Tank Crash

I used to keep marine aquariums, and I freakin’ loved it. Not just fish, no…I kept two different live coral reefs in my own living room. The small one was soft-bodied corals, the larger one was stony polyps. There were fish, yes, little flame hawkfish and small reef-safe coral beauties, and clownfish I had hand-raised from babies.

I murdered them all.

Amphiprion ocellaris, photo from an Advanced Aquarist article on raising clownfish.

In the aquarium trade, there’s a phenomenon called tank crash. It’s pretty awful: everything seems to be going along perfectly, and then…dead. It’s almost always sudden, and almost always appears to have no cause.

But “appears” to have no cause doesn’t mean there wasn’t a cause. There’s always a reason. Maybe the water chemistry is off. Maybe there’s gas buildup in the water. Maybe a fish wasn’t in quarantine and it introduced a new pathogen to the tank. There’s always a reason, maybe more than one, maybe more than fifty…

A tank crash can be prevented. If you follow basic animal husbandry practices, you can reduce the risks associated with critters; if you monitor the environment, you can reduce the risks associated with chemicals, heat swings, lighting…

I got sloppy, and things got dead. That’s on me. One day, I had two beautiful tanks humming along, and then next? All of these living things were dead. They had died on my watch. I had done this. Worse, while I practiced coral aquaculture, many of my fish had been live-caught from the wild.


I’m now obsessed with system crashes. The idea that everything is humming along, then…boom.


Here we are.

Here we are, living in a country where all of the smart people are screaming as loudly as they can that many of the systems we rely upon are strained to the point of breaking, that there is a finite amount of stress that can be placed on the rule of law before it breaks, that the farmlands are vanishing and those who work them are committing suicide in record numbers, that basic needs like housing and food and healthcare are increasingly crowdfunded

Of the many, many things which have enraged me during these past two years, I think the one that flips me to the red zone faster than anything is the argument that none of this is really new. That this point in history is no different than any other; that we have been at the brink before, and we have managed to keep on keeping on. To some extent, this is true. It is also an excuse to do jack shit about the current situation. That things have been bad before implies that our systems are capable of tolerating an infinite amount of stress. As I write this, the Senate is involved in a confirmation hearing in which a central question is whether what is lawful can still be immoral. This is in no way a novel discussion, but it is an important one: the fact that we have had it before, and will likely have it again, doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to have it now. Such discussions are a way to monitor the health of our governmental systems.

Right now, these particular systems aren’t doing so hot. When the laws don’t permit a course of action, one response is to ignore them. When the evidence doesn’t support a course of action, one response is to hide it.

Yes, this has been done before under other administrations.

No, this doesn’t mean we should ignore it now.

No, this doesn’t mean the system can’t eventually crash.

We have the ability to prevent the crash. This one is on us.


Published by KBSpangler

A freelance editor who writes novels, comics, and repairs a disaster of a house in her spare time: www.kbspangler.com

4 thoughts on “Tank Crash

  1. Most complex systems have a certain degree of what one might call homeostatic reserve— the ability to return to a former state after the system has been disturbed. You can demonstrate this at home: take one of the small springs that make a clicky-click ball point pen work. Stretch it out a little— it will snap back to its original shape. Now, stretch it a little harder… Eventually you will have stretched it so much that it won’t ever return to its prior state, no matter how hard you try to push it together.

    What we don’t know right now is just how much of the homeostatic reserve in the complex system of systems that is life on Earth we’ve used up. We don’t know the point where we’ve stretched the Earth too far, and it takes on a new stable form that could be incompatible with human civilization, or indeed with human life of any kind. If we don’t stop yanking on the spring, we’ll find out just where that point is— too late to do anything about it….

    1. Homeostatic reserve is one way to visualize to process. Another might be acceleration and inertia. Right now we are accelerating and inertia is working against us. Most of the proposals for addressing this amount to taking our foot off the accelerator, i.e. cutting our output of carbon dioxide and ammonia. What is needed are processes that can begin to apply the brakes. One such that I am aware of that can be applied on a small scale/local level is biochar; a charcoal product that can be made locally from ag or forestry waste, invasive species etc. and take the carbon that plants have removed from the air and turn it into a form that will remain in the soil for a thousand years or more rather than 50 – 100. This is also the material that is burning up in the forest and range fires happening worldwide. For more information, I recommend “Biochar For Environmental Management” (Try a library; it’s expensive.) and some of the resources available through https://www.biochar-international.org/ibi-publications/#research_summaries.

  2. As a farmer, albeit a small-scale one, I very much appreciate your points. As an agricultural and environmental scientist, even moreso. There are so many moving parts – tiny ones, often, seemingly insignificant – which contribute to massive, massive problems. (Don’t get me started on invasive species; I’ll talk your ear off if you let me.)

  3. Well said. The provlem isn’t that we can’t fix, alleviate, or otherwise moderate the stress in the system though. It is that there are far too many crazy people out there. Nothing matters except th y are right. In religion, politics, or whatever else they choose to be crazy stupid about.

    Whay is scary is that there are no superheroes out there to save us, or even give us a chance to defeat or contain the crazy people. It is just us, and Kansas st of our attention is taken up just making it day to day. Sure, we all lend a hand some time or another. And we all need a hand occasionally too. But the looneies out there would just as soon chop off your hand if it is the wrong color, or you happen to be a woman, or you are not a member of their church, or any other of the thousands of stupid reasons people act crazy.

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