Part eight of the multi-part BLUEprint Series: How the Ocean Will Save Civilization

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When we talk of equity and the ocean, we are talking about fairness, inclusion, and justice, a moral affirmation of what is true, right, and applicable for all. We have debated these ideas for a very long time; indeed, we have fought physical and ideological wars over such questions, to prove one view right, one view wrong, without middle ground. That terrain is left strewn with loss and sadness.

Can there be such a thing as justice for the ocean, as a place that serves all of us? The land is crossed with dividing lines, defining spheres of influence, nations, states and other sub-sets within. To mitigate and mediate the inherent conflict, we have amassed legal traditions and codes of behavior with best intent and sometime success. But the basic structure is one of division and separation. The idea of a commons, once a means by which to share equitably a natural resource amongst herdsmen and farmers, became a familiar tragedy by which equity was lost frequently to unfair appropriation by one over another. From this process has emerged a regress of injustice and inequity to a degree that, today, has paralyzed society in patterns of conflict, dislocation, and injustice that underlies the political and social conditions of today.

The ocean presents an alternative. It is by Nature integrated and inclusive, admixed globally by currents and volumetric exchange that carry along marine animals, plants, and supporting nutrients, heat and cold, physical forces and chemical conditions that are fluid and changing at all levels, in all directions, in all parts of our planetary home. We have tried to exploit and contain these factors, but nonetheless our greatest failure had been the alteration of the basic pH or acidity of the ocean generally and in specific places with negative effect on local species and habitat. Add to this pervasive, decomposing plastic, toxic pollutants, oil spills, and disposal of radioactive waste, and the catalogue of existing threats becomes a serious reality that can no longer be ignored.

In truth — and as a transformational strategy for survival — we must establish the commons that we have lost on land. To do so will require a revolutionary shift in attitudes to protect the idea and the fundamental value of this world resource. A fragile foundation exists on which this new framework can be built, already defined in such a way as to confront the first objection that a nation state cannot control and manage its boundary marine resources for food, work and other beneficial social return. Some protection exists in already defined exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and, more recently, specifically designated marine protected areas (MPAs). Of the 71% of the earth’s surface covered by the ocean, only 7.5% falls under the combination of EEZ and MPA designations. The area beyond both categories is designated as Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJs) and therein lies the problem as there are only a few existing structures — the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), UN International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the UN International Seabed Authority (ISA), along with other treaty and cooperative agreements for Antarctica and certain species management that attempt to regulate the vast balance of extra-jurisdictional area. A solution to that problem lies at the heart of ocean protection, and therefore at the center of intention for future applications of ocean justice. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has called for a goal of “30 by 30,” the protection and conservation of 30% of the world ocean by 2030, and several nations have signed on to the goal. There are many such initiatives: for a binding International High Seas Treaty, for international agreements to address plastic pollution, for pollution controls and process prohibitions, for additions to protected areas inside EEZs, ABNJs, and the Antarctic. All of these, and more, caught in a net of bureaucratic lethargy, opposition by vested interests, conflicting internal policies and international economic agendas, and the sudden, palpable halt to the global conversation as a result of pandemic disease. As in so many other aspects of our lives, we are tragically suspended in a tide of equivocation and inaction.

There is stunning certainty, however, that the ocean remains the last, best hope for sustained capacity to provide food, energy, water, health, and security to every place on earth and to every member of our global community into the future. There is no more important protection and investment we can possibly make than the conservation of such value and preservation of its essential purpose. In that determination lies all our potential for fairness, inclusion, and justice and it is our moral obligation to pursue that profound and rewarding cause without compromise or failure. We have reached the moment when we have no other choice. Ocean justice is in the balance. Do we sink, or do we swim?

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Learn more at worldoceanobservatory.org/world-ocean-radio
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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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