Environmental Crime

As we consider the solutions that must evolve if we are to meet the serious challenges to the integrity and sustainability of the world ocean, it behooves of us to remember the decisions that brought us to this moment. With the wisdom of hindsight I suppose, we can look back and identify the actions and decisions taken by individuals in corporations and government to whom we owe the crisis we face.  In retrospect, I dare say these are environmental crimes committed sometimes inadvertently but most times with the eyes of those accountable wide open. Here are five that I consider most egregious:

First, there was the full amplification of the industrial revolution with its reliance on growth driven by fossil fuels, coal then oil and gas. All of us have benefited from this historical progress and it has energized our security and defense, built our economy, and defined our work, our play, and our future. Decisions made along the way can be excused perhaps, the novel short-term benefit and rewards of scale out-weighing consequence, then mostly unforeseen. We established fossil fuels as the engine for civilization and pursued consumption as the essence of our national and international system. How could we have foreseen the negative outcome? How could we know that the release of carbon in various forms into the air that would be revealed as localized smog, then atmospheric distribution, then out-fall into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, then the disruption of water temperature, changing weather patterns, glacial melt, shifting currents, sea-level rise, and all the other outcomes with which we are now forced to deal?

Well, now of course, it is revealed that we did know, that the scientists at the energy companies and research academies were aware of the reality, the extent, and the full implication of what was to come, and they ignored the knowledge, subverted the studies, denied the emerging evidence, and still to this day work against full public understanding of what such action has meant for our health and well-being.  If crime is defined as “an action or incidence of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or the State,” then these decisions qualify as criminal and those who made them should be held accountable.

Second, this first crime was compounded by another: fracking--the continuing effort to reclaim the last value from exhausted wells that has destroyed farmland and farming communities, displaced thousands from their livelihood, created new problems of polluted run-off and waste, poisoned water and sludge that has found its way into watersheds, been secreted in hidden dumps, and extended profits to the industry as a last initiative to offset the reality of social and climate consequence. This decision was even more cynical, the executives and investors acing with pre-meditation, and the regulators subverted by lobbyists and political donations.

Third, fossil fuels also drove the invention of fertilizers, insecticides, and plastic – all now revealed as deadly as evinced by nitrogen run-off, industrial farming, and the manufacture and discard of containers and other stuff that defiles our roadsides, clogs our dumps, streams in our rivers, and deposits useless deteriorating debris the world over that is now ingested as deleterious poison by animals in the water column and by us in our ignorance.

Fourth, there is the cumulative crime of acidification – the aggregations of all this consequence into chemical change in the pH of the ocean that degrades habitats, modifies nutrition, and works up and down the food chain threatening every species on earth with its very survival. And fifth, as if this is not enough, there is the unregulated, often illegal harvest of the “fruits of the sea,” the ocean-nurtured protein on which the entire system relies. All these are connected. They begin not with some kind of big bang accident or divine will, but rather with the overt decisions of every one of us who, willingly or unwillingly, has participated in this syndicate of crime.

Is this over-wrought, as a useless retro-hand-wringing accusation of responsibility and guilt? Some will say so, but I am moved to write this down to make certain that I understand that it is not just the irresponsible executives or greedy shareholders or compromised politicians or uninformed citizens that are to blame; it was and is all of us, then and now, who participate, enable, fail to vote, and otherwise decline to take back and preserve the integrity and sustainability of the ocean as the primary source and system for our future.  To not do so is criminal.

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.