The Age of Breathing Underwater

Environmentalists have long struggled to save Nature from humanity’s negligence — and still we’ve reached the brink of catastrophe. How can we learn to thrive in the climate we’ve created? The answer begins beneath the sea…

Illustration by Balint Zsako

• 12,120 words

Illustration by Balint Zsako

But here, in poise and in hard thought,
I look down to find myself happy.

—William Matthews, “Skin Diving”

hardy reef, queensland / 19°44' s, 149°12' e /
depth: 10–13 metres / june 2008

Here on Hardy Reef, in soft, refracted light ten metres below the surface of the Coral Sea, the scene is a sort of mystical mix of frenetic and tranquil, like something out of an anthropomorphic cartoon rendering of rush hour with the sound turned down to a soothing, ambient hum. Dense aquatic traffic moves everywhere, constantly, in swarms and tidy lines and tangents, in ever-morphing smears of electric colour, all against a backdrop even more riotously hued and just as busy. The reef wall is a vertical forest of coral branches and squiggles in a hundred shades of Day-Glo, fire-red fractal twists alongside lime-green paisley curls alongside delicate golden folds.

I slow myself, flapping my polyurethane fins just enough to stay horizontal and giving a half-second push on the thumb-activated, rubber-capped trigger at the end of an insulated tube protruding from my buoyancy control vest. The vest inflates slightly with a gentle, echoing scrick. My breath leaves me in a burbling stream of rising, distended bubbles, a quiet bass drum rumble augmented by the brushes-scraping-across-snare click of my demand regulator’s valve. Neutral buoyancy achieved, breathing free and easy beneath four storeys of salt water, I hover an arm’s length from the reef wall in an alien repose that feels much closer to floating magically above a forest canopy than to swimming.

“It is excusable,” Charles Darwin wrote from the deck of the Beagle in 1836, “to grow enthusiastic over the infinite numbers of organic beings with which the sea of the tropics, so prodigal of life, teems.” Word to that, Charlie—and you didn’t even have the scuba gear to bring you down here to front-row seating so close to the prodigiousness you feel almost as if you’re of it.

Hold still and fix your gaze anywhere, really, and the universe is born anew in otherworldly hues and you-gotta-be-kidding-me shapes. Tiny fish the colour of a roadworker’s safety vest or the hat on a backwoods hunter’s head—don’t-hit-me yellow, don’t-shoot-me orange—dart in and out of the coral fronds. The waving tentacles of an anemone have a multihued, translucent aspect, like something you’d find protruding from the forehead of a comic book alien. A school of trevally cruises by in an orderly procession so broad and dense you think for a second the sea is actually made of fish. Look down, and there’s the mouth of a giant clam, the orifice mostly sealed by a membrane of electric purple and emerald green in intricate screensaver squiggles. Sergeant major fish will swim right up to the tempered glass of your mask and wait there expectantly like autograph seekers, giving you ample time to wonder whether you’d best describe the yellow splotches on the upper part of their bodies as ballpark mustard or canary, and to notice the way their distinctive black vertical stripes smear into a singular shade of pale neon blue at the dorsal fin and tail.

Illustration by Balint Zsako

And then there’s the extraordinary symbiotic web the reef’s myriad denizens have woven, enabling this aquatic Babel to thrive more or less self-sufficiently for millennia. Hermaphrodites and sex changers abound. A great many of the reef’s coral polyps mate once a year, simultaneously, in a great cloud of eggs and sperm whose release is precisely timed with the lunar cycle. Certain species of parrotfish, their scales resembling the most ambitious palette Matisse ever dared to play with, start out female and then switch gender in four stages, each more vividly coloured than the last, eventually reaching a dazzling final act that’s been called “super-male.” Some of the zaniest colouring elsewhere, meanwhile, is “aposematic,” which is to say it’s a warning flag to would-be predators of something that tastes terrible or hurts to bite.

Damselfish tend permanent gardens of algae and chase off interlopers like rabid guard dogs; blue tang have taught themselves to successfully invade these gardens in swarms. Different species of nocturnal squirrel fish have specialized within their genus on particular kinds of food—some eating only this type of crab, others only this size of prawn. Speaking of which, there are several species of prawn and certain kinds of small fish as well, collectively referred to as “cleaners,” who live a significant chunk of their lives inside the mouths of other fish.

It’s like contemplating the cosmos under a starry sky, only the planets and constellations are close enough to touch, and they swirl past you as though you were a comet in their midst. I could float here in this reverie until my oxygen ran out—divers have—but I’m eased out of my trance by the dive leader. She’s a credentialed marine biologist, and she’s just risen from a sea-floor bed of coral below us with a rare treat in her hand. She waves her hand up and away like she’s releasing a bird, and I watch a flatworm the size and shape of a piece of Scotch tape drift slowly downward between us. The body undulates like a flag in a breeze as it descends, revealing a black sheen on one side, an explosion of deep red and purple and yellow on the other. The reef’s endless variety in microcosm, twisting and dancing between us on the current. I read somewhere that they once analyzed a single three-kilogram chunk of dead Great Barrier Reef coral and found 1,300 worms from about 100 species living in its labyrinth of orifices and folds.

All due respect, Charlie, but it’s not just that the reef teems with life; it’s that it seems like the reason we coined the term. To teem is to exhibit the properties of a coral reef. I watch the flatworm descend against a writhing backdrop of coral fronds and bustling shoals of fish, and I try to imagine what it means that this little kidney-bean reef is one in a chain of 3,650—a profusion of life stretching from a few hundred kilometres south of here all the way up the remaining length of the northeastern Australian coast and beyond, 1,800 kilometres in total. The Great Barrier Reef: the largest living system on earth, a deeply interconnected macro-organism comprising nearly a tenth of all the coral reef there is.

Coral reefs worldwide occupy only about 0.17 percent of the ocean’s surface area, but they provide habitat for nearly one-quarter of its marine life, all of it derived from a flawless, fragile symbiosis between coral polyps—the animals that form all those elaborate, plantlike structures—and a particular strain of algae called zooxanthellae. The polyps, fed by the photosynthesizing zooxanthellae that live on their bodies, grow up to secrete their own skeletons, bundles of calcium carbonate the zooxanthellae combine with ionized carbonates dissolved in the ocean’s water to cement into place as limestone, thus providing a hospitable habitat for yet more corals.

This is a very delicate balance, and every dreamcoated fish and giddily tinted worm depends on it. Five times in the geological record, reefs have mostly or entirely vanished from the face of the earth, leaving corals to drift on the ocean currents for millions of years at a time, largely dying off until their preferred climatic conditions returned. Still, I find it impossible from my subaquatic vantage point to imagine that Hardy Reef could die, that virtually all life could one day cease to exist on the Great Barrier Reef as a whole. It’s a fantastical notion, a witch’s curse in a Teutonic fable. Maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow, and maybe the coral reef will no longer teem with fish. Surely such a dying would come here only at the very last, at the black end of some much wider catastrophe.

