Stung! It’s a fascinating book about jellyfish by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Having read Seasick a few years ago, I was well aware that life in Earth’s oceans and seas is suffering deeply. Stung! is nevertheless a shocker – the human feeding frenzy, along with our wilful disregard of marine well-being, is turning this great source of life into a deathzone. With one big exception.
Beautiful, dangerous, prolific, and astonishingly ‘agile’ in the opportunistic sense beloved of politicians, jellyfish are thriving. Many are lethal, and they are everywhere. Here in Australia we are familiar with some of the deadliest. We share the water with wildly toxic box jellyfish, including the ghastly Irukandji whose sting leaves its victims begging to be put out of their pain and terror. And of course there are Portuguese men o’ war, including the small bluebottles that wash up on beaches in our area here in NSW. When I lived in Darwin I regretted the twist of fate that brought stingers to the coastal waters just in those months when the weather was hottest and we most wanted to swim.
At least we humans have a choice about whether to go for a dip or stay ashore. Fish aren’t so lucky. Consider the case of a fish farm in New Zealand. Gershwin describes an event that took place in 1998 and is paradigmatic of similar events all over the world. The fish cages are circular, the fish swim around and around, and they create a vortex. Jellyfish drift, and are sucked in. In this case, a swarm of Aurelia jellies drifted into a bay and got sucked up against the cage and trapped in the mesh. They struggled; what entered the cage was mucus laced with stinging cells. Salmon inhaled the mucus and it stung them as well as blocking their gills. They were frightened and in pain. They suffocated. The more they struggled the quicker they died, which may have been a mercy. About 56,000 salmon, weighing about 3 kilos each, died in about half an hour.
Jellyfish go with the flow. Give them a nice current like the intake pipes for a nuclear power plant and they float in by the millions. The Madras Atomic Power Station in India is not unusual: there have been numerous shut-downs owing to jellyfish clogging the cooling system. Staff learned that there were 4 million jellies over a 15-month period. In 1995-6 the plant was coping with 18 tons of jellies per month. Similar events are taking place all over the world.
There is something awesome about such ancient creatures disrupting technology that is so recent, as my friend the philosopher Michelle Bastian has pointed out. Research is beginning to tell us how they manage to be doing so well even as so many ocean creatures are on the edge of extinction. Not all jelly species are increasers, and not all the increasers are thriving everywhere, but the overall picture is one of massive expansion. The damage humans are inflicting on the oceans and seas turns out to be a fine thing for jellyfish.
Gershwin tells us that jellyfish, in all their beauty and lethality, are weeds. She defines this unexpected term in a technical way. Weeds are not just living things that thrive in places where humans don’t want them, like the prickly asparagus fern I’m always uprooting in my garden. Characteristically, weeds are versatile opportunists. They are generalists in their consumption and tolerant of a broad range of ecological conditions. They are prolific, they disperse readily, and they resist eradication. Perhaps most importantly, they thrive in disturbed habitats. In Gershwin’s words, ‘when ecosystems wobble, weeds flourish’.
As I read this description I started to shiver. There could hardly be a more perfect description of the human species.
This is us: we are generalists and opportunists. We have dispersed rapidly, we live almost everywhere and we thrive in disruption. There are two big differences between the human and jellyfish weedy ways of life. The first concerns reproductive strategies. Very briefly, there are two main types: scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r). We humans are a K-selected species; jellyfish are r-selected. Human women bear one, sometimes two, children at a time. It takes years to bring an individual to maturity, nurturing, socialising and educating them. In crazy contrast, jellyfish have several modes of reproduction; they are able to hold their future offspring until conditions are right, and then release thousands or millions in a new start-up ‘bloom’.
It might be thought that K-selected species would be at a disadvantage given that their reproductive rate is relatively slow; in general they require relatively stable ecosystems. We humans are among the equilibrium-adapted species, but many of us also go for disturbance. We make up for loss of stability by our intelligence. More specifically, we have become very good at both creating disturbances which favour our opportunistic lifeway, and evading the consequences by shifting them elsewhere.
Others suffer, while we flourish, and we have systems that work to keep it that way.
Consider two recent events here in New South Wales. According to The Guardian, ‘nearly 50 new species of flora and fauna have been added without fanfare to the federal government’s list of threatened species, including nine that are critically endangered.’ Among them are mammals, lizards, birds and plants. No new funding is available to help them survive. The main cause is habitat destruction. We humans are increasing both our numbers and our patterns of consumption. Animals, plants and ecosystems suffer. At the same time, NSW is planning to abandon its legislation against land clearing. We keep ignoring connectivities, and favouring ourselves at the expense of others.
