Anelise Chen is the Daily’s “mollusk” correspondent. This week, the mollusk worries about how to maintain barriers in a dissolving world.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the early nineties, the mollusk had worried often about acid rain. Spawned in Taiwan, on an island choked with lush, photosynthetic matter, the mollusk had felt most at home among wet, squishy kin. Rain was not yet something to fear; she would play in it alongside the snails and polliwogs who lived in the shallow puddles by her house. But after she moved to LA, there was nothing but cars and smog, which clung in the air like the toxic atmosphere on Venus. Eventually, the mollusk learned that the smog precipitated into acid rain, which—her fourth-grade science teacher said—could sear the hair right off your head. The rain was just as acidic as lemon juice, and it had the power to corrode a car’s expensive paint job! Her teacher always seemed bitterly emphatic on this point, as though he had suffered personal losses. He told his students to construct rain catchers out of liter soda bottles and hang them outside. One dark afternoon, the mollusk heard pitter-patter on the roof. When the rain ceased, she ran out with her packet of pH strips. She watched in high suspense as the water absorbed into the strip, streaking it a dark, insalubrious yellow, just like Venus: acid rain.
From then on, the young mollusk felt she had to take necessary precautions when exposed to the elements. Humans had made the outdoors unsafe: the sun gave you cancer because there was a hole in the ozone, and particulates from pollution crystallized in your lungs like fiberglass. In middle school, during that period when she and her dad still enjoyed stupefying themselves on bad sci-fi films, she would often be struck by the cold, encapsulated life of the future. Space was the most inhospitable place she could imagine. All adventures took place within the life-preserving bubble of the space suit, but one’s breath was always clouding up the scenery. Gruesome murders were easy to carry out—all you had to do was push the victim out of the air shaft, where, exposed to subzero, gravity-free space, their skin petrified on contact and exploded into shards of ice.
These days, the threat of dissolution still worries the mollusk, though she has managed to build a strong-enough shell (and keep all of her hair). But despite her efforts at fastidiousness, somehow the acid has found its way inside. The mollusk sits on the crinkly paper at the doctor’s office while he grills her for answers. Have you had many stressors lately? Do you smoke? Drink coffee? How about hard liquor? Eat a lot of french fries? The mollusk’s face reddens—her mother is there in the room with her—I mean, yes, she confesses, all of the above. The doctor sighs and gruffly presses on the tender spots in her belly. The stomach ailment she’s suffered since November has worsened into gastritis, an inflammation of the lining caused by too much acid. She may also have a gallbladder infection. The doctor orders an ultrasound and tells her not to be too stressed. At the pharmacy, to pick up her acid-reducing medication, the pharmacist hashes out the importance adhering to the BRAT diet. The acronym stands for bananas, rice, something else, and something else. But somehow it sounds like an accusation, a prognosis of her character.
November. That was the season every email was framed with an apology. “I’m sorry—I’m sorry about this addled reply.” Not just her; everyone was apologizing for being frazzled, confused, overextended, sad. Bombarded with input. Quitting social media. Going out for a run. Now it’s June. In her headphones, she hears the president: “We’re getting out,” he says. The mollusk is in her room, vigorously plowing the manual floor sweeper around the carpet in a feeble attempt to save electricity. He is talking about the Paris Climate Accords: “Staying in the agreement could also pose serious obstacles for the United States as we begin the process of unlocking the restrictions on America’s abundant energy reserves, which we have started, very strongly … ”
That’s about all she can take. She has to turn off the radio. As though there were an “out” to get out into! Ulcerous pains radiate through her stomach, but she “vacuums” on, doubled over. What else can she do? No action is ever enough. The barrier between her mind and the outside world wears thin. Once upon a time, the mollusk could immerse herself in NPR for hours at a time without any problems. Now she can only dip in for short periods before retracting back into her shell. Each point of contact feels like a bright shock of hurt, like metal scraped against a sore tooth. But the more she hears about walls, borders, barriers, and checkpoints, the more she tries to erect them mentally. One friend has resorted to hiding her phone in a drawer; another has dropped his in the toilet, twice. It is their way of maintaining barriers.
There is no longer any safe place to hide. With her phone charging far in another room, the mollusk tries to read. She is reading about mollusks’ natural buffering mechanisms, her favorite subject. She reads how shells are likely made through neural control, secreted through something called the mantle, a fleshy hood that separates the internal organs from the outside. The mantle, filled with nerves that connect to clusters of ganglia, may be the closest thing the mollusk has to a brain. In many ways, the shell is like the mollusk’s story. It licks the edge of the shell as one would the nib of a pen to see where it has left off. Or consider the cuttlefish, which likely thinks with its mantle, a tissue of pure empathy, able to hold, for several seconds, the exact impression of the finger that touches it. This useful, miraculous camouflage is now being studied by the military to develop invisibility suits for soldiers …
And like that, the chapters darken, bit by bit. Chapters on anoxic waters, plastic whirlpools, collapsed island economies, fatal temperatures. Like encountering a WebMD entry about one’s exact symptoms, confirming the inevitability of a precipitous demise, she gets to the part about the acidic seas. For mollusks condemned to the sea, their shells are dissolving into nothing.
