Thoughts on Nature

Tributes, Corals, and Ocean Renovation

“For a long time we've traveled through the sea,
But we haven't paid tribute to the Sea Tsar.
It seems the Sea Tsar is demanding tribute from us,
Demanding tribute to the blue sea.”
- From the East Slavic oral epic narrative poem Bylina

Floating in the cold lagoon waters protected by the coral ridge repeatedly hit by the full weight of oceanic waves, I get a sense of concern with thoughts of crumbling reefs yielding to the pressure of anthropogenic climate change. The massive uncontrollable object that defies all our rules about space and time and touch, which we pretend can be managed through a treaty discussed every few months by a small collection of people who genuinely care but can’t commit to anything without documents ‘signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, [and] lost again.’ Climate change burns when we don’t have sunscreen. With water up to my chin, I shake off the notion to get lost in the woes of bureaucracy and instead draw my attention towards more practical solutions to respond to the growing threat to the colonies sheltering this island.

Micro-fragmenting, gene-editing, and sun-shielding will “save” the corals, at least that’s what the latest trend in the ocean optimism movement will lead you to believe. Of course, anything that we can do to restore coral reefs will matter in the decades to come, but are we really approaching things sensibly? Take microfragmentation for an example. Putting something complex more simply; the process requires collecting coral pieces, breaking them into smaller fragments, growing them in a lab for a defined amount of time, and transplanting them to reefs that we have deemed vulnerable. Expensive would be an understatement for the whole ordeal. Combined with selecting the hardest and most resilient genes from coral species, and scientists can rest easy knowing that we can build our own reefs in the future that are resistant to the continuing changes in temperature and pH that are already destroying habitats around the world. Delos Incorporated is busy developing Underwater World to satisfy all your Cousteauvian fantasies.

With the viciousness of the Anthropocene, an ‘all hands on deck’ approach is required to respond in any and every way possible to both the anticipated and unexpected problems. But are our activites “making safe, securing,” from Late Latin salvare, corals if the actions we are undertaking assume that large swaths of the diversity will ultimately be lost? Transplanting one individual species of super coral specially chosen in a lab for its growth rate and resiliency in order to ensure there is something offshore rather than nothing doesn’t sound like saving. Unless what we are delivering from danger isn’t the complexity of polyp colonies but the ecosystem benefits humans desperately depend on, like shelter from storms or habitats for fish. Deliver us from sin for our gifts of silver and gold won’t quell the Sea Tsar’s heart.

Hope hope hope, cries out the optimist who shares memes about sunscreen bans and biodegradable film that is 50,000 times thinner than a human hair and giant mechanical beasts that float in the middle of the sea consuming all the plastic beaches. Why is it that all our solutions revolve around things we can touch when clearly its the phasal presences that need addressing? Our capitalist and humanist urges demand we spend more money to build more things to solve more problems to save more people, it’s fun saving the environment. We can’t save corals, so stop asking. Investments worth less than mansions to save reefs bigger than nations is only optimism when there’s a procession of mermaids and we can grow corals in a lab. Sadko played his maple gusli again and again until the strings broke and the sea calmed, at least the Sea Tsar liked to dance.

Standing on the shoreline layered with large pieces of branching corals washed up with every high tide, the debate of addressing climate change versus coral reef restoration moves in and out of existence. Contemplations of seascapes, silent and barren, in desperate need of “saving” that manifests more like sustainable development than ecological restoration. Maybe what we are seeking isn’t restoration at all, but rather a spiritual rebirth of the reefs, a renewal towards the future rather than the past, renovationem, a renovation. Our tributes to the Sea Tsar will only matter if there is a future worth envisioning, even if it’s full of Underwater Worlds because some corals are better than no corals at all. Walking back to my truck, another contributor to the Anthropocene, I wonder if the wood board with my name on it would sink to the depths of the ocean. “They cast their lots on the blue sea.”

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Malcolm Johnson

Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tasmania, studying climate change adaptation, risk perspectives, and coastalscape values.