Well, sorry, Charlie, but here’s a twist you couldn’t possibly have seen coming from the crow’s nest of the Beagle: it’s the water. It’s grown too warm, and absorbed way too much carbon dioxide. The pH is off, down from 8.2 to maybe 8.1. Not much, but it could mean everything. The beginning of some kind of unthinkable end.

I’ve only just heard. That’s why I came.

melbourne, victoria / 37°49' s, 144°57' e /
café patio, newquay promenade /
three weeks earlier

The Age, June 7, 2008:

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, more than 25 million years in the making, is “an icon [of] primordial wilderness,” says Dr. Veron—it is the greatest structure created by life on earth. The idea that it might be mortally threatened within the span of a generation or two he would once have considered preposterous.

“I was wrong,” he says.

Illustration by Balint Zsako

Twin assailants, both creatures of climate change, threaten the reef and oceans more generally. The lesser of these is the warming of the water, which turns the single-celled algae on which corals rely for their sustenance toxic, compelling the coral to expel them and probably die—the event known as coral bleaching—or to keep them and certainly die.

The worst bleaching events of history will become commonplace by 2030, says Dr. Veron, and by 2050, “the only corals left alive will be those in refuges on deep outer slopes of reefs. The rest will be unrecognisable—a bacterial slime, devoid of life.”

The even greater threat is ocean acidification—the dissolving of carbon dioxide into the sea, forming weak carbonic acid. This is the climate change frontier to which science is swinging [with] increasing focus, as alarm grows at the threat it poses to marine ecosystems and to human food supplies and economies.

This Dr. Veron’s byline in A Reef in Time, the chronicle of the life and impending death of the Great Barrier Reef whose release prompted this stunning report, reads “J. E. N. Veron,” but the author actually goes by Charlie. That’s Charlie as in Darwin—“Little Mr. Darwin,” one of his schoolteachers once called him, because the prepubescent J. E. N. Veron was so obsessed with bugs and such. Somehow the nickname mutated into Charlie, and it stuck, even though Veron himself didn’t read On the Origin of Species until years later. He studied dragonflies to earn the “Dr.,” and for reasons I’ll come back to he abandoned a promising career in entomology to become the world’s most prolific coral taxonomist (having personally identified and named 23 percent of the planet’s coral species), former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and nowadays a grise whose éminence in his field is so uncontested that he is identified, in the press releases accompanying scientific declarations with dozens of Ph.D.-wielding signatories, as “the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs.”

So there I was, leafing idly through the pages of Melbourne’s prestige daily, a cool winter breeze coming in off the harbour and setting its corners flapping, my mind still fuzzy with jet lag of International Date Line grade. A sunny morning on the pretty new boardwalk in the city’s redeveloped Docklands, a cup of bold Melburnian coffee, one of those inside-page special interest stories to pass the time. A pair of full-colour before-and-after pictures of coral bleaching. And the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs saying, without much in the way of qualification, that his learned opinion is that the Great Barrier Reef will be largely bereft of life by 2050, after which time whatever remains will be finished off by the over-acidified Coral Sea. That whatever world we might, if we’re quite lucky and extremely bold, wrest from the jaws of this mutated climate, whatever equilibrium we might hope to reach, it is already not the one we knew. Not the one that provided the stable foundations for 12,000 years of this thing we call civilization. Not the Holocene epoch at all, perhaps, but something else, something new.

The term Anthropocene came quickly to mind. It translates loosely to “wrought by human hands,” and I’ve usedit with some frequency. I’d even stood before an audience at Melbourne’s stylish new bmw Edge amphitheatre right there in the city’s heart the night before and explained what I believed it meant. But reading The Age that morning—that was the first time I’d really felt it.

In time, it sent me searching for two other pieces of esoteric but existentially critical science news that emerged in 2008 and quickly vanished in the churning media sea of burst housing bubbles and flailing banks. The first was a concise policy paper released in August and signed by fourteen of the world’s top ocean researchers—Charlie Veron among them—under the title The Honolulu Declaration on Ocean Acidification and Reef Management. Their statement noted the imminent onset of levels of ocean acidity not seen in “tens of millions of years,” which would “compromise the long-term viability of coral reef ecosystems.” The crisis was phrased more bluntly in the accompanying press release: “In July 2008, scientists at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Florida declared acidification as the largest and most significant threat that oceans face today and conveyed that coral reefs will be unable to survive the projected increases in ocean acidification.”

The other crucial science story was a paper published in February 2008 in gsa Today, the Geological Society of America’s house journal. It was entitled Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene? and co-written by twenty-one members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, England, the body responsible for naming and dating geological time. “Sufficient evidence has emerged,” went the closing argument, “of stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene—currently a vivid yet informal metaphor of global environmental change—as a new geological epoch to be considered for formalization by international discussion.” Which is to say the notion that humanity had permanently and fundamentally altered the planet was no longer a rhetorical flourish (as it had been when the chemist Paul Crutzen proposed the term “Anthropocene” a decade earlier) or a bit of activist hyperbole (as it had sometimes seemed coming from environmentalists a decade before that) but an emerging scientific reality.

I’m trying not to hyperbolize this. I don’t want to traffic in visions of apocalypse. On the other hand, how can the probable demise of the ocean’s most fecund ecosystem and the possible dawn of a new geological epoch be overstated?

Were this a traditional environmental narrative in the Thoreauvian vein, now would be the part of the story where I would shift summarily to lamentation. The tragedy is obvious, its scope impossibly huge, the loss beyond measure. But we have enough laments. More than our share. I wonder, actually, if it isn’t the lamenting itself that led us here, at least in part.

Paul Crutzen traces the birth of the Anthropocene to the invention of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century, and modern environmentalism was born in that kettle as well. Thoreau’s legendary trip to the wilderness of Walden was, after all, a reaction against all that the steam engine had wrought. For 150 years thereafter, an elaborate and often achingly lovely philosophy of the purpose of the human experiment held sway in green-minded circles, predicated on Thoreau’s recommendation “to front only the essential facts of life,” to go to the woods and “live deliberately.” To become in some sense part of the woods, indistinguishable in action and impact from a fish or a frog or a fly. Finding a place of eternal harmony with Nature—ideally one sufficiently pristine to be worthy of Romanticism’s awed capitalization of the word—became the goal of the environmental movement. The earth thrived in an exquisite equilibrium, and the enlightened seeker sought to find a human place within it.

If, however, that equilibrium is permanently altered and transmuting as never before, what do we even mean by “harmony”? What does it mean, moreover, when we know that this new order—whether we choose to call it Anthropocene or simply acknowledge its complete lack of historical precedent—was wrought in large measure by human hands? What is the proper goal of an Anthropocene conservation effort? How do we go about being sensitive to an Anthropocene ecology? What, in short, does it mean to be human in an ecological order of our own design?

