Disappearing Florida – Sunrise or Sunset?

Egret - Gulf of Mexico

Egret – Gulf of Mexico

There’s something special about our island, Tierra Verde, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Living here is like being on a perpetual vacation in one of Gaia’s most beautiful places. Centuries ago, when native Americans settled this part of the globe, and the seas were much lower (about 120 meters lower – see our blog Abrupt Change ), our island was a hill on a long, dry continental shelf. As glaciers melted and seas rose, the plain filled with water, Florida became its present size, hills became islands, and Tierra Verde as we know it today was born.

We’re between ice ages, about 11,000 years from the peak of the last glacial period. Lovejoy and Hannah report in Climate Change and Biodiversity that Gaia is entering what appears to be its warmest period in the past 2 million years. Thus, regardless of what we may or may not do, we are likely in for rising temperatures and rising seas.

The concern of those of us who have developed ecological awareness is that mankind’s relentless abuse of Gaia so rapidly accelerates the pace of the warming climatic change that the earth’s species, plant and animal, are unable to adjust.

Despite the denials by 22 candidates for the office of governor in the November 2010 elections that global warming and damaging anthropogenic climate change are issues, despite the multi-millions being spent (in part from foreign oil contributions) by the United States Chamber of Commerce saying it isn’t so, it is so.

Let’s pause a moment and take a different slant on the growing ecological issues of our time.

Our globe has circled the sun for some 5 billion years. The best predictions available today is that we have a young sun and its apt to be a long time before its swallowed by its own black hole. So the sun will rise and the sun will set for eons to come.

The very personal question for me is: When the next century is ushered in, will our children’s children be able to stand on the sandy shores of Tierra Verde and savor the beauty of the sunrise and the sunset as we do today? Or will our Island have disappeared under the swelling seas as islands in the Indian Ocean are starting to do?

CNN reported in November 2008:

The new president of the Maldives wants to relocate — his entire country. Much of Male, capital of the Maldives, was flooded following the 2004 tsunami. Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed, a former political prisoner, was sworn in Tuesday after he unseated Asia’s longest-serving leader in the country’s first multi-party elections two weeks ago. He inherits an island nation with several problems. Foremost among them: the very likely possibility that the Maldives will sink under water if the current pace of climate change keeps raising sea levels. The Maldives is an archipelago of almost 1,200 coral islands located south-southwest of India. Most of the islands lie just 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) above sea level. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast a rise in sea levels of at least 7.1 inches (18 cm) by the end of the century.

Of course, there are the naysayers who view the entire idea that oceans can rise and islands can sink as Al Gore’s fiction.

I find this short-sightedness amazing in light of the evidence. In March 2010, it was reported that a territorial dispute between India and Bangladesh over New Moore Island was settled when the island sank into the Indian Ocean.

Simply because we will not be able to stop, or ultimately control, the ageless cycles of Gaia – and simply because we can’t always identify all the complex elements involved in climatic changes – does not give us the right to abuse this wonderful gift of life on earth we have been given, particularly when our short-term pleasure quickens the pace of our own demise. Which is why I concluded in our Abrupt Change blog that Gaia may end up as being a thriving place for a Bug’s Life.

In its October 20, 2010 edition, the New York Times ran an unsettling article, Climate Change is Tea Party Article of Faith.

Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy. “This so-called climate science is just ridiculous,” said Kelly Khuri, founder of the Clark County Tea Party Patriots. “I think it’s all cyclical.”

Those who support the Tea Party movement are considerably more dubious about the existence and effects of global warming than the American public at large, according to a New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted this month. The survey found that only 14 percent of Tea Party supporters said that global warming is an environmental problem that is having an effect now, while 49 percent of the rest of the public believes that it is. More than half of Tea Party supporters said that global warming would have no serious effect at any time in the future, while only 15 percent of other Americans share that view, the poll found. And 8 percent of Tea Party adherents volunteered that they did not believe global warming exists at all, while only 1 percent of other respondents agreed. Those views in general align with those of the fossil fuel industries, which have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it. They have created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.

Lisa Deaton, a small-business owner in Columbus, Ind., who started We the People Indiana, a Tea Party affiliate, is supporting Mr. Young in part because of his stand against climate change legislation. “They’re trying to use global warming against the people,” Ms. Deaton said. “It takes away our liberty.”

“Being a strong Christian,” she added, “I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country and it’s not there to destroy us.”

Perhaps for those among us who, like Ms. Deaton, consider the Bible as primal authority, turning its pages beyond Genesis will be illuminating. Ezekiel 34:18: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample it with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink the clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” Romans 8:22: “For all we know the whole of creation groans and travails in pain together.”

Everglades Sunrise

Everglades Sunrise

Our December 2009 blog, Revelation, the Other Volume made the point, the Wisdom of the Bible and the Wisdom of Nature are not separable:

“As we anticipate the coming New Year, it might be wise to reflect on the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, “Revelation is in two volumes, the Bible and nature.” The first is ecumenical. The second is ecological. The first was penned by inspired men. It has an opening verse and a closing chapter; it can be picked up and set aside at will and there are a variety of interpretations and competing alternatives.The second is participatory, experiential, with an infinite beginning and end. This volume was penned by the Creator himself, and it too can be ignored and misinterpreted, but its teachings cannot be escaped. The book binding for the Ecological Volume is the earth we stand on. Each new page is turned by what Homer poetically called the “rosy finger of dawn.” For a long time, we believed that the Ecological Volume had a solid cover, a binding that would never break, filled with pages that could never be permanently stained. Finally, we are coming to know better. Although there are still political denials, most of us realize that the present global crisis has its roots in our callous treatment of our earth. We have abhorred terrorism among humans without realization that our unfettered terrorism of nature is far more destructive. The Genocide Factor we can no longer ignore and must reverse is what we are doing to the earth itself and all of its inhabitants, plant and animal. An ancient Hindu text says He who loves lives; he who loves himself lives in hell; he who loves another lives on Earth; he who loves others lives in Heaven. But he who silently adores the Self of all creatures, lives in that Self and It is eternal peace.”

