Pollution and the Jubilee City: One Girl’s Search for Meaning
2016, High School, Prose
My family moved to Daphne, Alabama, when I was just one year old; thus, the Alabama Gulf Coast is the only home I have ever known. Nicknamed “the Jubilee City,” my hometown is the only place in the world to experience the natural phenomenon of a “jubilee” on a regular basis—and I am a privileged member of the only group of people able to enjoy it regularly.
During a jubilee, marine animals leave deeper waters to swarm in a shallower coastal area, often making their way onto the sand, where enterprising folks can scoop them up and bring them home for dinner. I pity the tourists who’ve driven for hours or hopped on a plane in the hopes of catching eels, flounder, or crabs with their bare hands; the beach is only five minutes from my house. Snowbirds, or northern tourists, don’t know what they’re missing!
But jubilees are special events, and not just because of their rarity. Not merely an opportunity for free seafood, a jubilee unites the community in a unique way, allowing people to visit with friends and reconnect with old acquaintances—sometimes at three o’clock in the morning! It is a time to enjoy freshly caught catfish or laugh yourself silly when your cousin is pinched by a sluggish crab. A jubilee is more than just a chance for a beach barbecue; it is also a beloved part of local culture.
However, a far more integral aspect of our lives is the water itself. After all, the Gulf Coast and its people would lose their identity and livelihoods if Mobile Bay
suddenly ceased to exist. Without the pristine beaches, blue waters, and plethora of sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, tourism would suffer a cataclysmic blow and shipping companies such as Airbus would depart, taking thousands of jobs with them.
Restaurants would shutter; those remaining would be forced to sell Vietnamese shrimp or farm-raised catfish. Cruise ships brimming with passengers eager to set foot on shore again would go elsewhere to spend their money.
And without the water, the Gulf Coast would lose its identity, as its very name implies. I can’t imagine Daphne without sunsets over the bay, walks on the pier, and weekly fish fries—and I don’t want to. The water is as much a part of the community as the people themselves.
But I am beginning to imagine a future along the Gulf Coast that is very different.
When my mother was my age, the brown pelicans had been devastated by pollution, specifically by DDT, an insecticide which made their egg shells tissue thin and thus caused many to die before they were even born! While the pelicans have since made a strong return, their numbers are not as high as they once were—and locals are periodically warned not to swim in the bay because it has been contaminated by raw sewage. Driving along the Bay Way on my way to school, I see bottles littering the marshes, Styrofoam bobbing on the waves, and some fishermen tossing beer cans in the water—the same water they’ve just pulled their crab traps from!
This begs the question: What on earth are they thinking?
A tourist or out-of-towner, unaware of the implications of their behavior, may get a momentary pass, but my fellow residents—the people I most admire and love—also
routinely and nonchalantly pollute coastal waterways and litter the shorelines, behavior that strikes me as illogical and even senseless. How can a person treat their home in such a manner? Are they truly blind to the consequences of their actions, or do they simply not care? Whatever the case, this travesty must be stopped!
If the BP Oil Spill has taught us anything, it is that life—in this case, an entire ecosystem—is fragile, and that it is not enough to refrain from harming it ourselves; we must actively work to protect it. The blessings that come with living on the Gulf Coast are self-evident; inland inhabitants can’t eat red snapper caught in their own backyards or take a five-minute drive to the beach whenever they’re in the mood for some sun and waves. They can’t witness gorgeous sunsets over the water or befriend a pelican—not the way that I can.
While there are advantages to living inland—no direct hits or storm surges from hurricanes—I love and appreciate my home, as should everyone else lucky enough to live here. And that appreciation should include caring for and protecting it, the same way they would any other valued possession.
* * *
It was an arid August afternoon in the third grade when I first became an environmentalist. After a class field trip to the Fairhope Pier, my friends and I discovered a seagull that had become tangled in a six-pack holder. We watched in silence as the poor animal squawked and tried frantically to free itself until my science teacher freed
it, using the occasion as an opportunity to enlighten us about the consequences of littering. But the image of the bird remained with me long after her lecture.
“Why do people litter so much?” I asked my mother that evening, still fuming from the memory of the bird’s cries. “It’s not fair!” When Mom began to open her mouth, I added, “I know life’s not fair. But this time, I wish it was!”
“I know, honey. I do, too.” She squeezed my hand.
“But they’re ruining the bay!”
“Why aren’t you upset?” I burst out. “Don’t you care at all?”
She ruffled my hair, her expression a mixture of concern and amusement. “Of course, I do, sweetheart. But the locals did this when I was a girl; when I was your age, the pelicans were almost extinct because of chemical pollution. They’ve only come back in the past twenty years. If you do some research, you’ll understand more about what pollution can do.”
Mom had no idea of the impact her suggestion would have on my life.
While the thought of research (extra homework!) was almost as repugnant to me as the reality of pollution, I was curious, and that was all it took to. To me, pollution, especially in the ocean, appeared to be a relatively new development. After all, what would our ancestors have polluted the water with? Wasn’t water pollution mostly a result of plastic bottles and discarded chemicals?
But as I delved deeper into the murky waters surrounding environmental pollution, I began to understand that people have always had a special—and especially devastating—relationship with our planet, and the water in particular.
