“Follow your heart and use your head to guide you. This is the way of the lifelong learner.”
~ Plasific Ocean ~
We had an early departure through the narrow winding pass leading out to the beckoning deep-blue Pacific Ocean. Bob and I hoisted sails after clearing the barrier reef and tidying up all the running rigging and deck furniture. Kalea was heading in a southwesterly direction at her normal cruising speed of around ten knots. The seas were relatively calm and we enjoyed the slow, gentle rhythm from the light two-foot swells that would pass under our twin keels.
We had only been underway for about an hour, when Tucker began showing classic signs of seasickness—mild nausea and a general uneasiness. Captain Bob suggested he stay on deck and in the breeze, eat some dry soda crackers, and keep his eyes focused on the horizon—and lay off the rum. Jan came to sit next to him and keep him company. Clara orbited close by.
I was keeping watch out on the forward trampoline, always on the lookout for a friendly pod of dolphins playing in the twin bow wakes or for a wandering solitary sea turtle lazily making its way across the immense ocean. It wasn’t long before I began to notice a few small floating and semi-submerged objects of varying shapes and colors resembling no marine life that I’d ever seen before.
Jagged slivers of red and yellow, small orange tubes, green balls and sections of cylinders, blue disks—the objects came in all sizes, shapes, colors, and opacity. I called over Jack, who was immersed in the interplay between a whole host of little sea critters he had shaken loose from a large blob of seaweed scooped out of the ocean earlier in the day.
“Hey Jack, come check this out.”
Jack broke away from his omnipotent stance over the tiny community of sea dwellers, swept them back into the ocean with a flick of his wrist, and walked over. “Plastic,” he said. “I thought we might see some on this trip, but I didn’t think it would be this much and this soon.”
“Wow, look at all that.” Julie had overheard our conversation and came up onto the forward trampoline to take a look for herself. Paul came up shortly after, followed by Lua.
Jack explained to the group that there are five massive gyres in the world’s oceans—like giant whirlpools rotating at a very slow rate over long periods of time. These gyres tend to accumulate plastic that has been weathered and broken down by the elements into little bits like the ones we are seeing here.
By some estimates, these accumulations may contain as much as six kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton in some locations. Many other chemical pollutants and waste products from industrial society find their way out here as well, and some now liken these ocean gyres to giant toilet bowls for all of our industrial waste.
One of the most well-known gyres is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the central North Pacific Ocean. We were in the South Pacific Gyre now.
Jack went on to say, “Petroleum plastics are designed to last a long, long time. In fact, plastic is so durable that the EPA says every bit of plastic ever made still exists. That is one of the reasons why plastic is considered such a wonder material. Unfortunately, that means this liberated free-range plastic trash we are seeing can remain in the oceans for decades or even longer.”
He told us that in the ocean, sunlight and waves cause floating plastics to break into increasingly smaller particles. Plastic doesn’t break down like natural materials—it doesn’t go away, it just goes from being a floating bottle to being tiny plastic particles that are easily ingested by fish and other marine species or simply spread even further afield.
And something he said really dealt a disheartening blow: a single one-liter bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world—and these particles never completely disappear or biodegrade.
“Most ocean pollution starts out on land and is carried by wind and rain to the sea. Once in the water, it accumulates there,” Jack added. “Due to its low density, plastic waste is readily transported long distances from source areas and concentrates in those five ocean gyres.”
“That looks like a fragment of a fishing net over there,” Paul said as he pointed out a mesh-like glob containing seaweed, a torn plastic bag and some fish remains tangled up in it.
Julie added, “Being in the restaurant business, it really concerns me because I know some of these contaminants are making their way high up in the food chain, in seafood and wildlife.”
“And you are right to be concerned,” said Jack. “As plastics float in the seawater, they act as chemical sponges, absorbing dangerous pollutants like PCBs and DDT. These chemicals are highly toxic. They can act as endocrine disruptors and cause cancerous mutations. Also, as plastics break apart in the ocean, potentially toxic chemicals are released, which can then enter the food web. When fish and other marine species mistake the plastic items for food, they ingest the particles and pass toxic chemicals up through the food chain and ultimately to our dinner plates.”
Jack said plastics in the sea concentrate many of the most damaging of the pollutants found in the world’s oceans. Also, some of the larger objects are consumed by seabirds and other animals, which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead, their stomachs filled with bottle tops, lighters, and balloons.
“It is a real tragedy,” said Jack.
Julie added, “And, as I understand it, the biggest and fattiest fish, like tuna and swordfish, tend to have the highest levels of mercury.”
