The Mediterranean is nearly a locked sea between the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. The fourteen kilometers-Strait of Gibraltar, the Greeks’ Pillars of Hercules, connects the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. The Greeks considered the Pillars to be the western end of the known world.
The Mediterranean is more than a sea. Pregrad Matvejevic, a Central European writer from the Pannonian plains of Croatia, insists that the Mediterranean is also more than geography, history, and national cultures. The Mediterranean, he says, is fathomless:
“Its boundaries are drawn in neither space nor time. There is in fact no way of drawing them: they are neither ethnic nor historical, state nor national; they are like a chalk circle that is constantly traced and erased, that the winds and waves, that obligations and inspirations expand or reduce. The Mediterranean shores have seen not only the silk route but also the crisscrossing of many others: routes of salt and spices, amber and ornaments, oils and perfumes, tools and arms, skills and knowledge, arts and sciences. Hellenic emporia were markets and embassies; Roman roads spread power and civilization; Asian soil provided prophets and religions. Europe was conceived on the Mediterranean.”
The poetry of Matvejevic does capture the truth about the Mediterranean, the birthplace of very ancient cultures like those of Egypt, Phoenicia, Israel, Greece and Rome. Greeks gave both the name and substance of Europe. Greece and Israel brought forth all that we call civilization.
Greece gave us epic poetry, drama, philosophy, science, modern-like technology, political theory, democracy, architecture and the arts. And Israel gave rise to monotheism that sowed Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean. A crude mixture of Greek thought with Christianity and Islam developed the prevailing cultures of the Mediterranean.
The break with nature and Greek civilization turned out to be bad for the Western world, especially for the beautiful natural world of the Mediterranean.
However, even when the world had many gods, humans caused some damage to the natural world. Building navies, for instance, demanded wood, plenty of it. And mining copper in Cyprus, iron in Asia Minor, tin in Phoenicia, mercury in Egypt, Spain, Rome and the Adriatic coast, silver or gold in Greece or Asia and Egypt left some kind of a footprint on the land. But ancient Greeks and Romans in northern Mediterranean or Egyptians in the southern Mediterranean, unlike modern people, did not even think of controlling nature that, to them, was full of gods.
The Greeks and other ancient people of the Mediterranean had been plying the sea for centuries, using it like a highway for travel, communication, trade and exploration.
The Greeks cannot be understood without their intimate contact with the Aegean and Ionian seas, which are sections of the Mediterranean. Homer spoke about the Mediterranean as the “wine-dark sea.”
The Romans dreamt of the Mediterranean as Mare Magnum, Mare Internum or Mare Nostrum (the great sea, the internal sea or our sea).
Plato paints a picture of the Greeks living and working on the shores of the Mediterranean like ants and frogs in a pond or swamp.
Poseidon, the mighty brother of the chief Greek god, Zeus, was the god of all oceans and seas, particularly the Mediterranean. The ocean or Okeanos was a Titan and a son of Ouranos (the heaven or sky). Okeanos encircled the Earth with water.
The god-like protagonist of Homer, Odysseus, crossed Okeanos to enter Hades.
Homer also portraits Okeanos on the shield of the Trojan War Greek hero Achilleus. The god of metallurgy Hephaistos crafted the shield of Achilleus. Okeanos, with his “deep-running waters,” is the source of all seas, rivers, groundwater, and streams of the Earth.
Okeanos and his wife Tethys gave birth to the “whirling rivers” Neilos (Nile), Alpheios, Eridanos, Strymon, Maiandros, Istros, Phasis, Rhesos, Acheloos, Haliakmon and “divine” Skamandros.
All these rivers are spread in Greece, southeastern Europe and Asia Minor and, of course, Nile in Africa.
Zeus’ first wife, Metis, a water goddess of intelligence, was the mother of Athena, goddess of war, wisdom, the olive tree, and the arts and crafts. And the first natural philosopher of the Greeks was Thales who lived in the seventh century BCE and gave water primacy in the origins and development of life. The Earth, Thales said, was floating on water.
Thus water, the natural world, and the Mediterranean were essential for the rise and growth of Greek civilization. The Romans shared the Greek ideas about the natural world. The Greeks and Romans had a very limited impact on nature and the Mediterranean. The real damage to the natural world, what we call “environment,” is a product of our times.
Rapid population growth among the Asian and African countries bordering the Mediterranean has been bad for a healthy sea. To the pollution of large populations, add the voracious appetites for fish and minerals of the northern Mediterranean industrialized countries (France, Italy and Spain) and you compound the ecological crisis.
However, the present tsunami of ceaseless exploitation is nothing but a continuation by other means of the centuries-old contempt and hidden hatred between Mediterranean Christians and Moslems and their abuse of the natural world. These unchecked and unrecognized forces exacerbate the tensions of more and more people fishing, logging, and mining, dumping of wastes, and, in general, destroying life in the Mediterranean.
