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Capital Accumulation in Coral Reefs

Capital Accumulation in Coral Reefs

Maya Weeks


Flying away from Bermuda at the beginning of hurricane season, coral reef in view, I am crying because I miss being so close to the ocean. Crying because of the scarcity of marine life I saw in the Gulf Stream while sailing from Key West: I didn’t see any dolphins and saw only one whale in the entire eight days at sea. Crying because of the trash I did see in the Gulf Stream. Crying because I miss my crewmates. Crying, still in awe of the fluorescent wetlands that we sailed from; I keep thinking about how in Florida I couldn’t tell the difference between asphalt and water—oil and water—when I landed in the tropics. Crying because coral reefs are supposed to be safe. 

Back on land, a crosswalk painted on the street looks like brain coral because of the overlay of tire marks on the asphalt. 

The first time I saw a coral reef with my own eyes I felt kindred with it, even from far overhead. After sailing from Key West, where I slept in a bunk abutting water where manatees and stingrays lived within walking distance of corals I didn’t—and don’t—know the names of, to Bermuda, coming back to coral felt like returning to a type of legibility. Even if that legibility was in an entirely different ecosystem from any I know or understand well. 

Kinship with coral reefs was not a feeling I expected. I’ve spent most of my life surfing in cold water: there are cold-water corals where I live, but they live mostly in the deep sea, at depths you have to scuba dive in to see (and that’s something I haven’t learned how to do yet). My body doesn’t consist of a “colony” of polyps living in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-celled dinoflagellates, as far as I know; nor does its skeleton continue to grow past a certain extent.

But perhaps we are not so different, corals and I. My body does exist in symbiosis with trillions of bacteria. Corals and I both spend vast quantities of time in saltwater. And we both need oxygen to live. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the polyps of brain coral are very closely integrated with one another. They’re able to pass nutrients, hormones, and oxygen amongst themselves; in this way, they communicate.

With warming sea temperatures from climate change caused by humans running businesses relying on petrochemicals, many corals are suffering coral bleaching, in which parts of the coral colonies die off as they release the dinoflagellates and turn white. Ocean water is rendered toxic by contaminants, again, produced by humans. Nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff (such as nitrates), chemicals produced by the burning of fossil fuels (such as mercury released when coal is burned), and wastewater effluent—namely, sewage—create oxygen-poor dead zones in which corals struggle to survive. Corals, like humans, are also at risk of infectious diseases likely associated with climate change. And all this transpires at the hand of capital for the sake of increasing profits to be able to engage in more of these activities, to make more money, to make more investments, to further increase profits. 

Wealth operates, similarly to the way brain coral polyps communicate, through networks. Capital accumulation is the process by which the rich get richer and forms the basis of capitalism. When you already have some wealth, you can use that wealth to invest in accumulating more wealth.

What does it mean when the effects of this acquisition of wealth—I am thinking here about how the eight richest people in the world, all men and all white or light-skinned, own half of the wealth in the world—are piling up in marine ecosystems in the form of carbon dioxide? The abundant carbon dioxide produced by the processes humans use to produce wealth, such as burning fossil fuels to power cargo ships, causes coral bleaching; the bleaching accumulates in coral as a form of violence. 

What does it mean when oil and gas “exploration,” real-estate development, tourism, and overfishing unleash their effects on the coral communities that live in the part of the world that produces more oxygen than anywhere else (namely, the ocean)? What about when pollution from these processes, including associated agriculture and wastewater treatment protocols, unleash their effects on these communities? What happens when the oceans, which moderate the climate of the entire planet, become too saturated with carbon dioxide to support life? 

In the water surrounding St. George, Bermuda, which we entered by sea, is a sea of coral. This reaffirms that what I really want in life is to slip into the ocean. Corals provide homes to countless species, all of whom are crucial for a thriving marine ecosystem. They provide human populations with food. Some deepwater corals on Cordell Bank off of California are over 1500 years old, among the longest-lived organisms on the planet. Coastal corals like the ones in Florida, Bermuda, and many other places protect terrestrial communities from storms. If the coral reefs surrounding Barbuda weren’t largely dead from profit-driven human activities, Hurricane Irma might not have hit the Caribbean island so hard and more people’s lives might be more intact. 

 As we witness the brutal effects of climate change, we are also witnessing the impacts of wealth predicated not just on the acquisition of goods and businesses, but on the total annihilation of life on Earth. We’re seeing coral reefs lost as collateral to global capitalism, such as when it was announced that a vast majority of the Great Barrier Reef was no longer living. Furthermore, these impacts of anthropogenic climate change aren’t restricted to coral reefs: people who are poor, especially people of color, whose wealth has already been extracted from them by capitalists, are the first ones to suffer the effects of climate change. After Irma, no one is living on Barbuda for the first time in 300 years; people from that particular tropical marine environment aren’t able to continue their lives as they knew them. An entire township on Taro Island in the Solomon Islands named Choiseul had to relocate due to climate change; many people from Kiribati now live in Australia. As human and nonhuman lives are at risk together, we’re seeing a need to think and work holistically and historically. We’re seeing a need to remember the ocean, where our species, and all those we exist beside, emerged from.

Interview with Elena Gross

Interview with Elena Gross

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Rachel Khong