“It is profoundly heartbreaking.” Captain Bob joined in the conversation. “Fellow ocean sailors and friends of mine from all over the world have told me about the plastic bags and bottles, containers, plastic drums, polystyrene packing, polyurethane foam pieces, pieces of polypropylene fishing net, discarded lengths of rope, disposable lighters, tires and even toothbrushes they’ve seen washed up on beaches. They claim it is plastic trash that has been casually thrown away on land or at sea and has found its way ashore by wind, waves and ocean currents. The world’s beaches and oceans have effectively been turned into open landfills. I have read that in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, if we don’t change our ways, there will be more plastics in the ocean, by weight, than fish by the year 2050!”
“I suppose we should not be surprised at how this has turned out,” Paul said. “After all, we live in a deliberately wasteful, throwaway society that produces mind-boggling amounts of plastic waste every year, along with other garbage, and some of that simply escapes into the oceans. Plastic is, after all, the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy. Probably 95 percent of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short first-use cycle. That’s insanely wasteful and stupid.”
“I think that comedian George Carlin got it right. Haven’t you heard his great monolog about plastic being just another one of Earth’s children?” Tucker had now joined the group. “He says maybe we were put on this rock to manufacture a shitload of plastic and release it to the environment in every possible size, shape, and color. It may be why Earth spawned us in the first place! And when the accumulation of toxins kills us off in a few generations, the Earth will be happy. All going according to plan!”
Upon hearing Tucker’s dark cynical rambling, Lua grabbed his hand and said to him, “I think it is very sad that so many, like you Mister Tucker, have so obviously lost touch with the wonder and profound beauty of the world’s oceans. Perhaps you are just too far removed now, insulated and isolated from the natural world in your noisy, bustling, well-stocked cities—endlessly distracted by trivial matters and in pursuit of a fictional advertised world promising you ever greater happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment. You say you are a ‘rich’ man, but you are truly impoverished when you cannot see the real treasure before you and are not deeply saddened as it is being slowly destroyed. Your manic drive for excessive wealth, status, and material comfort has made you a dark and cynical man. I am sad for you, Mister Tucker.”
Tucker yanked his hand away from Lua’s grasp and opened his mouth, ready to fire back. He did not consider himself a poor man in any sense of the word. Defending his bloated ego had always been an automatic knee-jerk reaction for him. But something stopped him short this time. He just stared into Lua’s eyes, frozen for a moment, with his mouth slightly opened in a very odd shape.
I could not see the expression on Lua’s face, as she had her back to me. The two stared at each other, locked in a silent, motionless trance. A few moments later, Lua slowly turned away, and the spell was broken. She walked by me towards her cabin.
Just as she passed by, she glanced my way for a moment and with a faint smile, she winked at me and said, “It’s okay, Mister Rico.” And then she disappeared quietly into her cabin for the night. Tucker did the same.
I could just make out the light, soothing sound of ukulele strums coming from Lua’s cabin for some time following the incident. And then all was quiet again.
The next day, following her sunrise exercise and meditation routine on the forward trampoline and before the other passengers had come up onto the deck, Lua confessed to me that she felt deeply heartsick about how many people she had met over the years that see the world in the same way that Tucker does. She said that she believed this was the fault of our narrowly focused and obsolete programs of education.
She felt that the education required for thriving in the 21st century will need to be radically different than what we have become accustomed to. It will have to draw on ecological design intelligence and systems thinking to understand the full context in which we live and to deal effectively with the complex and interrelated problems we will face.
It will drop the old ideas of ‘environmentalism,’ separation, and human exceptionalism—which are reactive, imply human-nonhuman duality, and treat only symptoms—and focus more on ‘biospherism,’ which is proactive, implies unity and connection, and treats underlying causes. Biospherism seeks balance. It re-asserts that we are Nature—Nature is us; what we do to it, we do to ourselves.
It will require that we think much more broadly and critically; that we treat new ideas with respect, attention, and good humor; and that we perceive systems and patterns and consider long-term effects of our actions in the living world to help create healthy, durable, resilient, just, and prosperous human communities that maintain thriving land and sea ecosystems and food supplies. It will have to prepare us to deal with mounting ecological challenges and, more likely than not, a fiercely difficult future.
I was aware of many of these issues—I had been following these trends for many years…
~ An Ecologically Stressed Planet ~
At the top of the list of human activities that negatively impact ecosystems is agriculture. This is not surprising as it is the largest interface between humans and the environment. Land conversion destroys habitat, increases soil erosion, and accelerates loss of species diversity. About twelve percent of our current land surface is under crop cultivation.
Much of this land degrades over time and we are already exceeding the regenerative capacity of the Earth’s soil resources. Approximately 40 percent of cultivated land is experiencing soil erosion, reduction in fertility, or overgrazing.
