Editor's Note

What our political leaders could learn from the sea

Momentum, reaction, intercession, change. How different would the world look if our leaders had learned their political physics on the sea?

For the physics are different there. You can’t, as on land, get where you’re going by aiming at it, ignoring tide and wind, and you can’t stop just by braking. The sea is a land where intent and intransigence have nothing to brace against, where digging in your heels only gets your feet wet, a land where influence reigns over ultimatum, diplomacy over might. The political lessons are evident. To torture the tao, ruling a large empire is like docking a small boat.

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M/V Santo Antonio was a small boat by big ship standards: tramp freighter, Dutch registry, home port of Curacao. Approaching the docks of Sint Maarten on a quiet Monday morning more than 35 years ago, it raced full tilt toward the coastal cliff as though it would dash itself onto the palisade, not because it was piloted by a suicidal madman, but because ships, like a lot of things in life, can be steered well only at speed. Then, at a bell signal from the wheelhouse, the massive engines were cut and a tense silence elapsed while we waited to hear them reignite in reverse, which they did in time to rein in our headlong coast, saving us from certain ruin and pulling us in neatly to the wharf.

My career on the Santo Antonio was fleeting, by Richard Henry Dana standards. (Sometimes I let the impression stand that my seafaring days went on longer than they did, for the same reason others add a Ph.D. or two to the curriculum vitae: In the writing trade, a stint in the merchant marine is an unassailable credential.) Nevertheless, the curriculum was concentrated. Our first night out of Christiansted, St. Croix, we sailed into a tropical storm downgraded only hours earlier from hurricane. The Santo Antonio spent the night launching off the pinnacle of one wave to shudder prow-down into the valley of the next, now seemingly airborne, now submerged; you could hear the diesels scream as the stern came clear to midships and the screws churned empty heaven. Merchant ships are the largest machines ever made, except for particle accelerators. Being aboard one as it is tossed like a dandelion seed by a child’s breath will reorient forever your comprehension of humanity’s place and nature’s power.

My lesson in physics came later, that placid Monday, dockside at Sint Maarten. We were in the ship’s hold, stevedoring cargo onto pallets that were winched overhead and shoreward, and guiding incoming pallets into place. Winch cables can be long, and pallets exceedingly heavy, and the combined effect replicates the mechanics of continental drift: imperceptible, unstoppable motion. The pallet I thought I would wrangle was sliding sideways waist high at a speed so incremental that I misjudged it for innocuous, and, to give my intent something to brace against, I stepped between the moving tonnage and the steel wall. I can’t remember to whom the hand belonged, can’t put a face to the man who secured all my remaining years. But I can still feel it, wrapping around my upper arm and yanking me off of my feet, exactly in time for me to watch the glacial pendulum cuddle against the bulkhead and keep on moving into quarter-inch steel.

Momentum, reaction, intercession, change. My awareness of that moment clung like a cold rivet in the heart of the warm weeks to follow. Our course through the Bahamas toward Miami was as idyllic as the storm had been frightening: escorts of leaping dolphins, silver skittering sheets of flying fish, nights when the ship’s wake and bow waves were neon with fluorescing plankton under a star-thick sky, as though the Santo Antonio had been brandished to paint an aurora borealis.

That was power, too, that beauty, and I recall it whenever I hear of the ocean being despoiled. A decade after my Caribbean journeys, a high-school friend of mine named Steve Callahan had his sloop struck by a whale and sunk off the Canary Islands. By a miracle he survived, floating for months in a rubber raft across the Atlantic to rescue in the Caribbean. The tale he related to me (he also wrote a book about it: Adrift) nominates him as a metaphor for the subject of this issue of Mother Jones: a starving man lost in the earth’s most bountiful wilderness, its surface littered league after interminable league with the bobbing detritus of mass consumption, floating Styrofoam containers for takeout fast food.

As Julia Whitty, Michael W. Robbins, and H. Bruce Franklin report in this issue, we are well along in the process of destroying that beneficent wilderness, and destroying, in the process, the ocean’s contribution to the health of our planet. Things would be bad enough if the problem were just overfishing, or chemical pollution, or climate change, or discarded consumer waste. But it is all those things and more, accumulating to an imminent tipping point in the ocean’s well-being that may reverse critical ocean currents, change the chemistry of seawater, replace teeming seas with dead zones, and leave the terrestrial world, too, forever altered, by mass starvation, new ice ages.

Oddly, for a species that usually errs out of hubris, we got here partly through misplaced humility: We assumed that the seas were bottomless and infinite, too magnificent to be injured by puny us. But we’ve reached the point in our evolution where we must reorient our comprehension of humanity’s power. As we learned with global warming, we have the ability to wreak havoc on the very balance of elements that makes our planet habitable. Re- dressing the problems besetting our oceans will require diplomacy grander than any ever practiced, enlisting every nation with a shoreline. But it must begin to be done. Global warming also taught us that the earth’s systems do not have to move rapidly to move inexorably, that once set in motion, they cannot be reversed on a dime. Between momentum and change lies reaction. That’s the physics we’re up against now. The pendulum swings. We await the interceding hand.

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