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.
(I first posted this piece in June of 2018, with no inkling of our current disaster. Rereading it this week I found some comfort and hope in the resistance and resilience of sea stars.
Back then a deadly virus was sweeping the ocean, and the seastars were already weak and stressed from climate change. 80% died. But moms and dads to the rescue! With a “reproductive frenzy,” in one generation, their babies have a new resilience, the ability to resist. Read on for a story of hope…..)
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 on Facebook. NOAA photo by Steve Lonhart.