I can’t answer any of these questions definitively. These are early days, in turbulent weather. All new regimes are for now provisional by necessity. But I think I know where we should start. We need a new kind of story, a new template for our ecological philosophy—one that acknowledges what we have lost and the emerging limits of what can be saved, but does not lament. To borrow the terminology of the linguist George Lakoff, we must first change the frame.

The weight of a story is not just the sum of its details but also—maybe even primarily—a function of its structure, the way its plot points and archetypes map onto the ur-narratives (classical, Biblical, market triumphalist, what have you) that are deeply etched into our collective consciousness. A lament is by its nature nostalgic, downbeat, defeatist. It is predicated on a loss presumed to be absolute. Adventure stories, on the other hand—heroic narratives of victory against impossible odds in heretofore uncharted realms—these are the tools of transformative myth. This is what we need: a new myth of the frontier.

Illustration by Balint Zsako

We are headed somewhere unknown, somewhere surely dangerous but also perhaps blessed with unexpected beauty. The terrain will be at least partially alien, the logic and rules of the place governed by inversions and seeming perversions of the natural order we’ve always known. Some of the tools we’ll need to traverse this new landscape safely may at first appear unfamiliar, unwieldy, inconvenient. We may only comprehend their vital necessity once we’ve taken the plunge into this tumultuous sea. But we will learn to thrive. Feel exhilaration in the place of anxiety and lament. We will all learn to breathe underwater.

glenogle, british columbia / 51°18' n, 116°49' w /
trans-canada highway, eastbound / august 2008

In terms of mythic import and sheer physical presence, the Rocky Mountains are as close a Canadian analogue as you’ll find to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and they cast my little Honda in deep shadow as I drive east out of Golden toward the Alberta border. There’s a new four-lane bridge over the Kicking Horse River a little way east of town, a staggering feat of modern engineering that has to be the tallest structure in the Canadian Rockies. Just on the far side of it, I find myself staring straight at a towering wall of rock covered in the rust-coloured skeletons of pine trees. The devastation on this slope appears total; the entire mountain face is a carpet of eerie orange-red. Around the next bend, the vast green blanket of forest is marred by blotches of the same sickly rust, as if stricken by some exotic rash or pox.

I can remember driving this stretch of highway only five years ago, and the green of the pines was everywhere and eternal, muted only by the winter snow. The mountain pine beetle, its population no longer sufficiently culled by winter cold to protect these forests from its wrath, has taken an Anthropocene toll so ruinous and rapidly exacted it’s almost monumental. It could paralyze you to stare at it too long. You might decide there’s not much more to be done, really, besides compose another lament.

Better not to dwell on it. But look just long enough, if you’re still unconvinced, to recognize that this is not a regional conservation issue, not a problem limited to places of abundant coral life. Look just long enough—it shouldn’t take more than a moment—to know in your bones that this is about much more than the quality of the scenery on your next vacation. That this, too, is the exotic undersea world where we must make our home. Look just that long. And then check the gauge on your tank, bite down hard on the mouthpiece, breathe slowly and steadily through your regulator, and carry on. If you linger too long, you could drown.

This is the scarred Canadian face of the problem, and it’s a particularly tidy irony that some of the planet’s most visible evidence of its proximate cause is embedded in the mountain rock just a little way farther east down the Trans-Canada. I crane my neck a bit to watch for mottled striations midway up the bare slopes of exposed rock—telltale evidence of the verdant tropical reefs that thrived here hundreds of millions of years ago.

Just before the border, I spy one particularly notable example, a rock formation known as the Burgess Shale. Discovered in 1909 near the base of Mount Burgess and excavated by a Smithsonian scientist named Walcott, the shale outcropping contained the remains of 65,000 different plants and animals—the best fossil snapshot ever discovered of the teeming life that thrived on earth between 530 and 542 million years ago, during an age so verdant it was dubbed the Cambrian Explosion.

The ancient tropical sea that is now Alberta was for many millions of years the site of a great many other reefs, built in those times by algae instead of coral polyps. And there was one in particular, beneath the soil of the town of Leduc down on the prairie, where the porous reef rock of the Late Devonian period trapped the remains of a staggering abundance of carbon-based life about 400 million years ago. Across the intervening millennia, those remains were slowly crushed into pools of thick black ooze buried a mile underground, and in February 1947 a drilling rig struck the largest pool anyone had ever tapped in Canada. Within five years, 137,000 barrels of crude oil were being extracted from the liquefied boneyards of the ancient reef every day, and the economy of Alberta has been driven by the search for energy-dense Devonian fossils ever since.

As well, it has become increasingly fashionable in this country to think of this as merely a regional issue, some kind of late-blooming prairie madness. But of course the produce of Alberta’s Devonian bounty is a substance virtually all Canadians use in one form or another pretty much every day of their lives. If it is not in the tank of your car, then it is heating your house, or protecting your daily bread from mould, or keeping your body erect in place of the hip joint you were born with. And Alberta is just one relatively small outpost in an inexhaustible global campaign of seemingly limitless scale to extract ever more of the stuff, to burn it as quickly as possible. And thereby to release that ancient carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, in clouds of such prodigious volume, we’ve recently discovered, that they are well on their way toward extinguishing the abundant life from the reefs of today. Creating readymade oil fields for whatever civilization comes to thrive 400 million years hence.

Understand: the heroic narratives of the Anthropocene are nothing if not ironic.

airlie beach, queensland / 20°16' s, 148°43' e /
depth: approx. 4 metres / july 2008

The obvious response to the bonfire of the fossils that afflicts Alberta and everywhere else would be to impel those who are stoking it to cease and desist. Like, now. Stand before the majestic and plentiful landscape they are condemning to death and block the march of industry bodily. And so here, then, is what would appear to be an Anthropocene hero’s pose: two divers in black neoprene floating defiantly astride a particularly photogenic patch of Great Barrier Reef coral, little vertical clouds of exhaled air extending from the tops of their heads like cartoon exclamation points, a neon yellow banner unfurled between them that reads keep the reef great. And below that, in an instantly recognizable faux-scrawled font that has for a generation now denoted selfless action on behalf of Mother Earth: greenpeace.

The photo of this scene is dated July 22, 2008, and it is in many ways a textbook Holocene protest. And that’s the problem. It’s a symbolic act, staged with no intent other than to be photographed, disseminated, blipped to newspapers and websites around the world. Which publications may or may not publish it; which have over the years published a sufficient number of similar scenes of unfurled banners bearing strident messages composed in the imperative mood to render this one commonplace; and which in any case won’t likely provide much in the way of context other than a blurb a few lines long about the proposal to drill into the shale seabed near this spot to extract oil, and the long-standing, vehement, and virtually unanimous disagreement of environmentalists with that kind of proposal.

