The planet urgently needs us to come to our senses and source more locally

Our senses shape our ethics and humans have become fundamentally disconnected from our senses, was the overarching message I took from David George Haskell’s new book Sounds Wild and Broken. In the past, the vast majority of our decisions were made within the context of the place where their consequences would be felt. This is no longer the case, except in indigenous communities, who still live as part of their local environment, highly connected to their senses and better able to empathise with other living species they may affect. This enables them to make more ethical decisions about how they live. The distance we have created between us and the resources we use makes it easy to make ignorant and unfeeling decisions.

When was the last time you ate food whose origin you could describe in sensory terms such as sight, sound, and smell? Yet the impact of our decisions is felt in a very real way by animals and plants around the globe.

According to Haskell “humans, especially those of us in industrialized societies, now use 25 percent of all the energy captured and made available by plants across the world, a percentage that doubled during the twentieth century and is still increasing. One species among millions takes one-quarter of the available energy and matter at the base of the food chain. In regions where agriculture dominates, our take is much higher.”

With a focus on sound, Haskell brings home how unbearable we have made the homes of other living beings in our quest for more. The ocean is especially bad and is also the environment in which we have the least direct experience. I couldn’t describe the situation more poignantly than Haskell does so I will quote from the book directly.

biodiversity through sounds

Haskell’s (truncated) description of our sonic impact on the ocean

“Ambient noise captured by hydrophones on the Pacific coast of North America has increased by about ten or more decibels since the 1960s, when the measurements started. By some estimates, the energies of noise pollution in the world’s oceans have doubled every decade since the mid-twentieth century. The noise is worse around the major shipping lanes that connect major ports across the northern Pacific and Atlantic, for example, but because sound propagates readily in water, the rumble reaches for hundreds of kilometers. When a large ocean-bound ship crosses the continental shelf, its sound shoots to the deep ocean floor, several kilometers down, then bounces up off the sediment and into the deep sound channel. This channel carries the noise thousands of kilometers. Like smoke in a room, the haze is worse close to the smokers, but spreads out from its sources to fill the entire room.”

“Like a whale guided by the reflective ping of a Chinook salmon, oil and gas companies use sound to find their quarry. But unlike the click of a whale, these seismic surveys can be heard up to four thousand kilometers away.”

“The blast of an air gun emerges from a meter-long missile-shaped canister towed behind the survey ship. The sound can be as lound as 260 underwater decibels, six to seven orders of magnitude more intense than the loudest ship. The guns are typically deployed in arrays of up to four dozen. These batteries go off about once every ten to twenty seconds. The ship tracks methodically back and forth through the ocean, like a lawn mower, in surveys that can run continuously for months, covering tens of thousands of square kilometers. When the surveys encompass the open ocean, beyond the edge of the continental shelf, as they frequently do in this era of expanding numbers of deepwater oil rigs, the sound flows into the deepwater channel and, like shipping noise, spreads across ocean basins. In some years in the North Atlantic, dozens of surveys run at once and a single hydrophone can pick up the relentless sound of seismic surveys off the coasts of Brazil, the United States, Canada, parts of northern Europe, and the west coast of Africa….

Underwater seismic pounding feeds everyone of us who use oil and gas. Yet we have no shred of sensory experience of the consequences of our hunger for these fossils….A pile driver in your house, running without stop for months? That gives an approximation of the loudness and relentlessness, but we can walk away from the house, and even when we stand next to the machine, the assault mostly affects only our ears. For aquatic creatures, sound is sight, touch, proprioception, and hearing. They cannot leave the water. Few can swim the hundreds of kilometers necessary to escape. The pile driver is coupled, minute by minute, to every nerve ending and cell, suffusing them for months on end with the violence of explosions…..

Whales flee areas in which seismic testing is underway. A study off the southwest coast of Ireland found nearly a 90 percent decrease in sightings of baleen whales and a halving of sightings of toothed whales during active seismic surveys compared with “control” surveys with no blasting. Air guns also decimate the base of the ocean food web, the plankton and larvae of marine invertebrate animals. In an experiment off the coast of Tasmania, a single air gun killed every krill larva – a key prey animal in the food web of southern oceans, within more than a kilometer and wiped out most other plankton….

The sensory systems of larger invertebrate animals like lobsters can also be permanently destroyed by exposure to seismic surveys. Yet trade groups for the oil exploration industry continue to lobby for relaxed regulation of seismic testing, claiming that there is “no known detrimental impact to marine life” of large-scale surveys. They also claim that because the blasts go off every ten seconds and each impulse lasts one-tenth of a second, “sound is only produced for one percent of the entire survey period.” By this logic, a boxing match is not a violent  affair and a beeping smoke alarm is mostly silent.”

“Even when sound is not immediately lethal, it exacts a toll….When feeding, fish exposed to noise catch fewer prey, are less efficient, and find it harder to discriminate between good and bad food. Fish in noisy places have higher levels of stress hormones, and the development of their hearing suffers. In some species, mortality rates double from the combined effects of these changes.”

