Let’s get real. While social media has delighted me with many images of beaches, sharks, dolphins, crazy exotic reef critters, and more in honor of World Oceans Day, the reality is that some likes and retweets are almost the extent of any service that will be done to the world’s oceans today.
It seems as though the dire need for substantial change has been highlighted in numerous instances this week. On Thursday I decided to head to a small (deliberately unnamed) beach to take a stab at a thousand casts in the hunt of a striper from the surf. Recently, I have consistently failed to remember to bring an important piece of gear every time I’ve headed to the coast. It took no time Thursday to remember what I forgot, as the jetty I planned to fish was covered with garbage. Beer cans, bait containers, food trash, and more lined the coast to remind me of obvious human failure and my own failure to remember a trash bag, while a hardly noticeable sign reminded surfers and other waterfolk that despite the beach’s reputation as a surf spot, the water is so toxic that it ought to be avoided.
It’s a shame that there is a sign at that beach warning visitors that the water is dangerous (not because of the rocks and white sharks that frequent the area). It’s a shame that there is a sign not only because it highlights how polluted the water is, but it is disappointing that we even need signs. We all should already know how polluted the beaches are. We should know that many of the fish are inedible because they are contaminated with neurotoxins. We should know that the kelp off the Central California coast tested positive for Fukushima radiation after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We should all know that doing something as natural as swimming at the beach can make you sick.
The fact we need to face is that the state of the oceans is horrifying. We must also be honest about what it means to bring critical change. In the days following new EPA guidelines for carbon emissions, critics have responded to clean air regulations with a panic that rivals many government scandals. In the face of an historic drought in California, there has been no mandated (or even requested) cut-back of water use. And these are simply the social changes. How many toxins did I pour down the drain when showing twice on Thursday? What other shampoo and soap options do I have as a consumer? Let’s be honest, when sporting a Mohawk, do I really need to be picky with hair care products?
The rest of Thursday involved a drive down Pacific Coast Highway 1, where I was able to admire many miles of coastline. However, coming in the opposite direction on the highway were truck after truck carrying freshly cut-down, stacked redwood trees, thus reminding me that the California coast is always changing and almost never for the better.
This change was highlighted further Thursday evening when I attended a screening of DamNation at the Patagonia store in Palo Alto. The film is extraordinary and is truly a must-see film for all anglers (and citizens), but as expected, DamNation brings to light the horrible consequences of our responses to “progress.” And looking at the local need for change following the film, it is hard to be further reminded of what “once was.” Not only is the Searsville Dam an obstacle to a naturally flowing river and a healthy steelhead run, but this area was actually once packed with heavy salmon runs and a healthy grizzly bear population that survived and thrived on these fish. California is now represented by bear on the state flag that no longer inhabits any part of the state.
While DamNation did not tip-toe over the damage of dams, the filmmakers did leave room for optimism. However, as witnessed in panic and outcry over the hose-to-wildfire response to global warming offered by the EPA last week, “progress” is a tough opponent. People generally do not respond to signs warning of polluted water. We tend to need to be hit in the face with the sign.
To use a John Muir quote in the same fashion as Chris Malloy did in his film, Groundswell, “[It’s] Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” Everyday (including today) delivers an assault on the oceans, and the word “progress” without ideas about what progress even means is often the quick, unexplained counter argument to concerns about the state of natural resources. It is imperative that we ask, “What does progress mean, and how can progress be achieved reasonably?”