They likely won’t report any of the most salient details. That there is, for example, a flotilla of more than ninety vessels just four metres above the heads of these two beseeching divers, bobbing in solidarity in the Coral Sea’s current. Nor that much of this solidarity comes from the nearby resort community of Airlie Beach, whose economic health depends—as does an estimated $5.8-billion share of the Australian economy—on the health of the Great Barrier Reef. And nowhere will it be reported that the reef is, in the opinion of the diver on the right in the photo, almost certainly not going to be kept great, regardless of whether oil drilling is permitted nearby. And most of all that the diver on the right is, yes, Charlie Veron, the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs, and that until the moment he clutched the left side of that banner in his hands he’d spent a career of thirty-plus years as a marine scientist never once having participated in an environmental protest.

For Veron, the path to Greenpeace-branded activism began shortly after the publication in 2000 of his life’s work, Corals of the World. Probably the most thorough taxonomy of the planet’s corals ever assembled, it is a lavishly illustrated three-volume reference work cataloguing 800-plus species, almost 200 of them photographed by Veron himself. For his next project, he gave himself five years to research the big-picture story of the Great Barrier Reef—to move beyond coral taxonomy into the geological past and troubled climatic future of the natural wonder he’d spent thousands of hours studying at close range through the tempered glass of a dive mask.

Illustration by Balint Zsako

“When I started writing my book,” he later said on Australia’s abc Radio National, “I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs. But the big picture that emerged, quite frankly, left me shocked to the core. This really led to a period of personal anguish. I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in that big picture. I was depressingly unsuccessful.”

Instead, Veron wrote the only book he felt he could honestly write. A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End is a densely detailed and often highly technical natural history of the reef ecosystem from prehistory to near-future. Veron assembles a thorough analysis of the health of reefs globally, using the Great Barrier Reef as his case in point, and examines the five mass extinctions that have afflicted coral reefs to date. As scientists must, he entertains a wide array of causal theories for these extinctions before coming to the conclusion that the deciding factor each time was the reduced pH level of the oceans, caused by absorption of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air above them.

Nowadays, about a quarter of the carbon dioxide humanity emits each year is absorbed into the seas, where it forms weak carbonic acid and nudges down the ocean’s pH, reducing the quantity of ionized carbon available for algae to fix along with coral skeletons as permanent limestone reefs. Thus bringing us, Veron argues, to the very precipice of the sixth mass extinction. When he takes up this possibility, his writing is propelled by a frankness and passionate urgency seldom seen in a science text. “Our tampering with the Earth’s climate,” he writes, resembles “a game of Russian roulette, with every chamber of the cylinder loaded. We must take the bullets out—all of them, quickly and at any cost—for this particular gun has a hair trigger and devastating firepower.”

Veron’s gravest concern is a tipping point in the ocean’s chemistry that he calls “commitment,” which comes freighted with the darkest of Anthropocene ironies. “Commitment,” he writes, “embodies the concept of unstoppable inevitability, according to which the nature and health of future environments will be determined not by our actions at some future date but by what is happening today.” In the case of ocean acidification, “the lag time of the ocean will make acidification a fait accompli before it has barely started.” By the time we know for sure we’ve reached the tipping point, in other words, it will be far too late to alter the process.

Ocean acidification is in its infancy as a field of scientific inquiry. The term was only coined in 2003, and the first major research mission dedicated to its study was launched off the coast of Florida in late 2008. We are only beginning, that is, to discover the gravity of the crisis. As recently as 2005, scientists believed this commitment point (under a business-as-usual emissions scenario) was as far off as 2050, but many now date it to about 2030. Veron, ever the iconoclast, believes our current emissions trajectory could reach commitment “within a decade.”

I wish I could report a note of caution or qualification from my own conversations with him. A few days before Christmas last year, he sent me a grim sort of season’s greeting by email: “I have just come back from a three-week trip to the far northern gbr—although it seems impossible I really think the whole place is going to die before I do. Rather takes the edge off diving.”

I reached him by phone a while after that. “Well, I’m sixty-four years old,” he explained, “and the probability is that if I remain healthy and active I will see this process in my lifetime. I’ve got two young children, and they’ll certainly see the end of the Great Barrier Reef if they live a normal life. That’s how immediate this is. There is no doubt about it. If there was a doubt, boy, I would jump on it, and so would a lot of other scientists. The thing is, though, that there isn’t any doubt.”

I should stress that this is the conviction of a man who has probably spent more time in direct communion with coral reefs than any other human being who has ever lived. Something like 7,000 hours, by his own estimation—the equivalent, in terms of more common careers, of more than three full years of forty-hour workweeks. Breathing underwater, immersed in the teeming life of the reef. I think I can safely state that there is no one on earth more fully invested in its survival.

This is why there’s a certain kind of uncommon heroism in the simple fact that Veron’s response to this existential threat to his spiritual home has been to commit himself wholeheartedly to the act of trying to save it. It’s a quixotic if not wholly futile mission, according to his own well-founded scientific convictions. To know better than anyone the vanishing slimness of your chances and to take action anyway—Sisyphus would recognize that choice. It is an act of faith in the human spirit, its ability to adapt and renew, one as wholehearted and profound as any I’ve known.

It could be the cornerstone, all by itself, of an enduring Anthropocene ecological consciousness—to act knowing much of the loss has already been tabulated, because not to act would be to deny the basic right of humanity to its own survival, to deny our children the right to their dreams. “I’m not trying now to talk up saving the Great Barrier Reef, because I think it’s a lost cause”—this is how Veron puts it. “I am talking up: Look at the Great Barrier Reef and think about it. Do we want the rest of this planet to follow suit?” Still, lost cause or not, the Great Barrier Reef remains dear enough to him that he couldn’t stand idly by and let it be defaced for no good reason. And so it’s understandable that he would react with utter contempt upon learning of the plan to bring industrial oil drilling equipment to the Great Barrier Reef—“an exceedingly dumb thing,” in his estimation—and that’d he’d leap at the chance to unfurl a banner in its defence, as conventional an act as that is.

The most salient thing about his protest for me, though—the detail that points the way toward a sturdier new frame for Anthropocene ecological action—is not the banner or the reef, but the apparatus that permitted Veron to breathe freely as he posed there. The scuba gear, I mean.

This is indeed one of the most curious and surprising things about Veron’s career: after he finished his Ph.D. in the neurophysiology of dragonflies back in the early 1970s, his sole qualification when he applied for a vacant post as a coral researcher at James Cook University on the Queensland coast was that he was a certified scuba diver. Had he not become a recreational diver while he was a student down south near Sydney, he’d never have found his way to the Great Barrier Reef.

