Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Resilience and Resistance

Resilience and Resistance

Can these cute ochre sea stars teach us something about how to resist disaster? Can their recent return after near extinction give us hope in the face of our own disasters?  When all around us seems to be falling apart (name your daily despair – political, environmental, medical, personal) can the gospel of sea stars help us be resilient?  God, I hope so. 

Indulge me in some metaphor or projection or identification with my beloved sea stars.  From human-related near extinction these ochre stars have rebounded in one generation.  Might their astral light shine on our darkness and lend us their aid?

The ochre star’s coastal ocean home, from Alaska to Baja, grows daily warmer and more acidic (thanks to all our fossil fuel use), to the extent that 5 years ago scientists starting noticing what they later named “sea star wasting disease,” overnight disintegration and massive die-offs of this abundant keystone species.  Researchers identified the cause, a virus, which the sea stars could normally resist, but they were so stressed from the changes in ocean temperature and chemistry they could not fight back.

With sea stars virtually gone from the intertidal, urchins and mussels and snails, the animals that sea stars eat, quickly took over, hogging previously diverse habitats, and clearcutting their own favorite food, the kelp, setting off a chain of massive habitat disruption.  Was this the end?

No! Ochre star moms and dads did an amazing thing.  In a “reproductive frenzy” they spawned a whole new generation of sea stars, much more abundant than any seen in years, stronger and able to resist this deadly disease.  Profs at UC Merced marveled at this dramatic example of microevolution.  The 20% of parents who had survived had a dormant but strong disease-resistant gene, which they passed on.  In one generation, the ochre star’s genetic code changed, and is now resistant to the disease.  We see natural selection before our very eyes, a hope story in the midst of so much doom and gloom.

Marine scientist Elin Kelsey kept hearing her colleagues say “we’re tired of writing obituaries,” charting the inevitable death of the ocean.  So she started a twitter account, #oceanoptimism, to gather stories of ocean resilience and recovery.  She hoped for a few responses; they got two million stories in the first month. Kelsey reminds us that fear shuts us down, recklessly speeds us up and hampers our creativity.  Telling hope stories doesn’t mean we don’t keep working for change, nor imply that we are overly idealistic.  Hope stories make us even more active, more creative, more resilient.

So maybe our one small sea star hope story can teach us something.   God says to Job, “Listen to the animals and they will teach you.”  Find the resistant spirit (gene) within you, it’s there, maybe dormant, but it’s there.  I find myself identifying with the old sea stars, those on the brink, what can they do in face of disaster?  We are few, and death seems all around us, but we can find the resistance within us, and then go into reproductive mode.   (Not literally in my case!)  The few resistant parents must spawn a huge resilient and resistant next generation.  Generate new ideas, pass them on the others, enlist youth, get that resistant spirit into the future.  Don’t let it die. 

One of the UC Merced scientist said, “The ochre sea star is perhaps a species with greater resilience than many.  With projected climate swings expected to be more extreme, the ochre sea star’s resilience is perhaps a small, distant bright light on a pretty stormy sea.” 

Like the sea star, we can hold fast (to that which is good), shine a light in the dark, and respond to crises all around us with a massive mobilization.   Of new life.  And of hope.  Resist.
I write these “Blue Theology Tide-ings” devotionals on ocean stewardship and spirituality every Wednesday here and at  At our Pacific Grove Blue Theology Mission Station we have seven groups this summer delighting in the return of the ochre star and learning to resist.  NOAA photo by Steve Lonhart.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Ocean March at the White House

The Oceans are rising and so are we! 

Thousands strong here in Washington DC.

Carl and Sylvia, Magi

Carl and Sylvia, Magi

These two magi, wise ones from the east (Florida and Long Island) led off the March for the Ocean June 9 in Washington DC.  “Her Deepness” Dr. Sylvia Earle, and passionate wise man Dr. Carl Safina are my heroes, activist scientists and tireless advocates for the ocean.

