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Time to Bail?

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Colleagues and friends Tony Oppersdorff and Kyrill Schabert published a delightful collaborative paperback in 2011 entitled “Best Nature Sites of Mid-Coast Maine,” (Waterline Books, Jefferson, ME).  With over 150 spectacular photographs, this little volume offers succinct site descriptions, easy-to-read maps, and sidebars with a wealth of natural history information about the U.S. Route 1 corridor from Brunswick to Belfast.  If readers have not visited the area heretofore, then you might consider a vacation in the Northeast with this book as your guide – the trip and the book combined as stunning entrée into the wilds of the North Country.

Just before I gave an Earth Day address this spring to an independent school in the region, Tony and I engaged in a discussion about plastics pollution as just one of many human-caused ecological stressors on fragile wildlife and ecosystems around the world.  He and others asked if I remain hopeful, given the enormity of our negative influence on the natural world around the globe.  I replied affirmatively, pointing to the young people in my audience eager to make a difference by taking a stand against pollution and other injustices that we pour onto Earth’s rich biodiversity.

 I did admit, however, how exasperating it is to witness the badly informed political assaults in recent months on bipartisan-supported environmental legislation (e.g., the Clean Air Act of 1970 or the Endangered Species Act of 1973) and regulatory organizations (e.g., U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) that have otherwise provided exemplary models for the world at-large.  Rather than moving forward toward long-term sustainable solutions, too often we seem to backtrack for short-term political gain.  Then Tony said something to describe this head-in-the-sand attitude that stopped me in my tracks.  Apropos to our stances as individuals, Tony’s statement also nearly defined us as a species.

“I don’t need to bail because the leak is in your end of the boat.”

When I asked him the source of the quote, he readily attributed it to Isaac Asimov.  I did a couple of literature searches, however, that did not yield any speech, essay, or book by this wonderful American writer, professor, and master of science fiction.  I have a sneaky feeling that it was really Tony’s brilliant originality and skillful knack to capture the moment in a turn of phrase.  Both his writing and his photography corroborate this view of his talents.

“I don’t need to bail because the leak is in your end of the boat.”

What a splendid, but spooky, metaphor!

The boat, of course, is Earth with its incredible, intertwined biodiversity, all woven together in a complex and ancient tapestry of life and nonlife: 30 million or more species linked together on our little planet of rock and water.  The leak is multifarious and human-caused.  Pick your poison: greenhouse gases, acid rain, heavy metals deposition, pesticides, and petroleum spills or other types of “poison” such as plastic trash, forest fragmentation, rampant development, invasive species, and overpopulation – wherever we humans live and travel, we seem to stress the fiber of life to the breaking point.

The price of conservation is eternal vigilance.  For any person to suggest that “you have an environmental problem, but I don’t” is a grossly naïve, even suicidal approach to modernity.  Indeed one might live a stellar life of minimum-to-zero impact on the natural world, but we’re all in the boat together.  That vessel’s sprung a big leak, and we’ve got to fix it – all of us – or we will all drown.  The “fix” includes effective science education; a renewed sense of stewardship for creation; decisive volunteerism; and strong, bipartisan environmental legislation.

John James Audubon called our impact “this war of extermination [that] cannot last many years more.”  In his informative book about Maine’s mid-coast communities, Tony Oppersdorff added a cautionary note about seabirds such as eiders and scoters: “Conservation efforts are ongoing, but continued habitat loss, pollutants, oil and plastics in the environment mean that the great numbers of seabirds that lived in these waters are probably gone forever.”

 Gone forever.  What a horrible realization of humankind’s potential impact on other kinds of life!  It’s time to bail, plug the holes, and fix the boat.  And every man, woman, and child on the planet can have a role in fixing the rigging so that we sail pleasingly into a sustainable future on our little boat called Earth.

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  1. It is not enough to be just vigilant, good thinks like collecting 144,000kg of shorline trash and shopping at Lush (Maclean’s,May 7, 2012: 42-44) but, there should also be emphasis on how do we clean our anthropogenic mess?!

  2. After days of trying I am finally able to comment on your wonderful Article.As the Old saying goes each one gets better than the one before..
    It grieves me to see how Mother Earth is being treated and if we all don’t start taking care of her awful things will and has happened…Everything from Earthquakes,Hail as big as Golf Balls,Tornadoes, Fires and pollution of the Oceans and could go on and on…we all need to own up to our Stewardship of the earth and do what we can so our children and Grandchildren can enjoy living on Earth as much as we do

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