Before his death in 1996, Carl Sagan and 22 other Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to religious leaders, acknowledging the limits of science and technology to change attitudes. Sagan and his fellow scientists call our ecological crisis “intrinsically religious.” A brief excerpt:

“We are now threatened by self-inflicted, swiftly moving environmental alterations about whose long-term biological and ecological consequences we are still painfully ignorant: depletion of the protective ozone layer; a global warming unprecedented in the last 150 millennia; the obliteration of an acre of forest every second; the rapid-fire extinction of species; and the prospect of a global nuclear war which would put at risk most of the population of the Earth. There may well be other such dangers of which we are still unaware. Individually and cumulatively, they represent a trap being set for the human species, a trap we are setting for ourselves. However principled and lofty (or naive and shortsighted) the justifications may have been for the activities that brought forth these dangers, separately and taken together they now imperil our species and many others. We are close to committing- many would argue we are already committing- what in religious language is sometimes called Crimes against Creation.“

Pope John Paul II spoke at the farmer’s Jubilee November 12, 2000, and said “The earth was entrusted to man by God so that he would cultivate and safeguard it. When this principle is forgotten, [and men] become tyrants instead of custodians of nature, sooner or later the latter will rebel.”

I close this Disappearing Florida series with questions for each of us to consider:

Among today’s “Band of Brothers” – today’s closely-knit group of religious and political “Revolutionaries“ – Who Speaks for Earth?

Will today’s “Revolution“ end as Nature’s Rebellion?

Will today’s “Revolution” usher in Humankind’s Next Sunrise or Sunset?

Tierra Verde Sunrise

From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. This is the tenth – the final – in our series Disappearing Florida.

Disappearing Florida – Squeeze on the Swamp

Lettuce Lake Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Deep in the bald cypress forest of the Corkscrew Swamp in South Florida is Lettuce Lake. Its surface is covered with a mat of soft green floating vegetation known as “water lettuce.” The water lettuce provides shelter for crayfish, small fish, small reptiles, and amphibians and provides food for turtles and a vast variety of insects. Egrets and Little Blue Heron have been known to frequent the Lake, walking on the water lettuce while foraging on its complex root system. Like the Big Cypress Swamp and the nearby Everglades, the Corkscrew Swamp is a special place, not only for its beauty but its habitat for wildlife.

The entire swamp system is vitally important to those who live in South Florida as well, as it provides an important link within South Florida’s fresh water system. Mangroves and swamps also are important when it comes to capturing and controlling the carbon we continually pump into the air. A report by the Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network, states “The simple implication of this is that the longterm sequestration of carbon by one square kilometer of mangrove area is equivalent to that occurring in fifty square miles of tropical forest.”

But the political pressures from developers and others continually press against these precious lands, as they do on other important parts of our environment. Dr. James Hansen, one of our country’s leading and most conservative scientists on climate issues, in his Storms of My Grandchildren, calls us to action to reverse our penchant to continue “business as usual” with its trappings of “greenwash” – our federal and state governments’ talking the talk but not walking the talk.

Hansen’s concern about our lack of action: “(F)ailure to take these actions would cause our descendants to inherit a planet with a warming ocean, disintegrating ice sheets, rising sea level, increasing climate extremes and vanishing species….Most of the politicians advertised themselves as being ‘green’, but … it amounted to ‘greenwash,’ demonstrating token environmental support while kowtowing to fossil fuel special interests.”

Florida has been no stranger to greenwash and the political pressures from lobbyists and their special interests. The push of special interests in our legislature is the subject of Paving Paradise, Craig Pittman’s and Matthew Waite’s work about Florida’s vanishing wetlands. Paving Paradise provides insight into the often-too-cozy relationships between government and developers.

Recently our Swamp – the Everglades – was involved; fortunately, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing new wetland permits to limestone miners despite the possible risk to Miami-Dade County’s water supply. Hoeveler threw out all the permits. An AP release noted:

“The permits are required to extract limestone from the Lake Belt… The 57,500-acre region, which borders the eastern edge of Everglades National Park, also provides 40 percent of Miami-Dade County’s drinking water.”

However, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 3 to 2 decision, reversed Hoeveler, saying the Judge hadn’t shown proper deference to the Corps of Engineers decisions. The case was sent back to the Judge for reconsideration. In January 2010, “after extensive study and coordination with public and other state and federal agencies,” the permits were issued. The finding? “(T)he discharge of fill material into 10,044 acres of Waters of the United States for mining in the Lake Belt area is not contrary to the public interest ….”

In the end 1,500 acres were reserved and 1,708 acres were transferred to the state to enhance the Swamp’s boundary and mitigate against damaging seepage.

A partial victory for environmentalists, but civilization’s pressures are relentless.

It’s the continued vigilance of organizations like 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Everglades Foundation, and the willingness of organizations like the Sierra Club who go to court on these sorts of issues that challenge the political pressures on governmental agencies and thereby provide the greatest resource to achieve some sort of balance against the Squeeze on the Swamp.

From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. This is the ninth in our series Disappearing Florida.