What’s more, he became pretty much the first coral taxonomist to conduct extensive underwater field research. The whole body of knowledge on the nature of corals and the reefs they build was to that point based on the lab-based study of specimens. Veron’s scuba-aided work quickly dispelled a whole range of faulty theories. We simply wouldn’t know how the reef works as a living system, nor the true nature of the trouble it’s in, if Charlie Veron hadn’t learned to breathe underwater.

Another Anthropocene irony: neither Veron nor anyone else would have been able to breathe underwater in the first place were it not for the whole smog-belching mess of modern industry. There are indeed few things a human being can do that are as wholly industrial—as totally dependent on the development of an industrial society so complex and muscular it has changed the very chemistry of the seas—as scuba diving.

This is why, to my mind, Veron’s underwater protest got the framing all wrong. We’re not trying to keep the reef great, and his own writing attests to the fact that we’re past saving the reef in anything like its present condition. We’re trying, actually, to save scuba. To conserve a place on this planet for nearly seven billion people and counting, and for the whole baroque industrial society that permitted us to swell to such ranks, and to produce industrial quantities of the rubber and tempered glass and polyurethane and neoprene that have enabled us to come to know the reef firsthand.

This is no semantic exercise. This is a fundamental redress of environmentalism’s assumptions and priorities—of its basic frame. A focal shift from the pristine and natural to the unnatural and artificial, from salvation and conservation to self-preservation, from primordial ecosystems to modern industry. And so it might as well begin with the profoundly unnatural, self-preserving, industrial-grade act of scuba diving itself.

sanary-sur-mer, france / 43°7' n, 5°48' e /
depth: variable / june 1943

In the winter of 1942, a French engineer named Emile Gagnan developed a special demand valve that would allow motor vehicles to run on cooking gas. Conventional gasoline had become nearly impossible to obtain in Nazi-occupied France, and Gagnan’s valve was designed to automatically feed cooking gas into a car’s motor at the steady rate it required to run properly. When his friend Jacques Cousteau came to him around the same time, coincidentally looking for assistance with a similar problem regarding airflow for an underwater diving system, he adapted his cooking-gas valve to solve it. Gagnan’s demand regulator—a valve held in place on the diver’s face by a mouthpiece—was the final, essential piece of equipment needed to permit safe, effortless breathing underwater. Gagnan shipped a complete “aqualung” system to Cousteau’s home on the French Riviera the following June, and Cousteau and his small cohort of diving pioneers logged more than 500 dives in the picturesque coves surrounding Sanary-sur-Mer that summer alone. In the summer of 1943, in the shadow of catastrophe, they invented scuba diving.

The history of diving is a kind of shadow history of the industrial age, mostly incidental to the primary arc of the story but wholly dependent on it, culminating in the serendipitous development of the demand regulator out of wartime motoring necessity. The first diving suits were produced in the 1850s from canvas rendered waterproof by a layer of mixed rubber and naphtha (a by-product of oil refining). The breakthrough in medical science that would eventually make diving safe—the discovery of the cause of the bends and how to prevent them—came a quarter century later, during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge’s workers toiled on its foundations in “caissons”—giant, bottomless wooden boxes sunk into the bed of the East River and pumped full of compressed air to hold back the water. Several workers died and dozens more were gravely injured before doctors figured out that their patients needed to readjust more slowly to the lower air pressure at the surface to avoid decompression sickness. Another half-century later, in 1930, neoprene, the preferred material for modern wetsuits, became the first synthetic rubber ever invented when DuPont developed it for use in automobile gaskets and hoses. And so on, from the tempered glass of the dive mask to the polyurethane in the stiff, distended toe of the standard diving fin. Scuba’s raw materials were the by-products and afterthoughts of the great industrial powers’ quest for bigger and better bridges and cars and war machines.

In the towering shadows cast by this ever-expanding industrial order, another parallel history emerged. It began, more or less, with Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond—a deliberate, principled rejection of industrial society as a whole. Contemporary environmentalism traces a direct line of descent back through Greenpeace, Rachel Carson, and John Muir to Thoreau’s handmade cabin in the Massachusetts woodlot owned by fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and among its strongest links to Walden has been an enduring anti-industrial bias. With good cause, of course. The culprit in almost every environmental crisis the movement has tackled—from the despoiling of animal habitat to Carson’s ddt-poisoned birds to reef-killing greenhouse gas emissions—has been the resource-devouring, waste-belching march of modern industry. Thoreau’s cause was righteous, his critique of industrial society trenchant, and it’d be no stretch to argue that the acidification of the world’s oceans is a sort of ultimate proof of Walden’s profound, prophetic truths.

If, however, the goal of environmentalism in the Thoreauvian tradition was to halt the march of rapacious industry, that same pH imbalance might best be understood as the litmus test of the movement’s failure. After more than a century of advocacy and action employing Thoreau’s frame, the earth’s natural wonders have never been closer to collapse. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”—so goes a widely cited aphorism attributed alternately to Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Chinese proverb (it appears actually to originate with the American mystery novelist Rita Mae Brown). What if, instead, we followed the lead of another nineteenth-century prophet, a writer whose work predicted the advent of an eye-popping world of air conditioning, space travel, the helicopter, and—most famously—the untrammelled exploration of the subaquatic realm?

Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was published in 1870, just sixteen years after Thoreau’s Walden diary. In one particularly prescient passage, Verne’s Captain Nemo describes to Professor Aronnax a new kind of “diving apparatus”—one freed of the rubber hose attaching it to a ship, instead employing an iron tank of compressed air worn like a backpack, feeding the diver through a mouthpiece fitted with a tongue-operated regulator. The diver would then use a sort of sodium-carbon lamp (analogous to sodium gas lamps not produced commercially until the 1930s) to light his way. “Thus provided,” Nemo informs the enthralled Aronnax, “I can breathe and I can see.”

In 20,000 Leagues and other fantastical tales, Verne imagined a glittering world of wonders made possible by modern science and its industrial adjuncts. In so doing, he created the literary genre of science fiction, which, despite its penchant for dystopian scenarios, has proven, in the aggregate, to be at least as rich a repository of hope for an enlightened human future as Thoreauvian environmentalism has. And certainly the world most of us live in today looks much more like a Jules Verne novel than a primordial New England forest.

And so an Anthropocene ecological consciousness, emerging from the daily more manifest observation that the natural world has become as much a product of human invention as submarines and flying machines, might—it follows—be more in keeping with Verne than with Thoreau. It might, for starters, pick up a thread common to almost all science fiction: the idea that our future will by necessity be very, very different both from today and from some idealized pastoral past, likely much more artificial, and yet luminous in the constellations of possibility it offers.