Monotheistic religions see nothing wrong with this kind of behavior. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders keep talking about human “stewardship” of the Earth’s “resources.” Moslem leaders remain silent.
Only the powerless Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, has condemned undermining life on the planet. It took courage saying, “biodiversity… was not granted to humanity for its unruly control… dominion over the earth and its environs implies rational use and enjoyment of the benefits, and not destructive acquisition of its resources out of a sense of greed.”
The ecological position of Patriarch Bartholomew is modest, yet timely and admirable in the monotheistic religious tradition. But Patriarch Bartholomew is a Turkish citizen reporting to Turkish Islamic authorities. Being a willful prisoner of Turkey nullifies his influence. His ecological message is likely to have minimum if any impact.
The ecological silence of Christianity is shared by Western academics. These are “educated” men and women who serve for the most part the interests of the capitalist ruling class. With some rare exceptions, they equate the control of nature, now verging on ecological cannibalism, to “economic development.”
Nevertheless, there are also capitalists who care for the natural world, especially for the Mediterranean. One such man was Aurelio Peccei, an Italian scholar and industrialist.
In the early 1970s, he praised the noble history of ancient Mediterranean and damned the destructive record of modern times. The Mediterranean, he said, “has been the cradle of many shining cultures, and it has nurtured Western civilization… No other sea or ocean has been so central to human history. None has been for so many hope and life. Now the Mediterranean is sick, probably very sick. It is pillaged and wounded by the very people it has benefited, soiled and poisoned by human refuse, sacrificed to human greed, improvidence and power struggles.”
Peccei hit the nail on the head. About 150 million people live in the coast of the Mediterranean. These people belong to 21 countries divided by wealth, poverty, climate, culture and religion.
The northern countries are Western European and Christian and the eastern and southern are Moslem, Asian and African. The northern countries, especially Spain, France and Italy, are rich with mighty industries. This means they have the mechanized power of exploiting the Mediterranean the most, which they do, leaving a deleterious footprint on the sea.
Spain, France and Italy also belong to the European Union, an agglomeration of 27 European countries that, if they ever become a real union, they would make up the largest economy on Earth.
While most of the EU countries are not Mediterranean countries, their largest rivers (Rhone, Ebro and Po) full of natural and man-made effluents, empty in the waters of the Mediterranean. This makes EU countries a very decisive power in the Mediterranean. The state of EU air, land, and water is a matter of life and death for the Mediterranean.
It must have been this ecological threat hovering over all of Europe and the Mediterranean that prompted Jacques Delors, a leading French politician and president of the Commission of the European Community – precursor of the EU – to question the emerging genetic engineering of food.
This was 1989, seven years before that technology hit the market. “We need a code of ethics for man,” he said, “we need to promote our concept of the individual and his integrity. Nature, whether pillaged or neglected, strikes back with disturbances and upheavals. So we also need a code of ethics governing the relationship between man and nature.”
Not many politicians think like Delors. A code of ethics regulating human behavior toward the natural world is still a dream. No wonder environmental protection was barely mentioned, and mentioned only parenthetically in the formal founding of the EU, the Maastricht Treaty ratified in 1993.
Now in the thirteenth year of the twenty-first century, all the rivers draining into the Mediterranean disgorge loads of chemicals and radioactive wastes that the natural world cannot detoxify or assimilate.
In addition, oil exploration and a heavy traffic of oil tankers and countless pleasure and tourist boats coated with anti-fouling biocides pollute the sea with long-lasting toxic chemicals and petroleum. Oil in the water does more than cripple and kill fish, birds and mammals. Petroleum dissipates the oxygen in seawater.
Add nitrogen and other agricultural wastes loaded with pesticides, antibiotics and other drugs and you have the makings of dead zones, large expanses of the sea without oxygen and fish and wildlife, in other words, sea deserts and death traps for migrating fish and mammals. Nitrogen and other “nutrients” feed algae in the water. Algae blooms deplete oxygen and the sea without oxygen becomes death for animals.
As if this pollution was not sufficiently destructive of life in the Mediterranean, one has to add toxic waste disposal. In other words, countries regularly load boats with industrial wastes and dump them into the sea. The Mediterranean also was a battleground for the world wars of the twentieth century. Three million tons of ships and munitions, including nerve gas weapons, are spread or buried all over the bottom of the sea.
The environmental degradation of the Mediterranean alarmed Greenpeace, an American non-profit environmental protection organization. In 1991, Greenpeace published a lavishly illustrated book about the deleterious effects of “civilization” on life in this ancient sea.
Xavier Pastor, the coordinator of Greenpeace’s Mediterranean Project and editor of the book, summarized quite succinctly the fate of the Mediterranean Sea.