It is 110 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona. Aside from the tufts of tumbleweed, jerky-like strips of busted rubber litter the highway from tires that have blown out. The traffic starts and stops, starts and stops. Waves of heat wobble over the asphalt. The temperature feels antiseptic. It doesn’t seem to want to harbor life. The mollusk watches everyone scuttle carefully from air-conditioned space to air-conditioned space.
She is heading south to a place called Oracle to visit Biosphere 2, a scientific research facility run by the University of Arizona. She is going there to learn about ocean acidification. When the mollusk pulls up to the three-acre compound, it feels a little bit like landing in outer space. Glass and steel structures—ziggurats, domes, cubes—rise out of the desert landscape.
It was originally conceived as a space-colonization project. In the late 1980s, eight Biospherians had lived here, when it was still a self-sustaining pod that mimicked several of Earth’s biomes, enclosed under glass like a modern ark. For two years, the Biospherians would grow their own food and live on recycled air and water. But the project was doomed—once the doors were sealed, the Biospherians soon lost control of their atmosphere. The plants were supposed to transform the carbon dioxide into oxygen, but something wasn’t right: oxygen levels kept dropping while carbon-dioxide levels kept rising. Bees died out, and ants and cockroaches took over. The ocean biome collapsed. The eight Biospherians, wheezing with oxygen deprivation, split into factions and wasted away from starvation and exhaustion. Biosphere 2 had inadvertently provided a glimpse into a high-carbon future.
Later, after the original experiment was deemed a failure, Columbia University took over and developed B2 into a credible research facility. It was during this time that Chris Langdon, the scientist tasked with rehabilitating the ocean biome, discovered that the pH of the water was more acidic than usual—as would be expected from a high carbon-dioxide environment.
Ocean acidification is the other, less known consequence of runaway carbon. The ocean, which covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, actually serves as a huge carbon sink, absorbing around 2.5 petagrams of carbon every year. A popular illustration for the immensity of this number: it is equal to a railroad train filled with carbon that stretches across the globe fourteen times.
The ocean is one of Earth’s built-in buffering systems, but when carbon is dissolved in seawater, it creates carbonic acid, which then reacts with carbonate ions, leaving less carbonate available in the water for calcifiers—like corals and certain mollusks—to form their shells. When the saturation is low, marine calcifiers expend more energy to gather the same amount of material, while corrosive waters work simultaneously to dissolve existing shells. The stress often proves too much for these organisms, and they grow sick and die.
Right now, the ocean is more acidic than it has been in the last twenty million years. Oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest have experienced mass die-offs because oyster larvae are literally getting dissolved into nothing. Important marine calcifiers called pteropods, a vital part of several marine food chains, are also dissolving. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration note a marked difference in the quality of some pteropod shells, which now look pocked and scarred. “Imagine trying to build a house when someone keeps stealing your bricks,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes of this process in her book The Sixth Extinction. Visiting volcanic vents where carbon naturally bubbles out of the rock, Kolbert describes what’s left of the tenacious limpet, tough little mollusks that clutch powerfully to rocks and build wave-resistant, armor-like shells. The limpets she saw were marred with gaping, open wounds. “Their shells have wasted away almost to the point of transparency.”
The mollusk stands at the shore of the Biosphere’s enclosed sea. Underneath the smudged glass dome, the light looks dreamy. The moist air smells of salt and algae. At the far end, a group of teachers in scuba gear bobs at the surface, their voices garbled by echoes. The mollusk bends down to look at the hermit crabs feeding in the rocky crags, shoveling algae into their mouths. Once in awhile a breeze blows through. B2’s deputy director, John Adams, tells her this seawater was trucked in all those years ago from San Diego, but now they maintain it using a mixture called “Instant Ocean … ”
The mollusk gazes up at the sky above, crosshatched with glass. She imagines she’s in outer space. The boom and whoosh of the wave machine is regular and hypnotic. Imagine if these artificial waves were the only clock, she thinks. Because in outer space, it might be dark all the time, like the city built on train tracks to speed away from the burning sun. Imagine if you knew this swimming pool–size room was all that was left of the sea. Worst of all, imagine knowing you couldn’t leave.
