Swim freely, breathe easily

April 14, 2016

Priya Parrotta attended the youth/young adult climate convergence at the Vatican last June.  She grew up in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, and is a recent graduate of Brown University.

The joy that I feel whenever I see a dolphin is immeasurable. Animal lovers tend to agree that, like baby elephants and tiny, furry puppies, dolphins inspire feelings of comfort and affection. When a dolphin is nearby, life feels easier. Their swiftness as they move through the water, and their smiles when they surface, teach us something about the art of living. And if their surroundings are healthy—if the water is clear of pollutants and the sky is open—they also set an example of harmony that feels sustainable, in the most reassuring sense of the world.

There is a bay in San Juan, Puerto Rico which is home to a number of dolphins. And for centuries, this bay has also been both a departure point and a final destination for labor, food, military supplies, and cultural artefacts from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Founded in 1493, San Juan was one of the first ‘modern’ port cities in the Americas, and as such it has been a supplier, as well as a consumer, of vast amounts of human and non-human energy.

Beginning with the slave trade and continuing now with the exploitation of vast amounts of natural resources, so-called ‘modernity’ has built its foundations and asserted its superiority over other places and times by defying both ecological and ethical limits. From coal to oil to natural gas, we humans have dug up the earth without permission, and often without hesitation.

Much of this activity has taken place in the name of making life easier. Plastic, for instance, has by many accounts made our lives more convenient, and has liberated us from many of the constraints that have historically impeded our efforts to focus on the things in life which matter most. The story goes that since we have been able to make use of the energy sources that are buried deep in the ground, we ourselves are able to soar higher, and live the lives that our ancestors could have only dreamt of.

When it comes to medical matters, this may be true. But plastic – to focus simply on one commodity—does not disappear after we have discarded it from our own lives. In a manipulated form, it returns to the Earth, making its way into terrestrial and marine ecosystems and jeopardizing the lives of the living beings that reside there.

Statistics on the scale and implications of our global waste crisis are now readily available. Anybody with a search engine and a small amount of curiosity can find the answers to all of their questions simply by choosing the right keywords. They can learn about the ‘islands’ of garbage floating in the Pacific. They can read about the damage that such waste is doing to marine life. And they can pull up images of whales and albatrosses who have died after ingesting bottlecaps—pieces of plastic which are so insignificant to us that we only talk about them when fun facts are printed on their undersides.

But less easily available are the answers to the questions that, as a society, we have not thoroughly asked. And in my mind, this is the most pressing one:

For generations, we have tacitly accepted the idea that using fossil fuels like natural gas and crude oil to make commodities like plastic is making our lives easier. But how can that be possible when, ultimately, these same commodities are threatening the lives of our favorite animals (like dolphins)? Many of us are in easy agreement about the fact that the world’s natural beauty—whether in the form of fragile ecosystems or charismatic animals—are important for our sense of peace in this complex world. At the very least, the knowledge that these aspects of our planet exist give us some small amount of happiness; in other words, they make our lives easier.

In our eagerness to compartmentalize and deny the connections between the many issues that shape our changing (if not evolving) world, we sometimes fail to confront the most glaring and most urgent of contradictions. If we are so concerned with improving the quality of our own lives, then we must consider the fact that as empathetic creatures, our own happiness depends upon the ability of other living beings to dive, to smile, to jump—to live easily, too.