Monday, February 25, 2008

Downstream Peril

Waking up to the
Science Show on ABC Radio National was a shock. 40 percent of the world's oceans are heavily impacted by human intervention. Marine ecologist Ben Halpern from the University of California (Santa Barbara) was being interviewed by science journalist guru Robin Williams. Halpern made the point that 'nearly half of the ocean is suffering from a lot of multiple activities that are having a big impact on the oceans.'

But there is an optimistic note from his research. There are still pockets of healthy oceans - small patches that need to be preserved - in the poles and in Northern Australia. Halpern says that almost all sea-neighbouring nations have some healthy waterways remaining which offer 'real opportunities for effective management and conservation of these areas'.

Another commentator in the program outlined that the major contributors to ocean damage are climate change and commercial fishing, particularly bottom trawling which, like clear-fell logging, leaves nothing in its wake but giant plumes of dirt sometimes up to 20kms long. John Amos from Skytruth, an organization that tracks environmental damage using satellite imaging, says that the acres of sediments stirred up by trawling not only take everything, they also seriously impact the ocean floor, the rocky reefs and tiny organisms, they also affect the water's physical and chemical make-up. Amos paints a sorry picture of the legacy of bottom trawling or dragging.

'[A]s the sediment drifts with the ocean's current, eventually it settles back onto the sea floor somewhere, possibly burying the marine organisms that live there, maybe many miles from where the trawling itself actually occurred, perhaps even in some of those few areas of the ocean that we have placed off limits to trawling.'

These issues have been raised over the past decade by environment organizations and leading scientists such as Daniel Pauly who's Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Pauly found that people are affecting the ocean environment to such an extent that they are killing off the fisheries. He calls this process fishing down the food webs. This occurs when the larger fish such as the highly endangered Bluefin Tuna are fished out, so the commercial industry sources the next size down, then the next, and then the next, until what is left at the end of this process are possibly small fish species, algae and jelly fish.

Despite his research, Pauly sees a positive future for fisheries 'but only if they are reinvented not as the source of an endlessly growing supply of fish for an endlessly growing human population but as provider of a healthy complement to grain-based diets. Particularly, fisheries cannot remain a free for all for a pillaging distant water fleet; they can however, become a regular source of income for communities whose members act in accord with the finite nature of marine resources.'

If, as Halpern's research suggests, northern Australia, the Torres Strait and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area are still in healthy shape, let's try to keep it that way.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reverent River Ritual

If you were designing a ritual for the river, what would it look like? Each year at the Brisbane River Festival the River is honoured with a spectacular of fireworks. Massive colourful sparks fill the sky, spiralling, bursting, floating in an excitement of sight and sound. The Brisbane populace throngs the riverbank marvelling at the event which pays reverence to the icon of this city.

Rituals bind practitioners together in focused performance. The 19th century social scholar Emile Durkheim referred to the social cohesion and the energy of such worship as 'collective effervescence'. It's an embodied feeling which overflows with energy, enthusiasm and connection - with each other and with the object of worship, the river and environs.

Ritual theorists such as Richard Schechner and Victor Turner view ritual as an embodied performance enacted within a liminal or in-between space, an a-temporal plane, where social norms are loosened in a play at once subversive and celebratory.

In Brisbane, river rituals are a daily affair of connection with this watery realm. Currawongs chant their curra-wonnnggg, curra-wonnnggg song-chant to herald the river and focus our attention on its wide brown flow (muddy brown due to the massive rain and flooding recently) cruising slowly through the city. In this space the players/performers are those whose attention is drawn to the river as the central feature of this daily show which acts to integrate human and nature in an eternal dance.

In the liminal space we are transformed. We shed the shadows of our ordinary lives and enter into sacred space to commune with its symbolic elements - old growth trees, the tidal exchange of waters, the circus of birds - the Cockatoos screeching, the flashes of King Parrot's bright red wings and dashes of pink from flying Galahs, the lustrous feathers from Rainbow Lorikeets, the whistling song of the Butcherbird and the sweet sweet chirping of Scrub Wrens. The sight and sound of these performers is just as spectacular as the River Festival fireworks.

Victor Turner (1977:183) states that ritual is 'a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors' goals and interests' (in Deflem, 1991). They engage with the most significant values of a community - in the river's case, with the lifeblood of this city as the central water source as well as the other ecosystem services it provides. The river is sacred symbol, and rituals that revere its place and flow in the life of this city, can act as a kind of social transformer or social glue transforming community attitudes, values and behaviours about the river, its importance and their role in caring for it.

Victor Turner called these liminal space performances 'betwixt and between' but to me, they are part of the magical fabric of the Brisbane River valley. Not set apart from but a part of, embedded in the day/night/sun/moon/tides/flow of this wondrous effervescent glowing tidal ecotone.

Deflem M, 1991, 'Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis,' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, 1, 1-25,
Turner V, 1977, Symbols in African Ritual. In JL Dolgin, DS Kemnitzer and DM Schneider, Eds. Symbolic Anthropology: A Reader in the Study of Symbols and Meanings, New York, Columbia University Press.