here are all posts tagged as conservation...

Riddles in the Dark

We know more about space than we do our oceans, even though the oceans sustain all life on our planet.

∇Δ Sylvia Earle

moray eel in japan.

moray eel in japan.

To the obligate land-dweller, life underwater is just about as foreign as life on other planets. Hidden from our land-centric consciousness, the average human seldom considers our aquatic counterparts, even as they frequently end up on our dinner plates. Out of sight. Out of mind. And yet, all modern life—aquatic and land-dwelling—was born from the ocean. we share a common unicellular ancestor that serendipitously emerged in the water 3.5 billion years ago. So, evolutionarily speaking, these aquatic aliens are actually more like our long-lost cousins.

But somehow, in the last 50 years we have eaten our way through over 90% of the ocean’s big fish—the tuna, the sharks, the marlin. We have, through widespread bottom trawling practices, destroyed hundreds of seamounts and ancient coral systems. our influence in recent history has placed an enormous strain on our underwater relations and their habitat. Unfortunately, our impact has gone largely unnoticed likely because the underwater world remains concealed from our conscientious consciousness. In an effort to reveal this hidden world to us landlings, national geographic photographer Brian Skerry has made it his mission to capture “both the horror and the magic” that lies within our oceans—to remind us land-walkers where we came from and the damage we have caused.

trapped thresher shark

trapped thresher shark.

Skerry’s work is notably reminiscent of war photography, which is not surprising considering the striking similarities between widespread industrial fishing practices and modern combat strategies. To keep up with the high demand for fish [think diet fads like the fish facelift diet], fishermen have been using gps, radar, and satellite to track + capture hoards of fish. In their arsenal are large hooks that can delve as deep as 120 km* and trawling vessels that can travel up to 170 km with enough storage room for 12 jumbo jets! As a result of the incredible efficiency of this technology, the global catch is a recorded 124 million metric tons [the equivalent of 378 empire state buildings]. Even more astonishing is that over 25% of the global haul is actually bycatch, unintentionally caught fish that are thrown overboard.

Scientists have long claimed that life on earth is due in large part to our oceans. Our planet is 71% ocean, which supports over 50% of the world’s species. The NOAA estimates over 95% of the underwater world remains unexplored, suggesting that there is more going on down there than even skerry’s revealing photography can show us. We have barely any comprehension of the impact we are having on the aquatic ecosystems we exploit daily—systems that have gone relatively untouched by the landed for billions of years.

guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat.

guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of us are perfectly complicit in the ocean’s devastation. Fishing in the dark, we have all but wiped out the top link of the food chain, opened up niches for jellyfish and algae resulting in oxygen-barren dead zones, and depleted a huge chunk of the food source for marine mammals and seabirds. Even ‘solutions’ like aquaculture present no good alternatives to the problem at hand. The fish farm comes with its own set of problems, first among them being that farmed fish are fed by wild fish at an extremely low efficiency: 5 tons of wild-caught small fish are needed to feed 1 ton of farmed salmon. In addition, overcrowding on the fish farm increases the risk of disease and infection in fish stocks, while waste from these fish often spills out into surrounding waters. We need to cycle, it’s time to put away the fishing reel, just for a short blip in time, what is 1 or 2 generations…  Why can’t we let things come back to normal…

Admittedly, ocean conservation only crept into my consciousness a few years ago as a result of lectures from ocean conservationists like Dr. Sylvia Earle and documentaries like The End of the Line. Like Skerry, these activists provide a small glimpse—the only real glimpses we currently have—of the ocean’s hidden wonders to reveal how much we really have to lose if we continue exploiting life underwater. The ocean’s deep mysteries appealed to the very same fascination with unknown worlds [albeit at a microscopic level] that led me to molecular biology. I am profoundly awed and humbled every time I hear reports of fish that live for over 500 years and gigantic squid that dwell deep in the sea. Broader ecological considerations aside, there are few things more tragic to me than obliterating a whole world—the world we actually came from—before we have even had a chance to explore and understand it.

Fortunately, hope remains for our aquatic cousins and their home: “Ten percent of the big fish still remain. There are still some blue whales. There are still some krill in antarctica. There are a few oysters in chesapeake bay. Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape—a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet. There’s still time, but not a lot, to turn things around.” [Sylvia Earle]

red snappers on a coral reef.

As a point of reference, James Cameron is the human to have delved deepest into the ocean at 11 km down.

All photos by Brian Skerry.

GhostFood: a Taste of Your Foodie Future

Artists Miriam Simun + Miriam Songster have teamed up to bring a taste of the future to the streets with GhostFood: a food truck dishing out a menu centered on three familiar foods facing extinction—cod, chocolate, and peanut. This participatory performance piece, commissioned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for Marfa Dialogues/NY, is designed to promote a dialogue around climate change by imagining how we may come to eat in the not-so-distant future when our favorite foods are in scarcity.

GhostFoodLogo

When we eat, what we are actually “tasting” is the synthesis of taste, smell, and texture—a fusion that collectively creates the food’s flavor. Drawing from this basic physiology, Simun + Songster have designed a 3D-printed headset that dispenses specially manufactured fragrances that—when combined with an edible textural analog—conjure up a taste + flavor reminiscent of these endangered dishes. So as you munch on flaky cod-substitute, your nose is fed the fragrance of the fish. On fashioning this future dining experience, Simun says:

We are creating this experience where you’re eating these foods, but you have to wear this special device and you’re not eating very much. It’s this interesting thing—an instant nostalgia for what you have right now. Because we welcome people into this near-future experience where this is the way you eat peanut butter or this is the way you eat cod and this is the only way it’s available.

