Ignorance is not always bliss

If our oceans were suddenly to become devoid of life, and millions of species went extinct, would you care? If you were asked to make minor changes in your daily habits that would help protect ocean life, would you do it? Or, like many, would you accept the doomed fates of our oceans, and continue living a life of indifference?

This complex and overwhelming question of saving our oceans was discussed at the Museum’s fifth Café Scientifique of the season, held on March 30, 2012. During the event, participants discussed “Can we protect the web of life in our oceans?”

  • The two guest speakers initiating the discussion were Dr. Marcel Babin, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Remote Sensing of Canada’s New Arctic Frontier, and Dr. Michel Poulin, research scientist here at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Both of our speakers focus their work on the essential and often underappreciated primary producers in our oceans.
An image from Oceans.

Participants watched Disney Nature’s Oceans, a beautiful film that explores the fascinating and mysterious life that lives beneath the waves. Image: Jacques Perrin © Disneynature

After desserts, participants watched the beautifully filmed Oceans. In this film, visitors “dived” into the strange, mysterious and powerful wonderland that make up our oceans, providing close observations of many elusive, deep-water creatures. At times funny, at others thought-provoking, this film showed participants magnificent eco-systems teeming with life, and emphasized the true tragedy of losing them if human apathy remains unchanged.

After the film, our guest speakers presented some of their research. Using optical sensing and satellite imagery to monitor major components of the marine carbon cycle in the Arctic, Dr. Babin has noted a significant decrease in productivity (phytoplankton photosynthesis) in the past decade.

Along the same line, Dr. Michel Poulin, an expert in marine algae and diatoms, explained how microscopic life supports the entire marine food web. Changing conditions in the arctic (warmer water, less ice, change in currents) threaten the diversity of microscopic life, their abundance, and ultimately the ability of these organisms to capture and transfer solar energy up the food chain.

Researcher Michel Poulin crouching on snow with a helicopter in the background.

Dr. Michel Poulin, a researcher at the Museum, studies the effects of climate change on algae and diatoms. Image: Michel Poulin © Canadian Museum of Nature

After the evening concluded, I went home feeling quite disheartened. Throughout the discussion, most participants were quite pessimistic, concluding that it just simply is not possible to reverse all of the environmental harm we’ve caused our oceans.

Even our two experts presented research that could not be disputed. Factors such as climate change, increased air pollution and political obstructions will continuously convince the public that the damage is already done, and there’s nothing else that will help. In fact, the film’s narrator summarized this idea perfectly, stating “One of the greatest challenges facing our oceans is human indifference.”

As one participant stated, “most people’s hearts just aren’t in it anymore. These negative effects on our oceans cannot be undone—it’s inevitable.” Another stated that human greed is too great, and if it is more profitable to harm our environment for instant compensation, rather than save it, this is the course many will take.

Others do genuinely care about the fate of our oceans, but find any potential solutions too complex or overwhelming. As one participant stated “I want to do something, but I don’t feel like anything I do is enough. I don’t think it’s possible that my individual actions will make any difference whatsoever.” And indeed, this is the mantra that many people adopt because, quite simply, it’s easier to live in ignorance.

Four people sitting around a table.

Laurel McIvor (educator on left) facilitates the discussion with some of the participants at March’s Café Scientific. Image: Toolika Rastogi © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, for me and many others, it is unfathomable to just sit back and accept that life beneath our oceans will continue to disappear on a regular basis. While it is certainly unrealistic to expect we can return our oceans back to a pristine, “Eden-esque” state, there are many things that can be done.

While we in Ottawa may not be directly connected to an ocean, we do tend to be more plugged in politically. Therefore, if we’re not happy with the environmental course of action our governments have chosen, we can speak out against it and let our concern guide how we vote in the future, if necessary.

We can also change our buying habits that will contribute to protecting our oceans. Questioning the source and sustainability of seafood purchased is a great example. Even buying locally produced food or products will reduce the amount of air pollution caused by large-scale transportation, which will, in turn, help protect our oceans from these harmful chemicals.

So yes, I am hopeful, and I hope to alter the opinions of those that consider the fate of our oceans a lost cause. But, I’m also realistic. I, as well as many of our participants, are well aware that no solution, or combination thereof, will completely save our oceans.

However, promoting awareness of the importance of our oceans, making changes in our daily habits, and supporting better policies and practices, can and will help. As one participant asserted, “There is hope for change, but the power to change is in our hands!”

Continuing the Discussion

We would like to invite everyone to continue the discussion of protecting our oceans below in the comments section. Please feel free to respond to any of the follow-up questions raised during the Café Scientifique. We also encourage you to post other useful or informative links/resources you may find relevant.

Follow-Up Questions

  • The gradual disappearance or extinction of larger animals found at the top of the marine food chain tend to tug at the public’s heartstrings much more than microscopic phytoplankton or other creatures at the bottom. How can we make people respect the vital role these minuscule organisms play in the overall biodiversity and health of our oceans?
  • Is it possible to convince people to change their attitudes towards plastics and plastic pollution?
  • How could/should individual citizens contribute to protecting sensitive marine habitats from the impacts of human activities?


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