Billions of years ago, Venus' atmosphere was much like Earth's, but a runaway greenhouse effect boiled her oceans dry, leaving the planet's surface waterless and its sky hot and thick with clouds of sulfuric acid. Sounds a little like July.
Although Venus is closer to the sun than Earth, this summer has felt dispiritingly Venusian: searing heat and suffocating humidity accompanied by smog alerts announcing critical levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen and sulfur oxides. Raging wildfires have charred Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Severe drought has shriveled crops throughout the U.S. breadbasket—the most expansive drought in more than a half-century. And within one month, the entirety of Greenland's massive ice sheet has turned to slush—the worst ice melt there in 123 years.
Venus' demise was sealed by its proximity to a growing sun, not by Venusians themselves, as it appears earthlings are doing. Nonetheless, we can still learn from our orbital sibling, particularly in how changing oceans can radically transform the habitability of a planet. On Earth, coral reefs have become the center of debates about the future of our planet.
Coral are the largest biological structures on Earth. As "foundation species," they literally create habitats for an astounding diversity of marine species. They provide nearly half a trillion dollars a year in resources and services. More than 500 million people rely on reefs for food, coastal protection and livelihoods.
On July 13, Roger Bradbury wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, "A World Without Coral Reefs." The planet's reefs, he wrote, are "zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory of collapse within a human generation."
Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are "unstoppable and irreversible forces" that have worked to destroy reefs. In a process known as "bleaching," corals expel their algae when stressed by the environment. Bleaching events have become global phenomena, and in some instances they are so severe that corals cannot recover.
As troubling as this catastrophe is, Bradbury is equally concerned that environmentalists, scientists and government agencies are unwilling to accept that there "is no hope in saving the global coral reef ecosystem." Hope, he argues, has enabled us to misallocate resources by wishing for a future that will never happen, while people around the globe are already suffering because of the ailing coral ecosystems.
The Great Barrier Reef, off the Australian coast, is the world's largest reef and among the sickest. Responding to its plight, in 2005 sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim launched the Crochet Coral Reef project. Together they collaborated on artwork that they hoped would prompt communities to ask, "What can we do about dying coral reefs?"
Through yarns, the sisters pulled loops through loops, wrapping and knotting a fibrous reef: woolly polyps stitched to other polyps in large fabricated colonies. Like the Great Barrier Reef, this knotted entanglement harbors loopy sea lilies, curlicue sponges, crenellated sea slugs, fringed anemones and hooked starfish.
Starting in Los Angeles, the crocheted reefs have now grown to include related projects across the U.S., Japan, Australia, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Latvia. Working in a traditionally feminine handicraft, these artists have built beautiful objects that examine the troubled future of coral reefs through meaningful and sustained collaboration. For example, "Toxic Reef," a work woven from cut-up plastic shopping bags, is intended "to focus attention on our daily consumption of plastic and how much of it we discard," much of which goes into oceans, according to the project website. As art, the plastic "yarn" is a synthetic analogue to the delicate fiber work that alerts us to the consequences of our shopping habits. Turtles and other sea life ingest the plastic, which kills them. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, decomposing plastic bags enter the food chain and leach chemicals into the water.
The Crochet Coral Reef project neither denies the desperate conditions nor proposes their cataclysmic end. Instead of giving up on sick and dying coral reefs, as Bradbury proposes, it is mobilizing creative action on local and global scales. It is asking us to consider how we can act responsibly in the face of potential disaster.
I am not optimistic that corals will survive another 50 years. Yet it seems to me that humble hope—hope without denial—is necessary in refining our sense of responsibility as we confront the possibility of catastrophe. When we confront these problems, we encounter our indebtedness to other organisms through our shared life on Earth.
But here is the snag. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying the oceans, inhibiting the growth of coral skeletons and weakening the bones of reefs worldwide. In the Caribbean, high water temperatures and disease outbreaks have already killed 80 percent of the region's coral. The relationships that make coral coral are now killing them. If coral teaches us about the reciprocal nature of life, then how do we stay obligated to environments—many of which we made unlivable—that now sicken us?
I don't know how to answer these questions, but it seems to me that the Crochet Coral Reef project starts us on that path. Being inside the problem is a condition of problem solving. It is not solving the problem of coral collapse, but the art is creating alternate ways of understanding our relationship with these ailing systems.
It may be that in half a century oceans will look Precambrian, as Bradbury predicts, with jellyfish and algae colonizing all warm, oxygen-deprived waters. Perhaps Earth will follow Venus, becoming uninhabitable due to a rampaging greenhouse effect. Or maybe we will rebuild reefs or construct alternate homes for the ocean's refuges. Whatever the conditions of our future, we remain obligate partners with oceans. Even at their end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sea sick."