“The Mediterranean,” he said, “is one of the most beautiful of seas, one of phenomenal richness and variety. But, since the 1960s, the Mediterranean has been appallingly abused. In parts of the north and west, industrial waste is poured directly into the sea, while on the south coast and in the east, many countries striving for development are adopting the very technologies that have been shown to be so damaging in the European countries. Urban wastewater is discharged into the sea without any kind of treatment. Oil tankers leave behind them a trail of pollution. The fishing grounds are relentlessly exploited, while creatures such as the monk seal, the marine turtles and the dolphins are in real danger of disappearing from the sea.”
The Greenpeace book is replete with horror stories of environmental pollution: The Italian Po River that used to be “magical” in purity of water and healing powers, became a huge ditch of sewage and industrial filth full of hundreds of tons of the toxic metals mercury, arsenic and lead and persistent synthetic poisons – all discharged into the Mediterranean. The book describes the Mediterranean Sea as “mare sporco” or dirty sea, the dirtiness being a result of “a massive increase in pollution from homes, from industry and from intensive farming.”
Fishing adds to this tragedy. To get their hands on red coral, for example, criminal businessmen have their ships drag across the sea floor a six-meter “Italian bar,” weighing more than a ton. This bar destroys everything on its path, including corals.
Fishing boats also use longlines to catch tuna. These lines are more than 100-kilometers long with about 2,000 hooks. This fishing method, no less violent than the Italian bar, catches all kinds of fish, including tuna, sharks, and endangered turtles.
Finally, the Greenpeace book reports on a company that every day, for almost 30 years, dumped 7,000 tons of toxic mud into the waters of Portman Bay, Murcia, in southeastern Spain.
United Nations agencies expanded on the 1991 study of Greenpeace. In 2010, the UN Environment Programme summarized the scientific evidence on biodiversity and fishing in the Mediterranean.
The UN report confirms that the Mediterranean Sea is rich in biodiversity: it has 1,882 plant and animal species, 364 of which are endemic.
Yet, despite this wealth of life, the Mediterranean continues to be abused. Its dunes and coastal wetlands, full of animals and plants, are in sharp decline. Greenpeace was right: Fishing wild fish continues to be the greatest threat to life in the Mediterranean.
Industrial fishing fleets exploit the Mediterranean Sea like there’s no tomorrow. They catch about 1,500,000 to 1,700,000 tons of fish every year. But in the process of capturing fish fit for sale they also catch enormous number and amounts of fish, which, dying or dead, they dump back into the sea. These “discards” or “non-commercial species” sometimes account for as much as 75 percent of the daily catch. For example, in the 1980s, fleets fishing the waters of Sicily discarded about 70,000 tons of fish per year. The “discards” averaged 44 to 72 percent of the catch.
Italy, Turkey, Spain, Greece, Tunisia and Algeria fish 85 percent of the total fish caught in the Mediterranean. “Professional fisheries” include small-scale and industrial-scale fishing fleets. Artisanal or small-scale fisheries use trammel, traps, gillnets and long lines to catch fish. Industrial fisheries scoop the fish from the sea with trawlers, purse seine, large long lines and driftnet.
The UN Environment Programme report concluded that fishing “gear” has had and is having dreadful effects on both fish and the sea environment that enables the fish to survive and flourish.
“Several fishing gears used by commercial fisheries,” said the report, “have harmful effects: ‘tonailles’ (nets for tuna), long lines and driftnets, especially used for tuna and swordfish fishing, as well as fine-mesh fixed nets set for over-long periods (often at night), dragged beach seines and bottom trawling. All these are responsible for physical damage to the seabed and the degradation of associated communities.”
This is diplomatic language for tremendous destruction and loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea. High levels of fish exploitation and over-fishing are the norm. Fishing fleets don’t hesitate to fish with illegal gears and methods like: trawling in shallow waters; using dynamite to kill fish; employing large driftnets and illegal mesh sizes of net.
As a result of these violent ways of seizing fish, the population of fish, both commercial and non-commercial, is dramatically falling. Fish habitats like Posidonia oceanica meadows and coral beds are being wrecked. The Posidonia oceanica meadows, nurseries of fish and other wild animals, are “the most important ecosystems” of the Mediterranean.
“Harvesting” the top predators is “fishing down marine trophic food webs.” In other words, such “fishing” methods are no better than plunder, leaving fish communities in chaos.
Industrial fisheries go after juvenile fish like: eel, grouper, brown meager, red mullet, and flounder. This unsustainable, yet high tech attack on fish has cascading and deleterious effects throughout the societies of fish and the future of the Mediterranean Sea.
Aquaculture causes its own ecological and social problems. For example, catching blue fin tuna and fattening them with “highly threatened fish”
in cage-farming facilities has deleterious effects: it is “greatly contributing to the collapse of tuna stocks.” This practice decimates small fish like mackerel.
