Growing up, my older brother and I spent most of our summers nearby or in the ocean. One place we frequently snorkeled and skin dived was around Catalina Island. On these trips my brother would bring home loads of large abalone for my mother to fry up for dinner. Fast forward a few decades to today, and my own ocean-swimming children will not be bringing back abalone from their trips to Catalina Island. This is not for a lack of trying. The once abundant marine gastropod is now functionally extinct; in the last decade alone white abalone populations in Southern California have decrease nearly 80% percent.

Artist Doug Aitken placed his recent work Underwater Pavilions into the waters off Catalina Island last month in the same location that my brother and I used to swim. The large geometric sculptures act as portals into the underwater environment, detailed with alternating rough rock-like and mirrored surfaces from which light reflects and refracts. The exhibit obliquely draws attention to the effect humans are having on the oceans by raising awareness of its presence.

Last weekend at MOCA, I watched a video installation documenting the Underwater Pavilions projected onto a large screen in a viewing room, part of a larger Doug Aitken retrospective. The video is visually and audibly stunning, and I was reminded of those earlier times exploring underwater worlds. One scene in the video showed a sea lion inspecting the sculpture. I know I am anthropomorphizing, but the sea lion looked simultaneously curious and concerned.

In addition to polluting ocean waters and over-fishing, human activities pump about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. According to NOAA, the ocean absorbs about a quarter of all that carbon. The result is a change in the very chemistry of the ocean waters. Because of all this extra absorbed carbon dioxide, the oceans are currently 30% more acidic today in comparison to the pre-industrial revolution era.

It is no wonder the sea lion inspecting Aitken’s bauble seemed both curious and concerned. Not only have humans radically altered the chemistry of the ocean, we have severely reduced one of its favorite foods, the abalone. The sea lion in Aiken’s video appears to recognize that human activities significantly impacts the coastal food web and their species survival. What seems less apparent to our own species  – some whom mistakenly believe America will be made great again with the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA – is the survival of all species is interconnected.

Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich, puts it this way: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”


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