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This morning sun is shining. The sea is calm and blue, off the mole of Cefalu; an ancient port on the northern coast of Sicily.
The summer throngs and heat have yet to arrive in a region that features in the story of Western civilization. Long before Homer and Odysseus, pre-civilization inched our way forward here, nourished by the sea thousands of years before Christ and the parable of the fish.
What is striking here is the same as I have observed in Florida and the Caribbean: the impoverished oceans. Here there are no fish, or only a few where there was bounty even in our father and mothers’ generations. The markets of Cefalu should be crowded with vendors and buyers negotiating the calories to sustain law and order.
The emergency of the oceans should be at the front of our political life. But we are in stasis. The industrial response to the industrial world’s crisis of food supply is more industrial response: genetically modified organisms, pesticides, farm-raised fish and crops to yield better profits.
Any one of the thousands of generations before ours would read the markets empty of fish at the shorefronts of Sicily as an ominous metaphor and sign. Yet the cars are all moving on ribbons of road. The beach chairs are organized in neat, colorful rows with umbrellas already fixed to protect tourists from the harmful effects of too much sun.
Recent images of social unrest in Greece are appalling. In past economic straits, the Greek people could turn to the oceans. It is no different in Miami, where early settlers living in Coconut Grove could easily supplement their diets and feed families spending just a few hours with a fishing line or spear at a place called Dinner Key for a reason. It was where you could catch dinner.
Today, the shallow waters around Dinner Key are empty except for organisms that feed on algae nourished by our pollution.
Governments, including the State of Florida, not only fail environmental protections, state and local legislatures are rushing in reverse: promoting policies of economic growth by erasing what limited and inefficient protections exist through the law to protect water quality and by extension the food supply we depend on. It is happening in Tallahassee and Washington DC every day with a full scale attack on regulations that might, if they worked, constrain against the emptying of our food supply.
No one who shops at convenience stores or Publix or Walmart is putting up much of a fuss except to complain about the rising costs of food. No one seems to care that short-sighted policies we endorse, through elected officials we return to office one cycle after another, are to blame.
But the comfort of distance provided by industrial food policies — and the conviction that nothing can alter our domination of nature — will not hold. No one can say when our grasp will be loosened from certainty that we can surmount every obstacle, but the oceans stripped of vitality are an omen our ancestors would have read at once.
This is true even on a calm, beautiful morning where the sun shines and the water beckons, the sky is filled with scooting clouds across blue skies, exactly as life has unfolded for countless generations. As a civilization, we must see in the ocean what we are obliged to do as a matter of devotion and economic need.