There is indeed a whole emerging school of futurist thinking inspired by this aspect of sci-fi, one particularly prevalent in the pronouncements of digital-communications prophets. Sci-fi, so this line of reasoning posits, is the last real “literature of ideas,” because it alone allows sufficient room for speculation on the limitless possibilities created by modern technology. Sci-fi-inspired futurism is not inherently materialistic: it is not about gadgets but rather about the staggeringly broad options for new ways of life being created in the digital age. In recent years, the Verne school has come to commingle with certain strains of post-Thoreau environmentalism—ones rooted mainly in urban spaces, interested as much in city planning and the energy economy as in whales and rainforests. And in that cross-pollination, we’ve begun to see the scaffolding of a new frame.

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism,” argues sci-fi author and futurist Bruce Sterling. “Like the New Age mystic echo of Judeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel—nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.” In place of these Thoreauvian hair shirts, Sterling argues for a new frame constructed on the foundation of “sustainability,” broadly defined as that which “navigate[s] successfully through time and space.” Like certain of Jules Verne’s amazing machines, perhaps. Or like any given diver on any old reef, breathing freely underwater.

Or like that exhilarated fatigue I’ve always felt at the end of a dive—a sort of quiet triumph, a sense of wonderment at having gone somewhere so far from the workaday norm and passed through without incident, emerging finally, reborn, to see the world with anointed eyes.

koh phi phi, thailand / 7°46' n, 98°47' e /
depth: 16 metres / january 2006

The record in my log of my fourth open-water dive reports my time at depth, breathing underwater, at just forty-four minutes. I find that hard to reconcile with the vividness and variety of the memories. We were diving a fringing reef not far from the cluttered resort island of Koh Phi Phi in southern Thailand. There were four of us on the dive—three students plus our instructor—and we’d intersected with another foursome from our boat down at the base of the reef wall to form a rapt, floating semicircle around a slumbering leopard shark for what felt like half an hour all by itself. We’d also taken advantage of the seeming weightlessness of neutral buoyancy to stage a mock punch-up in the style of The Matrix for the dive shop’s digital underwater video camera. And then our instructor had taken us, finally, on the one part of the dive he’d told us ahead of time we shouldn’t note in our logs. Because we weren’t yet licensed open-water divers, we weren’t technically allowed to navigate a coral cave.

He led us up the coral wall to a jagged oblong opening midway up the face. The cave was shadowed and dense with what seemed like an impenetrable mesh wall of inch-long silver fish. I remember only a twinge of anxiety in the wave of dawning exhilaration. The tiny fish, I’d later learn, are called silversides, and as they bobbed in the current their bodies would flip in undulating waves from shadowy blue-black to brilliant silver when they caught the mottled light from the surface. They formed a shimmering curtain at the cave’s mouth, and they parted as I entered, as if responding to some automated infrared sensor, the vast shoal forming a perfect, swirling outline of my body to let me pass. They must have numbered in the thousands. For a long time, researchers believed that schools of fish had leaders, that each individual was responding to some chain of near-instantaneous cues, like a precision drill team. But more recently, they’ve come to understand that in anything but single digits the fish form a kind of unified collective, “more like a single organism than a collection of individuals.” (The researcher Brian L. Partridge was specifically describing a school of silversides when he wrote that.)

For some indeterminate, fleeting moment that stretched out toward eternity, I was part of their unity. I was completely enveloped in them, a second skin of wriggling fish separated from my own by a few centimetres of sea water, nary a single one so much as brushing against my flapping fins. Wrapped in neoprene, freighted under a tank of some heavy steel alloy, ten metres below the nearest breath of fresh air—poised, that is, in a position beyond human experience for all but the past few decades of our existence—I felt a moment of communion with nature as close to total as I’ve ever had, and as transcendent as I could ever hope for.

I returned from my sacred rite with the silversides to the patio of a concrete tourist bungalow along the dense waterfront pathway of Koh Phi Phi, where I watched the sun set in a gentle orange sigh as the bars and clubs up and down the beach growled to life. Not even a tenth of the average night’s tourist population could fit aboard all the island’s dive boats, and no doubt only a tiny minority had bothered with the reef. One fundamental goal of the past 150 years of industrial age environmentalism has been to convey somehow a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world—the same soulful quietude Thoreau discovered after many months in the woods—to those who have lost or not yet found it. To raise the collective consciousness, thus to alter and finally invert forever our sense of humanity’s place in the natural hierarchy—no longer seeking dominion and depletion, but instead pursuing rehabilitation, preservation, harmony.

Breathing underwater, in my experience, can provide a kind of hot-wired, instant-karmic version of this mystical oneness. But even this near at hand, it remained an afterthought. The reef’s demise would mean seemingly nothing to the thrumming life of the island. There might be a way to move the bulk of humanity to act for the reef’s salvation—and our own—but spiritual union with the reef, with nature itself, appeared to be too small and precise a tool.

hamilton island, queensland / 20°21' s, 148°57' e /
marina tavern / june 2008

The juxtaposition between the reef’s majesty and the workaday tourist buzz of my port of call was even more jarring on the Great Barrier Reef. I was staying on Hamilton Island, the most heavily developed resort destination in the Whitsunday chain, featuring the most easily navigated path to the reef. And now I sat on a pub’s terrace watching another magnificent tropical sunset, this time as it descended over a marina crowded with yachts and pleasure cruisers.

At dusk, the small island adjacent to Hamilton was a purpling hump on the horizon, and I spied the silhouettes of construction cranes and bulldozers fixed along its spine like cubist remora. Until recently a fairly rustic little holiday spot, Hamilton Island was the site of a massive expansion beginning in the mid-1990s. Because the entirety of the Whitsunday island chain falls under the rubric of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, however, Hamilton had reached its permitted development limit. The resort’s new eighteen-hole golf course was thus being built on the little island across the channel from the marina.

For a moment, I was livid. I was barely an hour’s journey from the planet’s pinnacle natural achievement, its ancient wisdom and unsurpassed beauty nowhere more readily accessible than right here. What atrophied mind turned instead, in such a place, to the presumed necessity of a round of golf? The whole of the reef was in very real and proximate danger of vanishing forever. Surely before we came to such a precipice, there’d first be no more goddamn golf.

I was well into the next pint before my hubris caught up with me. Trace the outline of the extraordinarily complex apparatus that was required to bring me to my most recent holy communion with fan corals and neon-coloured fish, and try to imagine a thing more thoroughly dependent on the industrial order that was on the verge of sealing the reef’s fate. The steel pontoon dock permanently moored to Hardy Reef, outfitted for scuba and snorkelling, hosting reef tours by semi-submersible and a buffet lunch for 200. The high-speed, wave-piercing catamaran tethered to the pontoon, nearly forty metres long and digitally stabilized for my comfort. The departure dock here on Hamilton Island—just one of a dozen in the tidy, modern marina, this little semicircle backed by high-end retail, purveyors of multinational cuisine, and the tavern serving up these cold draft beers imported from the mainland. The luxury condos and beachfront high-rise hotels scattered farther afield. The airstrip out on the peninsula in the distance, with daily non-stops to Brisbane and Sydney.

