“Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” – John Steinbeck
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In 1940, the author John Steinbeck joined an expedition to the
Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their purpose was scientific – they wished to document and understand the ecology of the Sea of Cortez. They traveled with a small crew aboard a 75-foot boat named the Western Flyer, collecting scientific samples and data of the fauna they encountered, all with the goal of writing a scientific guidebook – one part species catalog, one part travel adventure – entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. (1941)
The book describes the complex ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez, its islands, and shorelines. An ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with the nonliving components of their environment. Steinbeck describes the wildlife – in particular, the marine invertebrates – in colorful detail, but Sea of Cortez is perhaps most notable for placing humans and human activity firmly into his poetic take on ecology. After all, humans inhabit the Sea of Cortez, they fish in it, they mine the surrounding mountains, their carbon emissions and plastic waste from thousands of miles away effect it – humans should not be considered apart from its ecology.
In fact, human activities are a significant factor in almost all of Earth’s ecosystems. The cumulative effects of their impact are large even enough to influence the planet’s climate, or patterns of weather over long periods of time.
Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend. Ecosystem goods include food (fishing, for example), construction material (lumber from forests, sand, stone from quarries, metals from mines, plastics from petroleum pumped from deep under the Earth), and medicinal plants (aspirin, quinine, marijuana). Ecosystem goods also include less tangible items like tourism and outdoor recreation, staples of the economy in many communities around the globe.
Ecosystem services, on the other hand, are the many and varied benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems. These include clean air and water (thanks to plants which capture CO2 and aquifers which filter rain water) and crop pollination (by insects and birds). Even things like beauty, inspiration, and opportunities for scientific research, which help humans to better understand our world.
While ecosystem goods have traditionally been recognized as the basis for things of economic value – they are property and goods that one can own – ecosystem services tend to be taken for granted – available to all,
whether one “owns” the forest or not. Ecosystem services are what an economist might call a public good – something shared more or less equally by everyone for free. Since they do not cost money, our capitalist system has traditionally placed little value on protecting them – even though they are vital to life as we know it.
In Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck connects the dots between ecosystem goods, ecosystem services, and human activity. While he was not the first to connect humans to the ecosystems they inhabit and exploit, his writing on the subject is both eloquent and persuasive. Early in the book, he writes:
“Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”
The Earth can seem huge on a cross country drive that takes days, but it is actually finite. Its natural resources are vulnerable and limited. As human population and per capita consumption grow, so do the demands imposed on ecosystems and the effects of the human ecological footprint – that is, the impact of humanity on the global ecosystem in terms of carbon released, energy used, water consumed, and waste created.
Ecosystem services are not only limited but also that they are threatened by human activities. Problems for all ecosystems include: environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. For terrestrial ecosystems, additional threats include air pollution (chemicals released by manufacturing and power generation, emission of greenhouse gases), soil degradation (erosion from farming, salinization from irrigation, conversion of ecosystems for human construction projects), and deforestation (especially in tropical and coastal regions). For marine ecosystems threats include unsustainable exploitation of marine resources (overfishing of certain species), marine pollution (from deep sea oil drilling or spills), microplastics pollution (plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade and too often ends up floating in the ocean), water pollution (from urban runoff and industrial manufacturing), and building on coastal areas.
Scientists have been conducting research for decades to help us better understand long-term ecosystem health and its role in enabling human habitation and economic activity. In a capitalistic democracy like the United States – where the priorities of both corporations and government are responsive to the will of the majority of people – it is important for all citizens to understand the findings of these scientists. Each of us must begin to recognize the way our habits of consumption impact on the ecosystems in our region, as well as – in a globalized economy threatened by climate change – ecosystems on the other side of the planet.
Humans have the unique ability to shape our environment. This is one thing that distinguishes us from our fellow animals and plants.
Alongside this ability to shape, we also have the ability to ask and answer complex questions through careful observation of the world around us – this is what we can science. Elsewhere in Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck said, “It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and fit them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones.”
As we begin to better understand the world around us, we find ourselves confronted with the uncomfortable truth that some of our activities as a species have damaged – and continue to damage – the ecosystems on which all life depends.
Modern technology has only enhanced these abilities to shape and to understand – just as it has enhanced our responsibility to create a sustainable future for our species and all others on this planet.
For Writing or Discussion
1. What is an ecosystem? What goods and services do humans extract from them? What negative impacts do human activities have on them?
2. Describe an ecosystem in or near your hometown – name species of plants and animals, describe the average temperature, rainfall, etc in winter and summer. How have humans shaped this ecosystem and for what reasons?
3. In your own words, what does Steinbeck mean when he says “None of it is important or all of it is?” Do you agree with this sentiment?
4. Amongst life on Earth, human beings possess a unique level of self-awareness, as well as an unparalleled ability to shape every ecosystem on the planet for better or worse. Does that power come with any responsibility? Defend your answer.
Calculate Your Ecological Footprint
- Trace your impact outward into the environment — list and categorize all of the (a) trash (paper, plastic, metal, recyclable or not), (b) carbon emissions (from electricity use, transportation, ordering things off of Amazon, etc), and (c) food/water (including showers, toilet flushes, and the sprinkler on your lawn) you consumed today. Be thorough and precise.
- Quantify each of these impacts — weigh them, measure them, use information from the internet to estimate them. There are many tools online that can help you to calculate these numbers. Represent this information in charts or diagrams.
- Incorporating information compiled in steps one and two, create a world map infographic or poster showing the origin points and impact points of your ecological footprint. Also, plot and illustrate the ways in which those points will effect you. For example: Where does your food come from? How is it transported to you? Is it refrigerated on the way? What is the carbon impact of these activities? What kind of biomagnification (plastics, pesticides, antibiotics, etc) is present in your diet? Was the tuna you may have eaten farmed or caught wild? Where? Is the current population of that fish in the wild sustainable? How many MPG does your car get? How far do you live from school? How long did your mom idle in carline? What temperature is the AC in your how many square foot house? Where do the plastics you trash end up? Where does the water in your toilet go after you flush? What effect does carbon have on the ice caps? Sea level? Acidification of the ocean? Where does your waste water go? What does your clean water come from? How will rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse activity impact your hometown? etc
- In a reflective essay: Which of these impacts can you reduce through personal choices? What challenges or barriers to change will you encounter? Which of these impacts can only be reduced through government or corporate action?
Take It Further
Identify three concrete steps you will take to reduce your ecological footprint. This online quiz may help you. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.
. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.
THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.
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