With prices on the rise, foods that were once cheap mealtime staples are experiencing the economic effects of scarcity. But behind the ever-increasing price tags lie real-life species that are under ecological threat as their habitats have turned hostile. The GhostFood menu draws from at-risk species across three ecosystems: ocean, grasslands + rainforest.

ghost-foods-1

Overfishing aside, our climate-changed oceans have created uncomfortably warm waters for cod—nearing the top of cod’s livable temperature range—while changing currents have led to depletion of their nutrient-rich food sources. Up on land, seasonal changes in rain + temperature patterns have created prime conditions for toxic molds to flourish on our favorite crops, including corn, wheat, and peanuts. And with rainforests bearing the burden of deforestation, drought, and rising temperatures, the world’s cocoa supply is also at risk as cocoa trees are unable to beat the heat, not to mention the rise in disease and pests due to devastating disturbances in ecological order.

By creating this fundamentally different // highly ritualized dining experience, GhostFood innovatively takes these species off the supermarket shelves, challenging tasters to place each food in its ecological context. As Songster explains:

Certainly there’s an intention for this experience to have some emotional resonance—and hopefully through that resonance people are able to think about the species from an emotional perspective. We’re giving people this very hands-on, me-centered experience of eating and smelling—because it doesn’t get more personal and self-involved than actually eating. And yet we’re also hoping that the emotional impact of the experience will allow people to step back and actually think about the species as not just food.

The quasi-apocalyptic aside, these foods were carefully curated based also on their place in the North American diet—each dish made all the more poignant + pungent by its familiarity. Interestingly, the fragrances of these dishes are fed directly to your nose, appealing to your olfactory sensibilities, which are intimately tied to memory. The region of the brain responsible for sensing scent—the olfactory bulb—is actually a member of the brain’s limbic system, which plays an important role in long-term memory + emotional life. Songster adds:

There’s a historical memory in the experiences of eating these foods, which makes them more meaningful for people. But it also creates a little bit of friction between what you’re eating now and what you remember eating. We’re mimicking these foods, but we’re not necessarily trying to create an exact replica. We know that there is going to be a gap there and that gap is part of what this opening is about—to ask, “What is it like to eat this way?” And to think to yourself that it’s sort of the same, but it isn’t really the same—there’s something both exciting about it being different, and also maybe sad about it being different.

But beyond the emotional, this familiarity supplies a necessary frame of reference for this out-of-the-ordinary culinary experience—a gastronomical anchor to our present-day // everyday reality. By simultaneously imparting excitement for possible foodie futures to come, while providing a taste [or lack thereof] of what diners stand to lose, the GhostFood experience distills the conflict that comes with progress. “Augmenting reality and simulating things is a popular way to go in terms of technology today,” Simun notes. “So all of that came together into this device that would use our olfactory sense to compensate for the species that we are losing due to other decisions that we make.”

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: "There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect's way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?"

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: “There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect’s way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?”

 

Given the basic physiology of flavor perception, creating effective food + flavor combinations posed an interesting challenge. Early in the project, Simun + Songster consulted with scent experts at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center, later teaming up with flavor + fragrance company Takasago to engineer the GhostFood aromas evoking the flavors of these phantom dishes. Songster laughs, “When we went to meet them they had some of their bigger perfume brands on display—for example, Victoria’s Secret. Meanwhile, we’re asking them to do the smell of fish!” Creating the GhostFood flavors posed an interesting challenge for the group based on the physiology of flavor perception.

An inevitable consequence of any simulation is its imperfection—its ability to only approximate and not replicate the real thing. And, to me, that is the real beauty of GhostFood’s design. Food fragrance is typically perceived both through the back of the mouth—retronasally—and directly through the nostrils—orthonasally. In fact, certain odor molecules—including chocolate—activate different parts of the brain depending on whether they are delivered through the mouth or through the nose. However, the GhostFood device only feeds scent through the orthonasal route, creating an interesting neurological // physiological experiment, while viscerally highlighting that GhostFood is indeed a simulation of a well-known + well-loved epicurean experience and not the real deal as we know it now.

Perhaps most exciting of all is GhostFood’s unique take on the edible future that goes beyond our favorite sci-fi forecasts for the future—those bare-bones // on-the-run pastes + pellets. Instead, Simun + Songster creatively re-imagine the future of not only our food, but also our culture, highlighting how the innovations of a very tangible future stand to re-invent the rituals of hearth + home. Simun shares:

In a way it is sci-fi because we’re using 3D-printed technology and we’re using signs and the language of the future. But in other ways we’re doing the polar opposite: we’re making eating even more complicated and even more sensorial and even more multi-faceted than all these other dominant visions of what food is in the future—where it’s just a pellet or a paste or an injection and you’ll never need to eat again—which only look at the role of food in human life in a very singular, small way.

For a firsthand taste of the future, find GhostFood in a street-parked food truck near you! On what to expect, Simun slyly mentions: “We have GhostFood staff that we’ve hired to run the truck… our food is unique so our staff is trained in a special way too. Just as we imagine eating to be different in this GhostFood future, we imagine service to be different also.”

ghostfood-trailersketch

GhostFood makes its premiere at Pop Up Place for DesignPhiladelphia 2013’s benefit launch party // October 9th 6-9 pm. And be sure to catch the truck as it hits the streets for Marfa Dialogues/NY: October 11th 6-10 pm, October 12th 12-6 pm, and October 13th 11-4 pm @ Gallery Aferro, Newark, NJ // October 15th 6-8 pm @ Robert Rauschenberg Project Space, New York, NY.