16th June 2012.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
It’s 50 years ago today, 16th June 1962, that Silent Spring by Rachel Carson first appeared in print as a three-part serialization in The New Yorker magazine. The book itself was published later the same year on the 27th of September and then in October was chosen by the Book of the Month Club as the featured book for the month, greatly increasing its accessibility to the public
While Silent Spring is widely credited with the launch of the Environmental or Green movement it must be remembered that the idea of nature conservation came about nearly 100 years previously with events such as the creation of the Yellowstone National Park in 1872 the first US national park and possibly the World’s first national park. In the UK Charles Rothschild is regarded as a pioneer of nature conservation, credited with establishing the UK’s first nature reserve Wicken Fen, near Ely, in 1899.
Nevertheless Silent Spring had a significant affect in popularising the idea that mankind could have a seriously detrimental influence on the world around us, perhaps the first time that ideas such as this were received by such a large audience.
The title of the book alludes to the consequences on the environment of continued use of persistent pesticides evoking a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, as they had all perished.
During the fifties Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, had previously published a trilogy of best selling books exploring ocean life: The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind, and The Edge of the Sea.
A long-standing interest into the damaging affects of DDT, an artificial pesticide, on wildlife and human health led to 4 years of research, culminating in the publication of Silent Spring. The following year, 1963, President Kennedy ordered his Science Advisory Committee to investigate the book’s claims with the result that the committee issued a report supporting Rachel Carson’s thesis. This led to an eventual ban on the use of DDT.
The book argued that uncontrolled and unexamined use of pesticide was not only harming and killing birds and animals, but also affecting human health.
For more on Rachel Carson, see the Independent series, ‘The Green Movement at 50‘
It is ironic that Rio +20 is set to commence just a few days after this anniversary. For those concerned with the state of the oceans, particularly in the context of ocean warming and acidification, a writer could be tempted to go with the title, ‘Empty Seas’ for a comparable book written about the oceans today.
I make no excuses for the length of the following quote from the Rio 2012 Issues Brief 4 – Oceans, but for the short version skip to the end:
‘In addition, key commitments with regard to the sustainable development and use of the oceans were agreed as part of the outcomes of the nineteenth special session of the General Assembly on the programme for the further implementation of Agenda 21, the 2000 Millennium Summit of the United Nations, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the 2010 High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals. Several conventions, as for example the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), mention oceans and their marine resources and even establish ocean related targets.
Despite these efforts, the WSSD target to restore fish stocks to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015 is likely to be unmet as are other targets including the reversal of biodiversity loss in the oceans and the elimination of destructive fishing practices.
The Secretary-General report on oceans and law of the sea A/66/70/Add.1 identified gaps regarding the implementation of the legal and institutional framework for the sustainable development of oceans and seas as well as with regard to adequate and comprehensive knowledge and scientific research. The report was the focus at the twelfth meeting of the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, which took place in June 2011 in New York. Several delegations were of the view that, in achieving sustainable development, fragmentation of the law of the sea should be avoided. They recalled that activities in the oceans were governed by the law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the integrity of which should be preserved. As of May 2011 there were 162 state parties under the Convention. It was recalled that ratification of the Convention was a very significant action a State could take towards sustainable development. The need to harmonize the vision of the international community and develop synergies in order to promote the sustainable management of the oceans was emphasized.
Many delegations noted with concern the gap between the adoption of commitments and their implementation. They noted that many of the commitments made at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and subscribed in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and the Millennium Development Goals, especially relating to coastal developing States and small island developing States, had not been met. A number of delegations emphasized the need for greater efforts in the implementation of existing agreements and commitments, particularly at the national level, in order to advance the sustainable development agenda.
4. Challenges and emerging issues
Regardless of the significant economic, social and environmental benefits of oceans, there are countless challenges in preserving and maintaining them for future generations. Some of the problems plaguing the oceans are overfishing and destructive fishing, loss of biodiversity, including the serious decline and/or depletion of certain fish stocks (e.g. tuna, cod, haddock, flounder, halibut and red hake), ocean acidification (among others causing coral bleaching), ocean warming, coral reef destruction, watershed-based and marine-based pollution (runoff and debris), including accidental oil spills and radioactive water from nuclear accidents as well as invasive species from ballast water.
