2017, High School, Prose
At first, we noticed nothing. There was no sudden switch, no abrupt shift to disrupt us from the inertia of everyday life. We were distracted by work and weddings and wars, by birthday parties and track meets, by season finales and summer plans. Couples walked hand in hand by the water. Children lined up, schoolbus by schoolbus, to poke at crabs during low tide, squealing as small pincers cut their fleshy palms. Under the heat of the midday sun, friends pushed each other into bright, foamy water. And there was nothing to suggest, at least to the naked eye, that such water had changed; that the massive body of oceans on Earth was somehow different from the primordial entity that our ancestors had worshipped so many years ago.
And yet there were the ones who claimed that they had sensed it from the start. Not just the scientists, who’d been spouting the facts for years. They were the water dwellers, the night swimmers; the surfers and the fishermen and the jubilant teens sneaking out at midnight to skinny-dip by the shore. Between the crests and catches and hushed laughter, they could feel it. Tired. Unbalanced. Dying.
Two days after my birthday, the news broke: All of the world’s coral reefs were dead. This was, of course, not a huge surprise. We read enough science magazines and heard enough middle school biology class lectures not to be completely blindsided. But we’d always assumed that there was no imminent threat; there were enough environmentalists doing the work that our government was supposed to, and besides, how could these massive pockets of life possibly die off?
I remember the night clearly: my father stood by the fridge, leftover piece of cake in hand, frowning as the news reporter spoke. My mother sat next to me on the couch, distracted from her eBook as she listened to the report. Both seemed perplexed, hesitant – as though they weren’t entirely sure what to feel.
“Dad?” I called. “What’s going to happen?” In the other room, my father shook his head. He was a mechanical engineer, a man of math and physics. Questions of life and society and the environment were out of his element. “Well,” he responded tentatively, “I guess we’ll see.”
I was never one to love the ocean. Part of it, I suppose, was a lack of experience. We were Californians – a label that caused most to believe that we were avid surfers, or otherwise wannabe beachgoers. Both were incorrect. We lived inland, in a suburban development near wine country. Our closest body of water was the Sacramento River. We touched the ocean twice, maybe three times a year at most; and for me, that was enough.
But on those rare occasions when I did come in contact with salt water – during a weekend where my parents decided to make the three-and-a-half hour drive, or perhaps during a summer adventure camp – the experience was always mediocre. Never great. I never felt a stirring inside of me, never felt the lust for beach culture that many considered an adolescent rite of passage. When asked, I always joked that the ocean and I were incompatible. It was too cold, too sticky, too sandy or otherwise too rocky. But inside, I realized that the problem was much deeper: I was afraid of the ocean. I was afraid of its strength, its power, its inconsistency. I was afraid of how its faces changed: how the grey-blue plains lay docile, unreadable; then awoke, furious and thrashing, grasping with soaking hands, pulling children from the shore into the turbulent depths on the horizon. The ocean was the closest thing to a deity – powerful, unrelenting, awe-inspiring – that I had ever physically encountered.
And now, it was dead.
The effects revealed themselves gradually. One day, there was an increase in the price of fish: marine life populations had shrunk to a fraction of what they were before, and there simply weren’t enough fish being caught to allow prices to remain competitive. Another day, we heard news of rampant poverty in small island nations of the Pacific and the Caribbean, where billions of dollars of revenue were lost as the tourism and fishing industries collapsed. It seemed that each day, a new weakness was revealed. We had relied on the coral reefs more than we knew.
But, despite everything, life went on as usual. My father still left for work at 6:00 and came home at 7:00. My mother finished her eBook and started another. I learned theories and theorems and Thoreau at school. We were shining examples of the tenacity of the human spirit: we adapted to adversity by forgetting it was there. And, for the time being, we remained largely unaffected. As drought-hardened Californians, we were accustomed to the fluctuation of food prices; so we simply adjusted our diets and purchased less fish. And poverty in third-world countries was nothing new; so we sent checks to relief organizations, sympathized with the poor, struggling island nations when they came up in conversation, and moved on. Nothing especially terrible was happening. We were okay.
Or so we thought.
It was late September when Hurricane Eugene was first spotted, 100 miles off the coast of Florida. Even in its infancy, the storm was massive; experts called it the biggest Atlantic hurricane in centuries, maybe ever. As usual, the government took numerous safety precautions, building sandbag barriers and issuing evacuation orders up and down the coast. Once Hurricane Eugene hit, however, nothing was enough. The winds ripped up trees, schools, houses; the storm surges, stronger than ever before, cut through the puny barriers like they were butter. Cities, livelihoods, and families who were told that they were far enough away became devastated by the water until, in some places, nothing was left. The death toll: 1,092. Over half a million more were displaced, including my aunt Sally and her family. No one was hurt, she said tearfully to my mother on the phone, but their entire home had been lost to the ocean. Publicly, scientists attributed the scale of the damage to the lack of coral reefs, which had reduced wave energy by 97% and wave height by 86%, and protected 7 million people worldwide.1
Two days later, fish was banned. Wars broke out in small island nations as the 500 million people who depended on coral reefs for survival fought to stay alive.2 We were no longer okay.
