. No more dumping of acid, pollutants, and waste, no more disruptions of the ocean floor by any form of extraction, no more plastic for every species to ingest through its invasion of this essential food chain into our bodies and health. By so doing, could not every level of our being on earth, energized by the sun, supported by an adequate, sustaining supply of water and food, be freed from the debilitating conditions we know now — starvation, drought, poverty, disease, insecurity, conflict — could not it all be reduced, even obliterated, and the world we live in improved by associated social outcomes — community, justice, and peace?

By such a radical revolution, could we address and deny despair? Could we articulate an optimistic, and realistic, way of looking at who we are in relation to all elements of the natural world? Could we express such change by new applications of science and technology? By fresh conversations about social and financial issues? By innovative political arrangements and regulatory agreements? By renewed action to reverse our separations and to bring us together?

We are like the wise man on the beach who lost faith in what he knew. But a child stood him up and turned him around with a simple revolution from an exhausted worldview to a new idea.

Why don’t we give it a try?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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