Altered Oceans

Our discussion Wednesday night of the Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling’s 5-part series, Altered Oceans, in the L.A. Times in summer 2006 was much less enthusiastic than I thought it would be. This series is my pick for exemplary science writing, so maybe I’m feeling miffed. Or surprised. Or confused. The comments ranged from criticism of the red tide piece (Part 3 – Dark Tides, Ill Winds) as not being accurate or in-depth enough to the piece on plastic not being innovative enough (Part 4 – Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas). On the plus side, the description of domoic acid poisoning and Pseudo-nitzschia gained praise for clarity — making an arcane subject accessible (Part 2 – Sentinels Under Attack).

We were slated to discuss this series the week before, but we ran out of time. When we walked into class that evening, some of us agreed that reading the series made us angry, frustrated, depressed. Some criticism of the piece said it did not look at other causes rather than human-engineered ones, that the result of the article was to guilt-trip humans. I wonder if the reaction against science that delineates the environmental troubles we’re in stems from a desire to just not entertain our own guilt. We are guilty. Immensely. We have such a sacred trust to take care of this planet. How do we honor that trust?

In the discussion about the Eastern and Western garbage patches (“patch” fits about the same way that “spill” did for the BP oil carnage), someone mentioned the dumping of thousands of yellow rubber ducks from a container. I found the reference — Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. Gotta love the Rabelaisian title. I just got it from the library and am about to read the first chapter before I go grade papers.

Also, there was some disparaging of journalists, but I think it’s important to note that the Altered Oceans series was awarded a George Polk award for environmental reporting in 2006 and a Pulitzer Prize award for explanatory reporting in 2007.

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One response to “Altered Oceans

  1. I think you misunderstood a lot of what I meant, causing you to make assumptions about me that aren’t quite true, so I’m going to try to clarify it.

    A lot of statements in this article gave me the impression that they really aren’t sure what is causing the problems mentioned in this article, such as the following quotes from part 1:

    ” ‘We were the best ecologists, working on what was the best-studied coral reef in the world, and we got it 100% wrong,’ Jackson recalled.”

    “Government officials thought they were helping in the early 1990s when they released fresh water that had been held back by dikes and pumps for years. They were responding to the recommendations of scientists who, at the time, blamed the decline of ocean habitats on hypersalinity–excessively salty seawater.”

    “Officials upgraded the sewage plants to remove nitrogen from the wastewater, but it did not stop the growth of the infernal weed.” (This stood out to me in particular since the article has said repeatedly that excessive nutrients are the main cause of the problems mentioned in this section.)

    Since they don’t seem to know for sure what all the causes are, it doesn’t make sense to me to make this a priori assumption: “We know the human factor is responsible. We just have to figure out what it is.” I don’t think we should automatically eliminate anything, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” It could be “the human factor,” but nothing in this article convinces me that it can’t be something else or a combination.

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