In April of my junior year of college, seven years after we lost the reefs, my father joined the 15 million people in the United States living with cancer.3 The doctors diagnosed him with acute myeloid leukemia,4 a disease which had affected his uncle years before. “I don’t want you to worry too much,” he told me over over the phone. “Treatment for AML has improved a lot over the past decades.” He was going to be fine, he reassured me; he didn’t want to distract me too much from my studies. After all, I was an economics major. The global economy had been severely weakened by the demise of Southeast Asian and Caribbean governments as their sources of income and livelihood – the reefs – disappeared, and the world’s monetary problems weren’t going to fix themselves.
But as time passed, it became clear that my father was getting worse, not better. None of the chemotherapy treatments seemed to be working effectively. Each time I saw him, he looked weaker than I remembered. Time spent studying economics and foreign policy soon became sleepless nights spent researching new treatments, techniques, methods; anything to help my father. A year after his diagnosis, I had a breakthrough: a woman in Massachusetts had beaten leukemia with the help of a chemotherapy drug called Ara-C.5 Excitedly, I called my father’s doctor. “Have you tried Ara-C?” I asked. “There are concrete cases of success -”
The doctor sighed sadly into the phone. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If we were able to, we would have tried Ara-C first, but that treatment has been discontinued for years – the drug was derived from sea sponges, and those were only found in the coral reefs …”
“I see,” I whispered. Carefully, I hung up the phone, a sinking feeling growing in my chest. Why was I surprised? Much of our medicine stemmed from nature, and because the coral reefs had been so diverse, it was only logical that they had supplied us with many treatments. When the coral reefs died, our medical breakthroughs died along with them – and, 11 months later on a too-warm day in March, my father died too.
How did this happen? Who could we blame? This is what we knew: extreme fossil fuel burning and rampant deforestation led to a surplus of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which, in turn, sealed in heat and caused a global rise in temperature. This, combined with an increase of toxic chemicals in our air and water, led to bleaching and acidification, coral’s natural response to higher temperatures.6 Ocean pH levels rose. Reefs died. Organisms went extinct. We were the great species; we proved that nothing was more powerful than human innovation. And in the process, after 4.5 billion years, our planet lost its lifeblood, its heartbeat.
When the reefs were gone, the humans of Earth pointed fingers in many directions – at the greedy companies, at the apathetic governments, at the corrupt institutions – but each time, we failed to place the blame in one place where it truly belonged: with ourselves. We were content with inaction. We viewed environment and sustainability work as a project rather than a necessity. We were too quick to make excuses, too dependent on our consumer lifestyles, too concerned with the inconvenience of buying organic and carpooling and recycling. We were in denial until it was too late; and once it was too late, we had nowhere else to go.
1 Valentine, Katie. “Coral Reefs Protect Shorelines By Reducing Wave Energy By 97 Percent, Study Finds.” ThinkProgress. ThinkProgress, 16 May 2014. Web. 12 June 2017.
2 Kirkpatrick, Karen. “What If All the Coral Reefs Disappeared?” HowStuffWorks Science. InfoSpace Holdings LLC, 12 June 2015. Web. 12 June 2017.
3 “Cancer Stat Facts: Cancer of Any Site.” National Cancer Institute: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. National Health Institute, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 13 June 2017.
4 “Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).” Cancer.org. American Cancer Society, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.
5 Caron, Christina. “Doctors Develop Life-saving Drugs from Coral Reefs.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 13 June 2017
6 Becatoros, Elena. “More than 90 Percent of World’s Coral Reefs Will Die by 2050.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 12 June 2017.
It is a human tendency to ignore problems unless they concern us directly. Wars, famines, and earthquakes in foreign places often go unnoticed because we believe that they are unrelated to our lives; and those who do take action, by donating and volunteering, are often considered to be going above and beyond what is necessary, or otherwise only contribute for the purpose of feeling good about themselves. The same mindset applies to the problem of ocean acidification. We are told that the death of coral reefs is bad, and that we should modify our lifestyles to protect them, but we are usually not told why losing the reefs is bad. Why should we care about ocean acidification? What would happen if all of the coral reefs died? How would we be affected? Without answering these questions, people may consider ocean acidification to be “irrelevant” and remain content in their ways, which only exacerbates the problem. Therefore, rather than just focusing on the current state of ocean acidification, “Lifeblood” seeks to motivate people to take action by showing what a future world would look like without coral reefs, and how the lives of ordinary people – such as the protagonist and their family – would be negatively impacted. By educating people on the importance of coral reefs, and raising awareness about the potential future without them, we can take the first steps to positive environmental change.