Illustration by Balint Zsako

I felt as if I were balanced precariously atop this whole ungainly apparatus, and I recognized in that moment that it was the apparatus itself, not the beauty it allows us to touch, that we had to work to preserve. This whole affluent, hyper-advanced world order, which has given rise to a tourist infrastructure with gears so well greased it enabled me, basically on impulse, to arrange a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef with little more effort than it takes to order a takeout pizza—or to make one from prefab groceries.

crystal waters, queensland / 26°47' s, 152°43' e /
around back of the community kitchen / june 2008

A few days later, I went with my family to stay at Crystal Waters, a “permaculture village” on the banks of the Mary River near the Glass House Mountains of southern Queensland. Crystal Waters was one of the earliest experiments in sustainable living, founded in the late 1980s as a new kind of rural community based on the permaculture design concept developed by Australian ecologists David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. At its core, permaculture envisions human settlement as a kind of biomimicry—“the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems,” as the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia puts it.

Crystal Waters is a lushly vegetated and loosely populated township of eightysome homesteads that spills across a series of steep hillsides and deep valleys. It turned out we’d arrived the day before its twentieth birthday party, and a crowd of current and former residents gathered the next morning on the village green for the celebration of what remains one of the most ambitious sustainability experiments in the world. We made our way down from the guest cabin to help out with the preparations. I joined a cluster of residents at the cob oven—a wood-burning stove handmade from straw and clay—to help out with the pizza-making operation. It had been my understanding that Crystal Waters was striving for self-sufficiency, so I was a little surprised to see a stack of prefab, plastic-wrapped pizza shells on a table next to the oven, along with a range of store-bought toppings. The nearest full-service grocery store was in a town almost thirty kilometres up the highway. Yet another Anthropocene irony: even the most ambitious sustainability pioneers are thoroughly entrenched in the order they’re trying to supplant.

We fell into casual conversation in that easy way men do when there’s a fire to be tended, and talk turned to my recent communion with the Great Barrier Reef. One of the locals, a maker of elegant slide didgeridoos of his own design, said something about how the future didn’t look very bright for the reef.

“Not unless we really make some changes, no,” I replied, shooting for a note of pragmatic optimism.

“Nah,” chimed in a ponytailed dude named Angus who was assembling pizzas. “It’s gone, mate. Might as well start getting used to the idea.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I busied myself with the cheese grater. His tone had sent me reeling, for reasons I couldn’t place until much later. It wasn’t grave or accusatory, not glib nor gleefully nihilistic. It was a win-some-lose-some tone, a shooting-the-breeze-around-the-bonfire tone. The tone of someone who’d already reached some sort of difficult reconciliation a good while back with the notion that there was nothing so sacred or durable that it exists beyond the reach of this tumult. It was the tone, I guess, of someone who’d dedicated his life to the step that came after the lament. I came in time to think of it as of a piece with future-tense voices like Bruce Sterling’s—the emerging voice of Anthropocene reason.

There is a double edge, however, to this kind of realism. I’ve come to embrace it because it places the focus where it must stay—on the task at hand and the road ahead—but it also veers perilously close to a kind of bleak fatalism that invites self-serving rationalizations of inaction. It could even seem to encourage much darker survival strategies.

When I spoke, for example, to Rod Salm, the director of coral reef conservation at the Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, whose office convened the workshop that led to the Honolulu Declaration, he told me about an urgent call he’d recently received from someone on the board of trustees of a charitable foundation that provides significant funding for the conservancy. The board members had recently seen a study suggesting little hope remained for the world’s reefs, and they wondered why, if the reefs were inevitably headed to hell in a handcart, they should invest more money. “We have to leave people with the encouragement that there are actions we can take, and if we do take actions, there is hope,” Salm told me. “If we kick back and say there’s nothing we can do about it, definitely we are going to lose things.”

The Anthropocene epoch—the term itself is predicated on the idea of a permanent and categorical shift in the earth’s equilibrium. Some of the most strident opposition to its use that I’ve heard, in fact, has come from the most passionate of green activists and sustainability advocates, who fear that it does nothing but yank the lid right off the most dangerous Pandora’s box in the industrial closet—the one labelled “geoengineering.”

Geoengineering—large-scale intentional tinkering with the planet’s climate—is, to be sure, a uniquely hubristic school of applied doomsday science. And it is predicated on the twisted logic that a reasonable response to evidence that human industry has irrevocably altered the biosphere would be to undertake to alter it in much more intentional and grandiose ways. I’d argue, though, that while the fear of geoengineering is well grounded—the Strangeloves of the world are indeed lustily roused by the notion of irreversible climate change—the lid is wide open already.

Consider, for example, an article from the March/April 2009 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. The title is “The Geoengineering Option: A Last Resort Against Global Warming?” A perfectly reasonable question mark, floating just above the names of five esteemed academics at A-list institutions (Stanford University’s Law School, Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland). Below that, a dispassionate analysis. All this in the same pages where the free world’s Cold War containment strategy was first articulated.

“The time has come,” the authors argue, to give serious attention to geoengineering—both because it might provide “a useful defense” against the worst shocks of a rapidly changing climate, and because some rogue state’s “unilateral geoengineering project” could be launched before the repercussions are fully understood. There are any number of potential projects, they note, from seeding the lower atmosphere with sea water to create a reflective layer of dense cloud to launching clusters of giant reflective discs into orbit.

The most feasible and cost-effective geoengineering strategy, the authors explain, would be “launching reflective materials into the upper stratosphere,” in conscious imitation of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which created a plume of sulfur dioxide particles large and thick enough to reduce the entire planet’s mean temperature by half a degree Celsius for a time. Should humanity find itself in need of such a cloud to stave off global warming long enough to develop a more effective long-term solution, what would the costs and benefits be? As the authors note, it’s really pretty straightforward, from a technical standpoint, to use “high-flying aircraft, naval guns, or giant balloons” to build a planetary-scale sunblock, whether made of sulfur dioxide or—let’s get serious about this—“self-levitating and self-orienting designer particles engineered to migrate to the Polar Regions and remain in place for long periods.” The real question is whether or not that would be a useful thing for us to do.

It warrants special mention that “The Geoengineering Option” is the first Foreign Affairs article ever to employ the term ocean acidification. And the authors duly note that no geoengineering scheme yet extant would do a thing to slow the acidification process, since blocking the sun does nothing to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide available in the atmosphere for absorption by the sea. “Fiddling with the climate to fix the climate strikes most people as a shockingly bad idea,” they finally concede. But it’s only prudent, they argue, to study geoengineering as “a true option of last resort.”

