Mermaid Message: Humans are Dirty
If I were a mermaid living in a mermaid world, this is what I would say about humans: "Humans are incredibly fun and creative, but dirty! Everything you tame, you dirty."
Human pollution is creating havoc in the oceans. Where once pristine waters provided a healthy environment for ocean life to flourish, now there are very few oceans that are not polluted in some way. Oceans do have their cleanup organisms, but the trash we pour into them has already overwhelmed those natural forces. We have dirty beaches, contaminated river runoff, plastic-dominated gyres, deadly discarded nets, masses of floating oil, and acidified ocean water that burns skin, scales, and shells. Every ocean organism is affected.
When I think about the issue of pollution I'm reminded of little kids who play, but don't clean up after themselves. Some mothers insist on their children cleaning up, some mothers do it themselves, some leave it for maids to do.
This is how children learn to pay attention . . . or not:
- Those whose mothers insist they clean up after playing learn that cleanup is a natural part of playing. They grow up automatically putting away their things and cleaning up their messes. As adults, these people recognize right away that there is a problem with pollution and they do what they can to make sure that they, their families, and their companies are not contributing to the problem.
- Those whose mothers indulgently (or resentfully) clean up after them (usually the boys) grow up expecting that their wives and/or secretaries will take over that job. These adults very often disconnect and generalize, blaming the government or another higher authority for not taking care of the pollution before it becomes a problem.
- Most of those who grew up with maids don't think about it at all. They hardly see the connection and they (unfortunately but maybe understandably) are often the ones who end up running the large corporations that pollute the most. When forced to think about it, they find rationale for their carelessness––too expensive, not enough personnel, isn't their problem.
Seeing the connection between childhood training and pollution gives rise to a built-in action parents can take to cut down on pollution in the future: Teach your children that cleanup is an inherent part of play (more on this later).
Scavenging In the Old Days vs. Scavenging Now
As a mermaid, I would continue . . ."We used to find good stuff to play with, use for ourselves, or give away as gifts. Now we just find trash and broken-down plastic that no one wants."
The main place mermaids used to find human artifacts was in shipwrecks. In fact, legend says mermaids sometimes deliberately enticed ships to wreck, so they would have something to scavenge. They used to find jewels, clothes, toiletries, dishes. From the ship's body there were wood planks, cloth from sails, tools and nails. Much of what they found was useful. What wasn't they gave back, when they found humans who deserved it.
But over time humans started building bigger, safer ships that could weather storms. Many ships had engines that leaked oil and other toxic liquids into the ocean. The rare times that ships crashed, there were far fewer valuables in the hold and cabins than there used to be.
Then humans started making things out of plastic, which doesn't biodegrade - items seldom useful to sealife and easily ruined by saltwater. Items not valuable to humans, either, who leave them behind on beaches, toss them into rivers, pour them into landfills, and throw them overboard from giant cruise ships (that never sink). Occasionally a cargo boat would sink, but then it was impossible to open the crates and what mermaid needs a thousand polyester doggie beds anyway?
Mermaid and Human Interactions
"We used to love to associate with humans, but can't anymore, 'cause everything's so dirty. There are other reasons too, but that one is major."
Humans were fun for mermaids to associate with in the old days. Mermaids used to help humans fish and guide small boats to safety during storms. They used to play with humans in the shallows of a bay, sing together off a rocky coast, even make love on occasion, according to legend. It helped keep the mermaid line healthy and alive.
But since then everything has changed. There's now a lack of caring that shows in the pollution and extends to disrespect for all life other than humans. Bays and beaches are filled with trash, and ocean surfaces are slimy and toxic with oil or chemicals. Humans lost interest and respect for mermaids as well. Without the interbreeding, combined with so many toxins released into the ocean and extensive overfishing, mermaid health took a nosedive.
I imagine mermaids avoiding ships like the plague, with their loud engines, oil leaks, bilge dumps, and gawking tourists. Could you see any cruise ship sighting a mermaid clan, without humans rushing to the side with their cameras and videos, excitedly screaming and shining bright lights on their fishtail bodies?
Pristine Ocean Scenes vs. Human PollutionClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Earth's Cleansing Mechanisms
"The earth keeps trying to clean herself up, but humans keep messing her up again."
The earth has built-in systems that keep her clean and provide other "services" too: wind, rain, insects, algae. Here is what some of them do:
- Wind blows dead branches and leaves out of trees, and trash and other debris into piles that can be more easily cleaned up or washed away by rain.
- Rain cleans the air of pollutants and dust, and washes down the surface of the earth, sending all debris out to the sea to be broken down there.