Since water is essential in maintaining life, most early human settlements began near a water source. Yet although clean water was arguably more important than either clean air or land—and just as vulnerable to contamination, if not more so—the importance of having a clean water supply was not understood until the second half of the nineteenth century.
This importance of clean water was highlighted by the typhoid and cholera outbreaks that erupted as a result of contaminated drinking water, a tragedy which continues to occur in many developing nations today. A prime example of this is India, where residents use the nation’s major rivers, such as the Ganges, for everything from waste disposal to burial of human and animal remains.
Ironically, the Industrial Revolution and its “push for progress” only exacerbated the situation in the western world, as “factories found water sources a convenient means of waste disposal” (Pollution Issues). Thus, even as scientific advances and an increased emphasis on education allowed people to comprehend the implications of contaminated water, the sources of this contamination became ever more sophisticated—and more deadly. While inventions such as the automobile greatly improved the quality of life, they took a far greater toll on the environment than their predecessors.
Furthermore, despite the efforts of early environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club around the turn-of- the-century, big business continued to be mostly unchecked by the federal government well into the twentieth century, its influence increasing during World War II and the government mobilization of industry which revived the nation’s flagging economy and ushered in the era of vibrant patriotism that would sustain the nation during its subsequent decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union.
While the medical and technological advances achieved during this period raised the standard of living and saved millions of lives, many industrial waste byproducts “found their way into the water,” devastating wildlife populations. It also led to “elevated cancer rates, birth defects, and lower IQs” (Pollution Issues).
Fortunately, by the 1960s, America’s relationship with the water changed with the birth of the environmentalist movement and the publication of works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which condemned the environmental effects of pesticides. In 1970, a growing public awareness of environmental concerns was also demonstrated by the foundation of Earth Day and “the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts” (Earth Day Network).
Enter my friends, the beloved brown pelicans of the Gulf Coast, who owe their return to this legislation.
* * *
Today, Americans are much more aware of the consequences of pollution—yet they continue to contaminate the environment nonetheless. Why? It is impossible for anyone, save a small child, to plead ignorance any longer. And although the actions of a company or corporation can be explained away by greed, how does an individual profit from littering, especially in his own home, or along his own beach?
As the philosopher Anatole France, once said, “It is human nature to think wisely and act foolishly”; however, if we take this approach and accept that all the education and consequences in the world will never prevent people from littering, why bother to take care of our planet at all? After all, according to this attitude, we should also accept that it is human nature to contaminate and to destroy—so why bother to do anything about it? No matter what we say or how hard we try, someone is always sure to ruin our hard work, sully the planet we love even after we’ve tried so hard to keep it beautiful.
I humbly beg to differ—rather than being human nature, pollution is mere human laziness, a laziness which can be both prevented and eradicated.
While we all possess the capacity to be lazy, it is not a fundamental part of who we are; nor should we use it as an excuse to be careless. Our core values and beliefs, the things that make us human, are integrity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to make the right decision even when it is inconvenient or even dangerous. While these traits are just as explainable as the human capacity for destruction—maybe even more so, because the world is a perilous place and morality isn’t always conducive to survival—they are a far more powerful and far more fundamental part of us than our ability to destroy will ever be.
This is what we must acknowledge and embrace.
And every day, hour, and minute offer us an opportunity for a new beginning. Someone who has thrown a cigarette butt out of the window can retrieve one from the sidewalk; a fisherman who has discarded his trash in the bay can choose to recycle it the next time, and the time after that. One hallmark of humanity is its ability to make mistakes—but its crowning glory is the ability to fix them.
That is the meaning of life, a meaning that can be found by picking up a bottle cap or explaining the importance of recycling to a child—simple yet satisfying. We all have our own versions of Daphne and while jubilees will always remain exclusive to mine, life—and our planet itself—is the treasure that is present in everybody’s backyard. Just as I can’t imagine Daphne without beach blowouts or drowsy afternoons on the sand, every other American—along with millions of others around the world—possesses a community and culture that they, too, love—one that they can change, one piece of trash at a time. It is a daunting thought.
I have always loved the water—not only for its beauty, but also because of its power. When I watch the waves crashing on the beach, I am always humbled and profoundly grateful for the phenomenal gift that is our planet. Inspiration can be drawn from almost every aspect of nature: deserts, mountain ranges, and forests, just to name a few. But the ocean has a magnificence that cannot be equaled—and yet, it is contaminated with a far more careless attitude than Earth's atmosphere or landmass, often with far more deadly consequences. In writing this essay, I hope to spread awareness of this urgent situation before it is too late—and to inspire others to change it! After all, humanity has only one home and it is our responsibility as citizens of Earth to protect it—a responsibility that transcends regional and even national boundaries. Yet it is particularly vital that we preserve our oceans; they, too, transcend borders, sustaining life both above and below the waves. By uniting to protect our waters, we can create a better future for ourselves and for our descendants—a legacy that will endure as long as the ocean itself! And, best of all, no little girl will ask where the pelicans have gone, as my mother once did. They will soar over the water, free from the fear of pollution, as free as they were meant to be.