The “fishmeal” for farmed tuna and other farmed fish comes from all over the world. Peru, for example, catches 5 to 10 million tons of anchovies every year and sells most of them as fishmeal to European and American fish farmers. Half of the population of Peru, however, lives under severe poverty and 25 percent of its infants don’t have enough to eat.
Second, a large amount of wild fish – about 30 million tons per year -- goes to feed farmed fish and chicken and pigs. Indeed, chicken and pigs in America eat six times more fish than Americans do and, in Japan, they consume twice as much.
The countries of the Mediterranean are well aware of the abuse and poisoning of their sea. But they have yet to take decisive action to bring this violence to an end. In 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly, a European non-profit organization, denounced the EU for its indifference towards the Mediterranean.
“If Europe wants a real international role,” said the Parliamentary Assembly, “it cannot afford to ignore the Mediterranean basin. Europe and the Mediterranean have become so interdependent strategically that they obviously need to forge special partnerships.”
In 2008, 98.9 percent of sea areas protected were coastal areas. And 73 percent of protected coastal areas belonged to the northern countries. But, in 2008, only 3.8 percent of the Mediterranean Sea was under any kind of protection.
Yet, the Mediterranean countries have ratified the Barcelona Convention (signed in February 16, 1976; put into force in February 12, 1978, and revised in Barcelona, Spain, on June 10, 1995). This is a treaty designed for the protection of the marine environment and the coastal regions of the Mediterranean.
However, business-as-usual prevail in the Mediterranean. The Parliamentary Assembly said the Barcelona Declaration “has not yet lived up to expectations.”
In 2012, the UN Environment Programme reported, “ecosystems degradation continues” in the Mediterranean. This translates into coastal development and sprawl, destructive fishing and over-fishing, urban and industrial pollution, petroleum pollution from marine industries, and the inevitable expansion of the dead zones.
Xavier Pastor reminded us in 1991 that the 1960s, which we usually associate with the emergence of the environmental movement, was a dark time for the Mediterranean. The 1960s was a turning point in the “abuse” of the Mediterranean because, by the sixth decade of the twentieth century, a new post-WWII science, technology and economy took hold not merely of the Mediterranean but the Earth.
The proponents of this new vision of how corporations gain power and make money advocated a ceaseless industrialization of both economy and society, leaving practically no respect for traditional knowledge and the natural world.
Peasants were branded “backward”; the seas and the oceans became tanks full of fish, and spaces for human wastes, vast lakes for petroleum extraction; and waters were avenues for transportation and navies. Forests became fields for private timber companies practicing logging. Even “parks” did not escape exploitation.
This hazardous delusion of replacing the peasants and traditional culture with industrialized farmers, and privatizing and ruthlessly exploiting the natural world, infected more than private corporate executives and governments, which, after all, had the models of nineteenth-century robber barons in mind. Scientists ate from this fruit of ignorance, too. They and their engineering colleagues modernized the infrastructure of exploitation. They made it “science based.”
What is happening in the Mediterranean is also happening in other seas all over the world. Those with large fishing machines cannibalize the fish and mammals of the sea.
With the exception of a few powerless citizens’ organizations, no state is protesting such barbarism because the “international community” has legalized those abhorrent practices. This makes the “international community” guilty of the destruction of life on Earth. Another way of seeing this madness is saying “civilizations” are becoming criminal.
In the case of the Mediterranean, the northern Mediterranean countries boast material wealth, technological prowess, and Western culture. If these countries with the knowledge and the wherewithal fail to clean their front yard, what hope is there for the countries in the east and south of the Mediterranean, which are simply catching up to what they see in the north?
Time has come for the countries of the Mediterranean – Christian, Moslem and secular -- to wake up. They need to rethink their ancient histories and present dire environmental predicament. Global warming makes the current danger even more acute.
The countries of the Mediterranean and Europe must end the exploitation of the Mediterranean immediately: control tourism, lessening its severe ecological impacts; and control population growth in the east and south to avoid inevitable ecological collapse and massive hunger; ban destructive fishing practices, stop pollution and terminate oil drilling.
Reform agriculture on the playbook of traditional farming: make it, once again, a way of life. End animal factories. Return to family farms where animals and crops are raised together.
The Parliamentary Assembly was right: “Agriculture is the basis of Mediterranean identity and decisive for the region’s societies.”
Finally, clean up the floor of the Mediterranean Sea of all weapons and munitions and hazardous wastes. Don’t reignite war in the Mediterranean. The civil wars in Syria and Egypt threaten to spread in the Middle East. Their spill over effect will further pollute and degrade the vulnerable sea.
For all these reasons make the entire Mediterranean a protected park. Let the ancient wine-dark sea recover its beauty and wildlife. The people of this basin and all of Europe, and the world, deserve no less.