Carl Safina, who grew up Unitarian Universalist and was the keynote speaker at the big religious leaders summit I hosted at the Monterey Bay Aquarium some years ago, wrote this blog for National Geographic about “Why We March.”  He says it better than I could. 

Note his three points: offshore drilling, plastic pollution, coastal resilience. (

“When the first World Oceans Day was held in 1992, the oceans were very different than today. The oceans were less acidic because less carbon dioxide had dissolved into them. They were a little cooler because the atmosphere was cooler. More large predatory fish like tunas and sharks existed, because they were less overfished. Tens of millions of tons less plastic was adrift. Oceans even had more oxygen.

“Yet even in 1992, the ocean had problems. Miles-long high-seas driftnets had just been banned but were still used illegally. Marine animals such as sea turtles, dolphins, and seabirds died in nets and longlines. The Newfoundland cod fishery had collapsed. Illegal dumping of trash and toxic waste was rampant. Oil was cheap, and pumping and shipping was causing spills and leaks. Shorelines on the southern coast of Alaska, were still drenched in sticky black crude from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Coastlines ecosystems were being bulldozed at rapid rates to make room for trendy high-rises and beachside communities.

“Since 1992, the world has allowed some of the oceans’ problems to worsen. But other problems have improved thanks to the work of many.

“World Oceans Day is meant to highlight all of this, the good and the bad. It’s meant to rally support for actions to help oceans recover from problems it faces now, but also to celebrate progress in repairing human harms to the seas.

“The Safina Center and Mission Blue are allies for oceans. The Safina Center has helped overhaul U.S. and international fishing policies and practices (sometimes more successfully than at other times). Mission Blue has established nearly 100 community-supported, IUCN-endorsed “Hope Spots”—places aimed at protecting the global ocean from some of our worst direct threats. We’re working to protect the sea, coastlines and the life they house.

“This World Oceans Day, we are calling on everyone to act for the oceans in three specific ways: We must prevent expansion of offshore drilling, we must end plastic pollution, and we need to make our coastlines more resilient. No boundaries can work against global warming, plastic pollution, oil spills, ocean acidification and coastal destruction. That’s why everyone—even those living far from the coasts—is needed to help the oceans.

“Here’s an overview of those three issues, and how you can take action to help address them: 

Trump’s Interior Department now plans to expand oil and gas drilling in 90 percent of U.S. waters, even as 60 percent of voters say they oppose the plan. In an attempt to protect their coastlines from probable harm, many states affected by Trump’s drilling plans have applied for exemptions to the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s proposed Draft Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program, hoping to keep oilrigs out of their coastal waters.

Send letters to your elected representatives or the Department of Interior directly.

Scientists estimate that the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050. Why? Humans are using more single-use plastic products—like packaging, bags, bottles and utensils—now than ever before. Marine animals are consuming plastic debris at unprecedented rates, especially tiny pieces of broken-up plastic called microplastic that often contain toxins.

You can combat Earth’s growing plastic pollution problem by recycling and by looking for innovative new materials made from ecologically benign materials—such as algae, hemp and vegetable starches—that can begin to replace plastics.

More than 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a coastline. But instead of building more on coasts where communities are vulnerable to increasingly severe storms and flooding, we recommend dune protection, enhancement of wetland habitats and the creation of oyster reefs to help dampen the impacts of storms.

You can support coastal resilience projects by voting for policymakers and policies that back coastal conservation efforts, instead of more and more-risky development.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. But we acknowledge that we still have a long way to go.

“That’s why we are participating in the March for the Ocean in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, June 9: To tell our government the oceans URGENTLY need help. Come, join us, either there or in a city near you!”

Sylvia Earle is Founder, Mission Blue; and National Geographic Explorer in Residence. Carl Safina founded The Safina Center and is Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at New York’s Stony Brook University.
Our Blue Theology Mission Station in Pacific Grove took part in the Ocean March and added to the wonderful wet mix of marchers God’s call for love and justice for all creation. I post these ocean devotionals every Wednesday here and at