- Insects on land, and fish and algae in the ocean, break down debris into smaller particles, eating what they need and leaving the remainder for their fellow microbes to break down further for plant food.
Animals, birds, fish all over the world use debris for homes and other purposes, each one leaving useful stuff for others. Eventually what's left becomes soil on land and in the ocean.
Humans leave useful stuff too, but in the interests of the human economy, most human products are now made of plastics of some sort. Those don't break down all the way, can seldom be used for padding in animal homes, and can't be eaten. Although plastic goods are easier to mold, humans make them to break sooner than they need to, so the owner has no choice but to throw them away. Why?
Human waste has overcome earth's ability to clean itself. According to California's Environmental Protection Agency, more than 80,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, and more than 40,000 miles of California's rivers and streams are impaired by harmful levels of pollution. All of those waterways carry their wastes to the ocean.
Algae are the ultimate cleaners of toxic materials in the ocean, but they can only handle so much. There are ocean microbes that eat plastic, but with all the plastic in the ocean, they can't eat it fast enough. With humans feeding all kinds of chemicals into the ocean, the algae are proliferating and taking over. Massive mats of algae use up oxygen the rest of the ocean life needs to breathe, suffocating the micro-foods and spawn required by ocean mammals and fish to grow and be healthy.
The Effect of Plastic Breaking Down in the Ocean
"Plastic gunk coats our hair and skin and sometimes makes it hard to breathe. It kills our food and friends too."
Plastic breaking down forms a layer of gunk that coats hair, skin, and scales. In some places it reaches down several feet thick and thousands of miles across. It's collecting in all the oceans now, but mostly in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Anything swimming upward in those areas gets coated with the stuff.
You know that mermaid food includes fish, as well as plankton, don't you? These fish are dying - hundreds of thousands of them every year. The small ones look for plankton and find plastic instead, but they don't know the difference, so they eat it. It fills their stomachs, and the stomachs of birds and bigger fish that eat them, and there's no room left for real food. They all starve. Between that and the fish that humans eat, there's not much food left for bigger ocean life, so they starve too. Everything is starving, except the algae. Soon there won't be any fish left and humans will starve too . . . unless humans learn to eat algae.
Remediation - What Humans Can Do
Mermaids don't have answers for humans (assuming we would listen anyway), but something needs to be done––something much more than what is happening now, and quickly. There are two stages that need addressing: Reducing waste and contamination in the first place, and cleaning up what's already there. Will we take responsibility or wait for someone else? What are we, as a collective, doing now and what more could we do?
More parents can teach children that cleanup is a part of playing. Schools can too:
Help young children clean up after themselves first––making their beds in the morning, putting their toys away, and moving dirty clothes into the laundry. This can start as young as four or five years old.
At some point children ask if they can help their parents or teachers: Cooking, cleaning, ironing, yard work, working in the shop, distributing classroom supplies. Let them help, but show them that cleaning up afterward is important and let them help you clean up too. Kids can take trash out to the sidewalk bin easily by age six. I remember being proud to do some of these things at that age.
During my substitute teaching days, years later, I used this great little book to encourage kids to take part in classroom cleanup. A student, Georgia Peachpit, helps motivate the other kids to clean up the classroom that her favorite teacher is leaving when she retires.
- When children grow old enough to understand, start taking toys away if they don't put them away themselves. This can start at age six or seven and kids will understand, if parents are consistent and don't get mad (anger makes a child freeze).
- By the time kids are teenagers, they should have regular cleanup tasks, expected as part of the family or classroom. This gives them the feeling of being a responsible part of society, which should encourage them to start or involve themselves with group cleanup projects as adults.
This is the purview of company leaders, nonprofits, churches, government bodies, and the media. The following links to articles give more information on prevention and current cleanup efforts by adults. Although all are not focused specifically on the ocean, ocean cleanup is included, and many of the other suggestions can be applied to the ocean as well.
How Can You Help?
- Ocean Conservancy: Fighting for Trash Free Seas
We face many complex challenges when it comes to a clean and healthy ocean, but one problem is simple to understand: Trash.
- Ways to Prevent Water Pollution
What can be done to change people's minds about tossing trash in the streets or industrial waste in our rivers? We can start by asking ourselves some questions.
- Atlantic Ocean Garbage Patch | environment | Limits to Growth
When I first read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch I thought it was the most disgusting human trash heap ever, not to mention a nasty symptom of global overpopulation.
- First Ocean Cleanup System to Be Deployed | Al Jazeera America
A large, floating barrier deployed near the Japanese island of Tsushima will block and gather plastic trash