A Sense of Scale

To protect whales, sharks, and other long lived species- we have to adjust our perspective to their lifetimes.

Apr 21, 2019
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Bowhead whales can live to be over 200 years old. It’s possible that Greenland sharks can live as many as 500 years. For context, this means that there could be whales alive today that have been swimming in US waters since before the Louisiana Purchase, who foraged and bred and sang in the dark sea as the Cherokee marched and died on the Trail of Tears, and whales who survived the boom of industrial whaling, narrowly avoiding ending up in the New Bedford whalemen’s oil casks. There may be sharks in our oceans today who began their journey into life before the fall of the Aztec Empire, before the dark era of American slavery, before the US constitution was ever ratified, they traversed our waters throughout the first environmental movement, and they’re swimming around to the promises of a “green new deal”. These same animals, given the chance, may outlive us. 

Whale waters
Many baleen whales rely on icy habitats to survive 

I realize it may seem odd to bring up such broad-scaled narratives in an Earth Day post. The theme of the week after all is “Protect our Species”, not “Let’s Chat History”. My point, however, is that the two are linked. Perspective is essential for protecting global species. We have a tendency (or at least I do) to think of our impact on this earth from the perspective of a human timeline. I am consumed for the most part with the day to day activities that make up my work. As a biologist of humpback whales, which are long-lived creatures, however, I am constantly required to reassess my sense of scale, and to reconcile the footprint of my day to day actions, with an environment that will outlive me. History and biology have taught me that change is slow, but also inevitable. To me, global change is almost imperceptible, but that does not mean I fail to contribute to it. I encourage all humans to realize, that it is our contributions to global waste that are putting species at risk. The power to protect them, therefore, lies at least in part by reducing our global footprint over meaningful scales- perhaps this isn’t as daunting as it sounds.  

Committing to “green” alternatives sometimes feels like a futile task. Recycling this water bottle doesn’t seem to solve the ocean plastics issue. Buying locally and riding my bicycle isn’t immediately reducing global carbon emissions. If I change my perception of scale, however, I realize that I have kept thousands of pounds of plastic out of landfills over the past decade. I have kept thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and I am a single person. I consistently strive to simplify my life, consume less, converse more, reuse things, and fix what’s broken instead of buying something new. I strive to cultivate open and unselfconscious conversations about my choices and find articulate ways to link back the big picture to the day-to-day life. I know, that these choices seem small, but if we see a cultural shift toward embracing them, they become huge, and subsequently feel easier. A friend who works at MIT once told me, to save the planet we don’t just need an idea, we need a revolution. Scale small environmental choices up to the lifetime of a Greenland shark, and a revolution is exactly what we have.

The inverse, however, is sadly also true. The plastic water bottle that you put into the trash can will stay on this earth for whale-scaled generations (450 years to decompose). In your lifetime every piece of plastic you’ve ever touched still exists somewhere on this planet; and it’s still plastic.  The same is not true for your apple cores, coffee filters, or even your paper plates. This means that you have some choices to make, but it also means the power is ultimately yours.

Family Time
Plastic pollution is one among many threats facing Killer Whales like these. Killer whales stay in matrilineal family groups and transmit information across generations.

So, for Earth Day I challenge you to adjust your sense of scale. For a moment, think long term about your waste (how many plastic items have you come into contact with today?). Commit to making one or two small changes (i.e. not using plastic bags at the grocery store, refusing disposal coffee cup lids). When you make these choices, do so openly and vocally. Let the barista know that you prefer not to use plastic lids. Ask the movie theatre manager to consider putting in a recycling can for water bottles. Be vocal (though polite) that wrapping an individual sweet potato in plastic in order to sell it, really is ridiculous. As you do these things, it may help to remember that:

Small Things + Time = Big Problems

 while

Small Changes + Time = Real Solutions

To protect our global species, we must make permanent changes in how we consume. This means we must shift human sentiment, which starts with individual actions. It starts with us.

Albatross in flight
Albatross in flight across the Southern Ocean can stay aloft for days at a time.


 

 

Michelle EH Fournet

Postdoctoral Researcher, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bioacoustics Research Program

Dr. Fournet is an acoustic ecologist investigating the role of sound in the marine environment. Her research interests include animal communication, the relationship between human activities and marine acoustic habitats, and science communication.

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