Studies have shown that since the beginning of the industrial revolution, oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic and predictions show that, by 2050, ocean acidity could even increase by 150 per cent. This would give marine ecosystems a very small period of time for adaptation, as it would represent a rate of increase that is 100 times faster than that of any ocean acidity change experienced over the last 20 million years.
Tropical coral reefs offer habitat to 25 per cent of all known marine species while constituting only less than one tenth of 1 per cent of the marine environment. About one fifth of the global coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair and it is predicted that 90 per cent of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030 and all coral reefs will be threatened by 2050, if no protective measures are taken. A recent study assessing the world’s oceans, including the deep sea, highlighted the significant damage caused by pollution, resource exploitation and climate change.
According to the Secretary-General report on oceans and law of the sea A/66/70/Add.1, other challenges identified by member states include maritime delimitation, implementation and enforcement, capacity-building, integrated management of oceans and seas, environmental vulnerability of Small Island and Developing States (SIDS), vulnerable marine ecosystems and ecologically or biologically significant areas, and crimes at sea.
Important emerging issues identified include marine genetic resources, coral reefs management, marine debris, nutrient over-enrichment and eutrophication, geo-engineering, ocean noise, renewable energy and environmental data exchange.
At the twelfth meeting of the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, several delegations noted that the challenges affecting sustainable development were interlinked and could not be addressed in isolation. Many delegations re-emphasized the environmental vulnerability and isolation of Small Island developing States, whose culture, livelihoods and economies were being threatened by unsustainable uses of marine resources and by climate change.
Potential economic, social and environmental impacts of these challenges are enormous, which highlights the urgency of taking action to ensure the sustainable management and use of oceans and their marine resources.
5. Way forward
The approaching United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Brazil from 20 to 22 June 2012, will bring together government representatives, civil society, academia, the scientific community and the private sector to discuss sustainable development issues, including the sustainable management and protection of oceans and marine resources. It represents a unique opportunity to speed up implementation and to take action on ocean-related emerging issues. The Conference will coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the adoption of UNCLOS.
At the twelfth meeting of the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea in 2011, several delegations expressed the view that, for the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development to be a success, it should deliver a strong outcome for oceans, fisheries and biodiversity. Oceans and seas, in the light of their economic, social and environmental significance, should feature prominently in the discussions and outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. The need for setting realistic targets and goals that would be fully implemented was also pointed out.
One of the Rio+20 conference themes is “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”. However, the development of this “green economy” will rely in part on the sustainable management and use of oceans and their resources. At the twelfth ICP meeting as well as at the second preparatory committee for Rio+20 held in March 2011, various member states emphasized the importance of sustainable management of oceans and the conservation of ocean resources while referring to a so-called “blue economy” approach, in line with Agenda 21. Many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) specifically called for Rio+20 to provide support for sustainable ocean development and protection of marine resources. Therefore, the topic of oceans is expected to figure prominently at the Conference. Furthermore, there will be several preparatory meetings covering the topic.
The Commission on Sustainable Development, which is tasked to support the achievement of sustainable development, including the preservation of the seas, oceans, islands and coastal areas, is furthermore scheduled to undertake a two-year review of oceans, marine life and SIDS in 2015-2016.‘
Telling phrases include the paragraphs beginning:
‘Many delegations noted with concern the gap between the adoption of commitments and their implementation.’
‘Studies have shown that since the beginning of the industrial revolution, oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic and predictions show that, by 2050, ocean acidity could even increase by 150 per cent.
‘About one fifth of the global coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair and it is predicted that 90 per cent of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030 and all coral reefs will be threatened by 2050, if no protective measures are taken.’
All leaving me increasingly pessimistic about the future of oceans, in particular the future of the coral reefs. Indeed, it seems that at a time of world wide financial worry, that the future of the world itself is being ignored
As ever, let me leave you with exhortation to show off your reef aquarium to as many people as you can. This is one way in which you can help promote the plight of the reefs by showing non-hobbyists the wonders of the oceans that we are in grave danger of losing.