One of my favourite thinkers is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. He is an old man now, and while his writing sometimes seems a bit rambly, he hits the nail on the head with every book. Recently, in Moral Blindness, he turns his attention to the latest up-grade in the power of greed. He writes of the contemporary loss of moral sensibilities, and of ‘the revolt of the rich against the poor’. This revolt is generally thought to have been given a strong boost in the Regan and Thatcher eras when politicians vigorously thrashed the social contract. Their justification had a moral tenor, so let’s be clear: the hard-won laws and policies that provide safety nets for humans and protections for nonhumans are not acts of charity; they do not steal from the rich. Rather, they involve a vision of shared and mutual well-being. An ecological understanding of this vision reveals connectivities, mutualism, and the fundamental ecological fact that ‘what goes around comes around’. Laws and policies of protection promote the circulation of goods and services with the aim of shared social and environmental good. The underlying premise – that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – accords value to all.
The revolt of the rich has been accomplished by disrupting this social ecology. They claim that a social unit is a mere sum of individuals, and that social relations involve parasites and hosts. There is no circulation: it is all take, take, take. There is no social good; there is just the self-interest of hosts who want to scrape off pesky encumbrances.
This revolt is part of Bauman’s broader analysis of western modernity in which he makes it clear that our species is very diverse; not all people in all times have lived out the practices of destruction that are so powerful today. In his book Wasted Lives Bauman writes about the will to wealth of modern capitalism, with all its excess, redundancy and waste. He notes the practice of declaring everything that can’t be used for wealth to be disposable (‘collateral casualties’). From mining to high finance and beyond, anything that gets in the way (read humans; read plants, animals, ecosystems) is best discarded. The revolt denies any moral connection between consumption and waste, and self-righteously rejects constraints on making waste.
It helps to pause, to take note of the fact that we are trying to imagine the unimaginable. Waste: the oceans and seas, their capacity to sequester carbon and to produce oxygen, their capacity to support webs of life that are diverse, and their regulation of Earth’s chemistry; the atmosphere, the climate, the capacity of Earth to sustain a steady state conducive to life. All this – the very foundations of both marine and terrestrial life – all this is treated as stuff to be wasted. Wreckage creates ‘disturbances’, to use the ecological term, and almost all of us humans are being dragged along in the wake even though most of know that wreckage is neither right nor good, neither smart nor sustainable.
This brings me back to jellyfish. They thrive with disturbance, and they consume voraciously. Most creatures consume ‘down the food chain’. In general, big things eat smaller things, fast things eat slower things, and smart things eat dumber things, according to Gershwin’s non-technical explanation. But consider this strange fact: jellyfish actually eat ‘up the food chain’. In Gershwin’s words, ‘small jellyfish eat big species of clams and crabs…. Slow jellyfish eat fast species of fish and squids. Jellyfish with no brains eat species of snails and crustaceans and fish with brains.’ They eat, and they out-compete. They do this primarily because they eat the larval stages of other creatures. In fact, they take over whole ecosystems, eliminating the competition and becoming top predators. They eat each other, too, so they can keep on eating long after having eliminated almost everything else. Jellyfish are also capable of de-growth. When the going gets tough they shrink and cut back on consumption.
If jellyfish could have designed a disturbance agent to make life better for themselves and worse for others, they might well have come up with humans. We’re doing a great job of making life good for them, and together, as if in collusion, we’re accelerating irreversible changes. When jellyfish take over a destabilised ecosystem, a formerly diverse body of water ‘flips’ to jellyfish domination. As other species become extinct, it becomes less likely that flips can be reversed.
We are a young species, only about 100,000 years old. We’ve been hugely destructive, and we’ve shifted massive amounts of suffering elsewhere. We’ve thus far managed to evade the consequences of the fact that we really aren’t very flexible. We don’t do de-growth. We need exact levels of oxygen; we need fresh, clean water and fresh, clean food and fresh, clean air. We need care and compassion.
But jellyfish – they can handle almost anything. Salty water and fresh water – most of them are pretty adaptable. In the ocean’s dead zones where the water lacks oxygen, jellyfish manage. They handle radioactive waste, heavy metals and all the other terrible pollutants dumped or leaked into the oceans. Climate change, another great disruptor, seems to be enhancing their life prospects.
Jellyfish have been on Earth for at least 565 million years. They’ve survived all five of the great extinctions that Earth has thus far experienced. They’ve outlived the dinosaurs and many others. It looks like they’ll survive the coming extinction as well. This time round they have a bit of help from their friends; the revolting disruptors are definitely good news for jellies.
© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016
I first learned about some of the amazing facts of jellyfish life from Michelle Bastian. Her article is in press. In the meantime, her website is an interesting place to visit.
For another look at reproductive strategies see my essay ‘Thinking Like a Mantis’.
The article about threatened species that I consulted is in The Guardian (here).
There is a rich literature on the social contract. I am using the term in a non-specialised way, following Bauman, to indicate the general idea that humans give up some freedom as members of society, and that in return they gain some protections. When the rich revolt against the poor they are basically saying that protection will no longer be part of the deal. (‘The age of entitlement is over’ is a classic, recent expression of this descent into willful moral blindness.)