Soil loss rates exceed soil formation rates by at least tenfold. The conversion of land in the Amazon rainforest for cattle ranching and for feed could tip the basin into an irreversible transformation to a semi-arid savanna that in turn triggers unpredictable changes to the global climate system.
Rates of habitat destruction and of species extinction have led to the sixth major extinction event in history—and the first one to be caused by human activity. A majority of the world’s most species-rich habitats—such as tropical forests and coral reefs—have been destroyed or are being significantly impacted.
The extinction rate has increased to 100 to 1,000 times that of normal background levels. It is projected to increase another tenfold before the end of this century. Much of the recent extinctions have occurred on the main continents from land-use changes, introduction of invasive species, and climate change.
Losses of certain species can make terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems more vulnerable to changes in climate and ocean acidity.
Biodiversity is not adequately protected because its value is not included in the market signals that guide the economic decisions of producers and consumers and thereby the overall operation of the economic system.
Another grave concern is ocean acidification. The oceans currently absorb about 25 percent of human-emitted carbon dioxide through dissolution into the seawater and through uptake of carbon by marine organisms. But this process has the destabilizing side effect of increasing the acidity of surface seawater, making it more corrosive and threatening to normal ecosystem functionality.
The rate of ocean acidification is at least 100 times faster than at any time in the last 20 million years, and surface ocean pH has decreased by about 0.1 units relative to pre-industrial times.
Corals are sensitive to pH levels and warming waters, and stressed reefs are undergoing negative shifts in dynamics, productivity, and species composition. Record-breaking temperatures from a changing climate have impacted more than 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef in a ‘mass bleaching event.’ Marine plankton are also vulnerable and would affect the food chain all the way up.
Groundwater aquifer depletion from expanding human populations and from competition for water resources is threatening the long-term economic viability of agricultural regions. Humans have altered almost every river globally, and about 25 percent of global river flows never reach the ocean due to river-flow diversions.
These dramatic reductions of global freshwater supplies affect not only the biodiversity of river systems, but also the food sources, health and security of local communities, climate regulation, and carbon sequestration. Tipping points may be reached that result in the collapse of regional hydrologic cycles.
Hydrological poverty occurs when food production is artificially inflated by unsustainable practices of mining for groundwater. This creates a dangerous food bubble economy.
Eutrophication, a special case of environmental pollution, is the sudden unintended introduction of very high levels of nutrients into formerly lower nutrient systems. The species of primary producers adapted to the lower nutrient conditions are outcompeted by faster growing species adapted to the anomalous high-nutrient conditions.
The suddenness of the shift only affects the primary producers, resulting in a disorganized and out-of-balance collection of species with much internal disruption—like plankton blooms and mass fish die-offs. Eutrophication from human inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus has caused abrupt shifts in lakes and marine ecosystems.
Human activities now convert more nitrogen from the atmosphere into reactive forms—mostly to enhance food production via fertilizers—than all of the Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. The majority of it ends up in waterways and coastal zones. The inflow of phosphorus into oceans exceeds natural background levels by eight to nine times and may be the key driver behind global-scale anoxic events causing dead zones of marine life.
Chemical pollution includes radioactive compounds, heavy metals and a wide range of organic compounds of human origin. Toxic chemicals represent a form of unnatural, human-made pollution that no existing natural systems have experienced before and that no existing natural systems can benefit from in a positive way. Out of some 80,000 chemicals in commerce, 1,000 are known to be neurotoxic in experiments.
Different chemicals have different pathways through Earth’s biosphere. Some, such as mercury or DDT, can undergo long-range transport via ocean or atmospheric dynamics. Chronic, low-dose exposure may lead to subtle non-lethal effects that hinder development, disrupt endocrine systems, impede reproduction or cause mutagenesis. These are usually most visible in top predators and human populations.
Sadly, it is difficult to find a sample of ocean water with no sign of human chemical wastes. Polychlorinated-biphenyls (PCBs), other persistent toxic chemicals such as DDT, and heavy metal compounds are accumulating throughout the marine ecosystem.
~ Parachute Minds ~
Lua was well aware of all these environmental concerns and was not naïve about the difficulties we faced in educating ourselves properly to be able to address these issues globally and intelligently.
She had traveled extensively throughout her life and had observed the extraordinary degree to which human nature was the same wherever she went. She also saw the same unfortunate pattern in higher education everywhere: universities turning out young adults whose chief interest was to find security, to become somebody important, or to have a good time with as little serious thought as possible.