The benefits of sonic recordings for preserving biodiversity

Haskell does point out, however, that while the situation is clearly tragic, it isn’t hopeless. Noise pollution can be stopped overnight and it doesn’t linger in the same way as chemical pollution. While complete silence is both impractical and unlikely, considerable reductions in noise levels can be made fairly easily with instant impact. On land sonic recordings have even been put to good use influencing policy makers, shaping policy and tracking change. Biodiversity is difficult to measure and what you can’t measure, you can’t manage. However, sonic recordings of birds have been found to be an excellent indicator of wider biodiversity. They are cheap and easy to obtain and even have the benefit of sounding appealing to human ears, which increases the likelihood of receiving an empathetic response.

Eddie Game, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Asia Pacific region notes “I’ve had more substantive conversations about forest monitoring with this sound data than with anything else. [Policy makers] experience the forest. The thing that blows their minds is how noisy it is, constantly….Through the sound, they get close to this almost undefinable property, ‘biodiversity’, closer than any metric, or graph, or photo.” Perhaps we could use sonic recordings of regenerative versus non-regenerative farms to influence policy and even consumer buying decisions?

Biodiversity in Hervey Bay, Australia – a very noisy recording!

The power of local sourcing and what we can learn from indigenous communities

There is much we can learn from indigenous communities who rely on their powers of sensory observation for survival. As Haskell observes:

“Where land title and control have been returned to indigenous communities, rates of deforestation often decline. In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, eleven million hectares of land have been titled to more than one thousand indigenous communities since the 1970s. Rates of forest clearing on these lands, as assessed from satellites in the 2000s, dropped by three-quarters.”

“In a world where colonial and industrial cultures are manifestly failing to protect forests, oceans, and air – the foundation of life on Earth – it seems especially provident to allow cultures with better track records to, at the very least, have control over the lands they and their ancestors have lived on for centuries. These are not “pristine” lands. No human culture lives without effect on other species. As humans spread around the world, our arrival coincides with the decline or extinction of the tastiest and easiest to hunt animals. But some cultures have found more effective and fruitful ways to guide and contain human appetites and thus be responsible members of life’s community. In an era of ecological collapse, these are the voices that should lead and advise us.”

“The ever-increasing noise in the ocean is directly tied to the extinction and diminishment of life’s diversity elsewhere, especially in tropical forests. In Borneo, forest-based local communities are being extinguished in favor of logging, mining, and tree plantations. These commodities all serve the global economy and are transported by ship. The worldwide decline of local economies, caused by ever-growing volumes of international trade, results in deforestation, loss of land rights to local communities, and ocean pollution of all kinds, including noise. The impoverishment of sonic diversity on land and water, then, is part of the same crisis. Were we to re-create vibrant local economies, we’d have less need to transport materials and energy across oceans. We would also directly sense the human and ecological costs of our actions, a stronger foundation for wise ethical discernment. Such a reformation of the economy would not resolve the many problems we create, but it would better position us to find solutions and answers.”

Key to creating vibrant local economies is a keen sensory appreciation for the natural resources around us. Australian aboriginals are masters of using their powers of observation to find multiple uses for the same plant species. The Gadi plant is a great example. Aboriginal people collected nectar from the flowers and also used their flowering behaviour as a compass to find north; they used the flower stems to make spears and also create fire-drills for making fire. The softer leaves were eaten, while the tougher leaves were used as knives and for weaving, and resin was collected from the base of the leaves to be used as adhesive. The roots could also be eaten as a root vegetable. They knew they were reliant on the plant so only took as much as would allow for sustainable growth and tried to use all of what they took in one way or another. Meanwhile the majority of people living in the UK would struggle to describe what many of our seasonal fruits and vegetables look or taste like, let alone which parts of those plants we don’t use, but could use.

Another important factor is learning how to curb our seemingly insatiable appetite for more. Juan, the aboriginal guide behind Walkabout Cultural Adventures near Port Douglas, explains that it was the colonists that brought time to Australia. Before the colonists arrived all they referred to was yesterday, today, tomorrow and then before and after. There was no need to be precise with time because they didn’t work in the way that we do. They simply lived, ate, drank, slept and loved. The reason we work is because we have come to live in places that don’t provide us with everything we need, or mostly just want. Living in a bountiful rainforest does make things easier, but still, if we were to spend more time fully appreciating what we have in our backyard and differentiating between what we really need and what in fact we just want, we might discover we can get most of what we need from within our local area. What we can’t find, we should be vocalising so that local farmers and producers have the opportunity to respond to demand. We can’t expect to find a thriving local economy with everything we need just ready and waiting for us, when we’ve ignored it for the last several decades. Perhaps we can satiate our appetite by appreciating what we have more and placing greater value on enjoying our lives and the full sensory experience they offer us?

Juan adds that being aboriginal isn’t to do with race or ethnicity. It’s a cultural term that describes a way of life. Anyone can identify as aboriginal if they practice the culture. I’m sure the planet would benefit if we all tried to be more aboriginal, reconnect with our senses, spend more time appreciating the world we live in, and challenge ourselves to source as much as we can locally, or question why we want it in the first place.

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