She hears John and A., her traveling companion, quietly discussing the transformation of Biosphere 2 into an open or “flow through” system. Yes! Why not! Let the outside in! An imaginary sci-fi film plays in her head: the astronaut/alien fighter is reaching for that magic button, the one that will break the seal—it’s a move that seems completely suicidal!—and everyone at the control center is screaming, Stop! What are you Doing! but she pushes the button, and the ceiling opens wide like a mouth, and one second passes, two seconds pass, and there is absolute stillness, and everyone waits, until the astronaut throws back her head to laugh—I can breathe!—as the blue yawns in.
When the mollusk asks Dr. Julia Cole, the current research director of B2’s ocean biome, if she would lay out the absolute nightmare vision if all marine calcifiers die off, the mollusk knows she has asked a question that no marine lover can answer without anchoring deep into some pool of despair. But Dr. Cole answers gamely. Well, for one, she says, the ocean is going to be slimier, darker. Unquestionably, there will be winners and losers in the new environment. Organisms such as jellyfish and squid might do particularly well in corrosive environments.
Slime and darkness, she thinks. And winning. It’s all about winning. Perhaps the legions of slime have already taken over.
But consider the naked coral hypothesis, Dr. Cole adds. This might work for you as a metaphor: There exist certain species of coral that can tolerate dramatic changes in pH. When placed in an acidic environment, these corals will simply lose the shell and grow large and flexible, like sea ferns. Then, when placed back into a normal, alkaline environment, the coral will calcify once again and regain its normal shape.
“Sealing ourselves off from the dangerous outside appears animated by a yearning to resolve the vulnerability and helplessness produced by myriad global forces and flows coursing through nations today,” the political scientist Wendy Brown writes in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Confronted with dissolution, “walls—solid, visible walls—are demanded when the constitutive political horizon for the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ is receding.” Driving back to Los Angeles, the mollusk slows to enter a checkpoint at the border between Arizona and California. But since she is a single Asian woman in an unassuming car, they wave her on through. It feels like an elaborate formality, almost deliberately ineffective, as far as function goes. For whose sake are these checkpoints enacted?
She has no doubt that the desire to enclose, to sequester, to clam down, comes from a place of sincere anxiety. She has no doubt that when certain people refuse to acknowledge that the same air and water cycle around the globe, or, especially, that America doesn’t exist in a bubble, it is to protect a sacred and urgent sense of sovereignty. But how will one clam down when the materials for shell building—food security, clean water, breathable air, health care, education, basic tolerance, those things each citizen needs to be protected—are quickly being eroded away, often by the very same methods of exclusion?
Walls and shells, it seems, are erected as a response to painful experiences, but not every organism has the luxury of erecting one. Not every nation can build sea walls to shield them from rising seas, or the destructive storms that will come. Not every person can get on a plane to “get away from it all” or insulate themselves with increasingly elaborate rituals of self-care. For now, walls belong only to the powerful. And rapacious creatures can only expect rapacious behavior in return; they project their nature onto the rest of the world.
A future without shells. The mollusk can’t, for the moment, imagine a life without housing, the only defensive mechanism she has known until now. The mollusk waits with arms crossed next to the gas pump, staring at the illuminated red-and-yellow Shell Oil logo. It looms above her like a harbinger of some irrevocable long ago. She understands the absurdity of this situation—agonizing about the fate of the Earth while pumping gas. The origin story of Shell Oil feels romantic and irrelevant, simply one chapter in a bygone saga: In the early 1830s, a shopkeeper named Marcus Samuel built a fortune selling souvenir boxes mounted with beautiful shells from the Far East. With this wealth, his sons built the world’s first oil tanker to haul oil from the Caspian Sea to Japan. The ships bore the names of shells: Murex, Clam, Conch. It’s a cruel twist of irony: What allowed the company to come into existence might soon be made obsolete.
“Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create,” the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn says. He is looking out from the cliffs of Dunwich in East Anglia, where the once-thriving medieval city has since fallen into the sea. “From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around 18th century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unhealthy glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion.” For Sebald’s narrator, and indeed for Sebald himself, “human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour,” destined to burn to ash or to fall, piece by piece, back into the sea.
Interestingly, amid these meditations on the dissolution of human history, the narrator happens to look down from his perch on the cliff, where he sees a startling sight: a mollusk-like creature wriggling on the shore below, a kind of “two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of its prodigious species, its life ebbing from it with each breath expired through its nostrils.” The narrator stumbles back, aghast, even after he realizes what he is seeing: two entwined people copulating, one on top of the other, their limbs jerking in exertion. At the end of the world, it seems, one returns with a nightmare vision of a dying mollusk—or, the same thing—a vision of people, multiplying.
Catch up with Anelise Chen’s mollusk column here.
Anelise Chen is the author of So Many Olympic Exertions, out in August from Kaya Press. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University.