Tragically, this conventional education snuffs out truly independent thinking and breeds conformity, which inevitably leads to mediocrity. To be different from the group or to resist the current cultural environment is undoubtedly not comfortable and is often risky as long as conventional definitions of success are the goal.
The urge to be successful in the pursuit of reward—whether in Tucker’s material world or in the so-called ‘spiritual sphere’—is essentially the search for inward or outward security, the desire for comfort. And this natural pursuit smothers discontent, denies spontaneity, and breeds the type of fear that blocks the intelligent understanding of life. Then, for people like Tucker, mind and heart become disconnected and they get duller and more bitter as the years unfurl.
For too many people, never leaving their comfort zone, they find a quiet corner in life where there is a minimum of disturbance. They finally attain that, and then they are afraid to step out of that hard-won place.
This fear of life—this fear of struggle and of new experience and of learning—kills their spirit of adventure and their passion for learning and living and solving difficult problems. And for many, their socialization, upbringing, and education have made them afraid to be different from their neighbors.
They are afraid to think contrary to the established pattern of society and are unknowingly slaves to corrupt authority, obsolete traditions, and wasteful ways.
In contrast, lifelong learners are creative people who cherish new experiences, sensations, and states of mind—and this openness is a significant predictor of creative output, of original ideas that have value. “Openness to new experience is a strong predictor of creative achievement,” Lua insisted. “A mind is like a parachute; it only functions when it is open.”
“You know, Mister Rico, well-educated people have the best options in life and are far less likely to be cheated or misled or to wither and become dull in their later years,” Lua told me. “Education is related to freedom—the more education you have, the more choices you have. And culture and knowledge are what build better societies—not riches. I am afraid Tucker’s narrow self-serving education has made him unable to grasp the true calamity before him or appreciate the beauty of the Living Earth that we are destroying with our careless and reckless ways. It is really very sad. We all still have so much to learn and to understand about how to live intelligently—with head, hands, and heart in alignment—on this good and beautiful Earth.”
“And we should be learning every day,” she continued. “After all, there are few things as pleasurable as learning something really new. I try to step out of my comfort zone and learn something new each day—I am not afraid of a few passing storms when I am learning how to sail a ship. I am a person in process. I’m just trying, stumbling, falling, getting back up and learning, like everybody else. I try to take every conflict, every experience, every mistake, every success, and learn from it. Life is never dull that way, is it Mister Rico?”
“I hear ya, Lua. The best learning happens when we step outside our comfort zones and, when necessary, bending the rules a bit. Ultimately, we learn by doing, and usually by failing the first time, the second time, perhaps a third time—getting knocked down on occasion.”
“But learning never happens if you don’t get back up!” Lua shot back.
“True enough. You know, I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a ‘closet philosopher,’ because I was born with this prickly habit of having to question everything, especially what many describe as ‘conventional wisdom.’ But that is how I learn what has real value and what is just residue from ways of thinking that are no longer valid and have lost their relevance and may even be downright detrimental to personal or societal progress—kinda like Tucker’s ‘greed-is-good’ view of the world where everything comes down to competition, exploitation, and personal gain.”
“Education and learning should ideally be a lifelong, organic process of discovering and developing natural talents and abilities so that we can make our way confidently, effectively, and joyously in the world,” Lua stated. “It is about continuously gaining knowledge and skills for understanding the past, navigating the future, and developing the capacity to contribute novel solutions to challenging problems. One should live as if this day could be your last, but learn as if you were going to live forever.”
~ Spirit of Discontent ~
Lua went on to say that education only succeeds when it nurtures curiosity, improves performance, and stimulates creativity. And it clearly fails when it stifles talents and abilities and kills the innate motivation to question, to learn, and to create original ideas that have value. And this would be a real tragedy considering the great ecological challenges we could be facing in the coming decades.
Lua believed that everyone should be continuously learning and willing to examine human problems without prejudice or fear and with fresh minds.
Without a proper education, though, there is no real spirit of discontent, of revolt. When we yield to our current environment without questioning, any spirit of discontent that we may have dissipates.
She explained that there is a deep psychological form of discontent that is the product of the intelligence of the head, heart, and hands operating in alignment with the evolving universe. And this form of discontent is desperately needed in the world today, she believed, to address the mounting problems of human civilization.
And finally, and most importantly, self-knowledge—the real fruit of learning and education—must begin with an awareness of the origins of one’s own thoughts and feelings. When we can fearlessly face experience as it comes and not try to avoid every disturbance, we keep intelligence highly awakened—which is intuition. And intuition, which blossoms from a life of continuous learning, should be the only true guide in life.
“Follow your heart and use your head to guide you, Mister Rico” Lua advised. “This is the way of the lifelong learner.”