Take Roger Bradbury very seriously. He’s no crank: coral reef specialist, heavy background in mathematical ecology, published repeatedly in Science. Chief and director of more scientific panels than you could roll a raccoon over. So when he says the coral reef ecosystem is already effectively extinct — not the Florida Keys, not the Great Barrier Reef, but the whole global system of tropical reefs everywhere; not just at risk or imperiled or endangered, but fucking dead already, running brain-dead and galvanic for a few more years on nothing but sheer unsustainable inertia — you’d better listen.
Listen, but feel free to disagree. I do.
Not with his basic prognosis, of course; I wouldn’t dare dispute that
“Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion. Each of those forces alone is fully capable of causing the global collapse of coral reefs; together, they assure it. The scientific evidence for this is compelling and unequivocal, but there seems to be a collective reluctance to accept the logical conclusion — that there is no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem.”
Nor would I argue with Bradbury’s claim that environmentalists, governments, scientists themselves — over 2,000 of them, judging by the consensus statement from the latest International Coral Reef Symposium — are just whistling past the graveyard with their Pollyanna drivel about how “concerted action” is needed to “preserve reefs for the future”. That ship has sailed, Bradbury says, and run aground on a bleached atoll somewhere. This whole “there is yet hope” mantra may be “less a conspiracy than a sort of institutional inertia” — but it’s bullshit all the same. The reefs are dead, they just don’t know it yet. And by mid-century all we’ll be left with is
“an algal-dominated hard ocean bottom … few fish but lots of jellyfish … It will be slimy and look a lot like the ecosystems of the Precambrian era, which ended more than 500 million years ago and well before fish evolved.”
I believe him. It’s not Bradbury’s prognosis I take issue with. It’s his prescription.
He thinks we should stop spending money on studying the reefs themselves, and put it instead into minimizing the price we have to pay for shitting in the punchbowl. “Money isn’t spent to study what to do after the reefs are gone — on what sort of ecosystems will replace coral reefs and what opportunities there will be to nudge these into providing people with food and other useful ecosystem products and services,” he complains. “[M]oney isn’t spent to make the economic structural adjustment that communities and industries that depend on coral reefs urgently need.” This may sound familiar to anyone who witnessed the Wall Street Journal’s brief flirtation with the real world a few years back, when they actually admitted to the reality of global climate change. Oops, looks like the tree-huggers were right after all — but it’s too late to fix things now so we should really concentrate on adapting instead. Preferably in ways that maintain a minimum 8% annual return.
I’m not for one second attributing the same craven motives to Bradbury as I do to the science-deniers of the world; his truths are hard but I believe his motives are sincere. In both cases, though, the bottom line is the same: Now that we’ve fucked up so massively, how can we sleaze out of paying the price for the damage we’ve wrought?
Well, no. We shat in the punch bowl; I think it’s only fair that we be forced to chug from the damn thing.
That’s my gut talking, of course. That’s my Baptist Sense-o’-Justice trying to chew through the leash, and it’s one of the few aspects of my religious upbringing that I don’t especially want to be rid of. You fuck up, you pay the price. You misuse your power, you meet resistance. I think it’s a righteous algorithm, even if its adaptive benefits are questionable (it’s certainly got me into trouble on occasion).
But it’s not hard to see the problems with such a simplistic approach. For one thing, the people who have to drink most deeply from the turd-water are almost never the people who laid the biggest deuces, which kind of deflates the whole “righteous justice” angle. In this case, Bradbury is right to point out that the people bound to suffer most from the extinction of the world’s coral reefs do not hail from the nations who pour acid into the sky or dispatch factory ships to suck up biomass like they were feeding their own event horizon; by and large they’re impoverished small-scale fisher folk whose environmental depredations are pretty penny-ante. Those who actually call the shots are well-insulated from the consequences of their acts (how many people went to jail for running the global economy off a cliff in 2008?). Nothing short of a full-scale armed uprising might get them to take notice — which I suppose might justify imposing a little more suffering on us unpowerful folks if only to rouse us from our lethargy (say tuned for a thought experiment on this subject). But I digress.
More troubling, personally, is that I can see — in my own bloodlust to make the fuckers pay — a not-so-dim reflection of less-admirable religious attitudes. I’ve always found it curious that the same rabid fetus-by-the-roadside mouth-breathers who inspire Republicans everywhere in their war against abortion are also, by and large, opposed to contraception and sex-ed. There’s no logic in saying that it’s a sin to destroy unwanted unborn life, only to turn around and advocate against the very measures that would reduce the incidence of said life in the first place. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s not really abortion these people are opposed to at all, but sex; to them, abortion is just the cheat that lets sinners avoid their just desserts. If some sixteen-year-old whore turns her back on God’s Laws and gets pregnant, she damn well should be forced to bring that little bastard to term, and live in poverty and disgrace, or even die in some back alley with a coat-hanger hanging from her crotch — because that’s the wages of sin and the little slut deserves to be punished.
I like to think that I’m not like that. I like to think that the lust for justice, or payback, or what-have-you — that gut sense that You broke it, you damn well pay for it — can legitimately be applied to those who are demonstrably destroying the biosphere, even though it’s nothing more than small-minded hatefulness when thrown at women who’d just as soon not reproduce right now, thank you all the same. Then again, I’m pretty sure the neural circuitry is the same in both cases; and it’s not as if those placard-waving morons are any less sincere in their hatred than I am in mine. So maybe I’m not so righteous after all.
Still. We’ve killed off an entire global ecosystem.
Shouldn’t somebody have to fucking pay?
 Which is not to say that communities in developing countries aren’t just as capable of wreaking environmental apocalypse on a local scale — dynamiting chunks out of reefs to feed the aquarium market, for example. We’re a greedy, shortsighted species like any other; if pretech cultures tread lightly on the earth, it’s only because they lack the tools to wreak more extensive damage.