Jules Verne would probably recognize this terrain, and his fellow sci-fi founding father H. G. Wells—who dreamed up Martian apocalypse and that mad scientist Moreau—surely would. Perhaps there are no broad new vistas of human ambition entirely free of dark clouds, and in any case geoengineering is one that will necessarily shade the blue-sky thinking of the Anthropocene. I’m convinced it’s worth that risk, though. As the sustainability guru Paul Hawken recently told the graduating class of the University of Portland, “Civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.” Yet I can’t see how we motivate ourselves toward an engineering project of that scale without stepping right to the precipice of total system failure and staring directly into that abyss—and then looking up at the clear sky above and understanding, in the same way we understand that it is a collection of gases that gives us life, that it is an Anthropocene sky that feeds us now.

“If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic”—Hawken again—“you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

ballarat, victoria / 37°37' s, 143°53' e /
caro convention centre auditorium, university of ballarat / june 2008

I first heard tell of “resilience”—not as a simple descriptive term but as the cornerstone of an entire ecological philosophy—just a couple of days before I met Charlie Veron on the pages of Melbourne’s most respected newspaper. I was onstage for the opening session of the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in an auditorium at the University of Ballarat at the time. The evening had begun with a literal lament—a grieving folk song performed by an aboriginal musician. I’d then presented a slide show of what I considered to be the rough contours of an Anthropocene map of hope, after which a gentleman I’d just met, a research fellow at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation named Brian Walker, placed my work in the broader context of resilience theory.

I had to follow Veron all the way to the edge of the abyss his research had uncovered before I could come back around to resilience. The concept, it turns out, emerged from the research of a Canadian-born academic named Buzz Holling at the University of Florida, and has since been expanded by a global research network called the Resilience Alliance. “Ecosystem resilience”—this in the Resilience Alliance website’s definition—“is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary.” It’s a concept I encountered repeatedly in my conversations with reef researchers.

Charlie Veron’s cri de coeur—alongside several others—begat the Honolulu Declaration, which in turn provoked many reef scientists to radically redirect their work with resilience in mind. For example, they’ve started studying the coral polyps of the Red Sea, which thrive in water warm enough to kill most other reef-building corals, and have initiated investigations into the feasibility of a kinder, gentler geoengineering, in which more resilient corals might be seeded on ailing reefs.

When I spoke to University of British Columbia climate scientist Simon Donner, he was just back from the remote South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, whose fringing reefs have prospered despite taking the hardest hit of any in the world from the dramatic climate shifts of El Niño. “Let’s target what we protect based on what has the best chance to survive—what might make it through some of the warmer temperatures,” he explained. “Even if we freeze emissions today, the planet will continue to warm for a few decades. We have no choice but to do our best to help reefs adapt to at least some of our warming.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Rod Salm, meanwhile, was searching for ways to use old-school conservation techniques to encourage resilience by reducing the other stresses on the reefs. Significant damage from mass bleaching and acidification was now inevitable, but if the reefs afflicted by these catastrophes are in otherwise good health—not overfished, not poisoned by toxic effluent or overrun with the algae that prosper in the nitrogen-rich runoff from industrial farms—then they may survive long enough to benefit from the drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions essential to the whole planet’s health. “Investing in stopping change is not a useful strategy,” Salm told me.

This points to the broader implications of the resilience concept—the stuff Brian Walker likes to talk about. He and his colleagues in the Resilience Alliance often refer to their field of study as “social-ecological resilience,” suggesting that people are as essential to the process as reefs or any other ecosystem, and that real resilience is created in the complex, unpredictable interplay between systems. “With resilience,” Walker told me, “not only do we acknowledge uncertainty, but we kind of embrace uncertainty. And we try to say that the minute you get too certain, as if you know what the answer is, you’re likely to come unstuck. You need slack in the system. You need to have the messiness that enables self-organization in the system in ways that are not predictable. The best goal is to try to build a general resilience. Things like having strong connectivity, but also some modularity in the system so it’s not all highly connected everywhere. And lots of diversity.”

Resilience, then, embraces change as the natural state of being on earth. It values adaptation over stasis, diffuse systems over centralized ones, loosely interconnected webs over strict hierarchies. If the Anthropocene is the ecological base condition of twenty-first-century life and sustainability is the goal, or bottom line, of a human society within that chaotic ecology, then resilience might be best understood as the operating system Paul Hawken was on about—one with an architecture that encourages sustainability in this rapidly changing epoch.

This new operating system will, by necessity, be comfortable with loss. There is, after all, much to be gained from epochal, transformative change. In the midst of chaos and devastation on the scale of a world war, for example, we might discover how to breathe underwater.

queanbeyan, new south wales / 35°20' s, 149°15' e /
headquarters, dyesol / june 2008

In a suburb of Canberra, Australia’s rather sterile capital, in an industrial park populated mainly by nondescript aluminum sheds housing welding shops and auto brake installers—the polishers of the great industrial machine’s many gears—I discovered what I’ve come to think of as a sort of harbinger of human-scale resilience. A particularly slick piece of software to run on that new operating system, if you will. The core of the Anthropocene crisis is energy, and what we do to the chemistry of the skies and the seas in order to produce it on an industrial scale, and in this desultory little industrial park I found an Anthropocene power plant.

In the gloom of a conference room at a company called Dyesol, with the blinds drawn and the lights off, I watched a new kind of solar panel send a bank of fans busily spinning, generating electricity from nothing but shadowed ambient light. The company calls its little power plant a Dye Solar Cell. It is a microscopically thin layer of dye made from a highly conductive metal called ruthenium, spread over the extraordinarily large surface area created by a base layer of titania paste.

The sample panels I was shown were smaller than the notebook page on which I sketched my description of them, and if all goes according to plan I will never see them mounted on great metal braces that protrude from a wide building’s flat top or fill some sunny field end to end. Instead, they will essentially be printed onto sheets of steel as they roll along an assembly line at three to five metres per second. A company called Corus (formerly British Steel) in faraway Wales has already begun converting a production line used to manufacture its ColorCoat steel roofing. It produces 100 million square metres of the stuff each year—enough to re-roof every Walmart in North America—and as of 2012 it intends to start selling industrial quantities of its roofing with Dyesol’s solar cells built right into it.

Australia’s long-standing expertise in solar research began with tracking stations built for the American space program in the 1960s, some of them placed so deep in the outback it made technical and economic sense to go with costly, experimental solar power instead of running electrical lines from the nearest human settlement. A generation later—as a time-delayed byproduct of maybe the most grandiose of industrial society’s many ambitions—technology has emerged to crown the world’s nondescript warehouses and hulking factories and sprawling big box stores with a thin skin of solar cells.

Look. Imagine one of those buildings, stage lit by the sun under a sky of clear blue, untethered at last from the smog-spewing hull of industrial society. This is what it will look like when a building learns to breathe underwater. This is the next frontier.

Chris Turner (@theturner) published How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change in 2014.

Balint Zsako exhibits his multidisciplinary artwork internationally.