Thursday, October 24, 2019

Worms, watersheds, and the Anthropocene: Remarks from Jillian Mayer

These remarks were given to volunteers of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History by 2020 Knauss Fellow Jillian Mayer. Jillian took the photos at the youth-led Global Climate Strike March to the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2019.

Photo: Jillian Mayer
Thank you, Meaghan and the Museum, for having me today. All opinions are my own. 

Everyone: look down at your feet. Wiggle your toes in your shoes, and feel the ground beneath them. Recall the path you took to get here tonight. That path, this ground, is first and foremost stolen indigenous land. The community that once called this land home is the Piscataway (and related tribes) and is, by the way, still around. Before we talk about the ocean, we have to understand the land. Part of that means addressing that we have stolen it from others, and are borrowing it from future generations. Let’s take one moment to thank the people that stewarded this land before we were here, and those that will care for it long after we’re worm food.

Speaking of worms: Consider the physical characteristics of the ground. What does it smell like? How many rodents are burrowing beneath us? How many thousands of seeds lie dormant, waiting for a crack in the concrete? Go further down and you’d hit rock, then water, then rock, and eventually magma and a molten iron core. (I think that’s true, though thankfully none of us are geologists up here).

Every step you took tonight happened in a watershed. Every drop of liquid that falls on the surface of that watershed ends up in a stream, which runs to a river, which runs to the sea. The oceans are the headwaters of the skies, and the skies return that water to us as precipitation. The hydrologic cycle!
Photo: Jillian Mayer
There are literally countless ways that humans are impacting our seas in the Anthropocene — or as I call it, the Anthroposeas. Can I have some examples of the ways we’ve impacted water? (Call them out)...

Here are some facts about the Laurentian Great Lakes, because I’m an “expert”: 
  • Largest source of surface freshwater on earth; coastline is longer than Atlantic and Pacific coasts; water flows from Superior to Ontario; shallow.
  • During the Paleozoic Era, which ended about 250 million years ago, the Great Lakes region was a shallow sea.
  • The Great Lakes formed 10,000 years ago with the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. 
  • Before European settlement, the land held the Anishinaabe civilization, consisting of the “three fires:” Potowatomi, Ojibwe/Chippewa, and Odawa – healthy forests, clean lakes.
  • European settlement began in the mid-1850s: mostly trading (furs).
  • Intensive logging and polluting factories shaped the region in the late 1800s – early 1900s: clear-cut old-growth forests, hammered rivers, intense runoff and flooding.
  • First problematic invasive species: sea lamprey come in ballast water, decimate lake trout
  • 1950s: alewife 
  • 1960s: stocked Pacific salmon 
  • St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 — invasives galore 
  • 1990s: zebra mussels 
  • 2000s: quagga mussels 
  • 2000s: Asian carp 
  • Today: upper lakes are oligotrophic, lower lakes are eutrophic; invasive predators and prey; highly managed lake levels – A MESS
Photo: Jillian Mayer
Here’s where I neatly pivot to telling you to VOTE. I’m now a NOAA-Sea Grant Knauss Legislative Fellow in a senior senator’s office. Here are some observations I’ve made: 
  1. Wearing business attire every day is miserable.
  2. Honoring treaties with Native American tribes and generally throwing our movement’s whole weight behind the unique goal of indigenous sovereignty would solve most of our problems.
  3. Surprisingly, it turns out that Congress can’t make people do anything. It appears that the goal of policy in our governance structure is to open better paths to better futures. It’s not hand-holding, it’s not hand-dragging. (This is a cheer-ocracy). 
  4. We can and should explain environmental, climate, and oceans issues in language that our audience understands, including the language of economics, patriotism, religion, autonomy, and other values we may not hold. Our own subjective motivation for saving the planet is just that: subjective. Earth is far past the point at which we can sit atop our high moral horses. As scientists, activists, and educators, we must challenge ourselves to find new ways of explaining, showing, understanding, knowing, and solving the complex (primordial) soup of crises we face. 
  5. Go vote. Help register people to vote. Volunteer to drive people to the polls. Do this regardless of party affiliation. Less than 50% of the eligible US population votes. For communities of color especially, exercising this constitutional right has become harder since the repeal of the Voting Rights Act — and everyone suffers when some of us aren’t free. To quote poet Staceyann Chin, “All oppression is connected.” Voting is one tool of many in our toolbox. We need and have a thriving ecosystem of strategies to build a better future. But don’t forget to vote. 
  6. Finally, to quote journalist Mary Schmich and musician Baz Luhrmann, “wear sunscreen.”
    Photo: Jillian Mayer