Beyond Hope

No day goes by when I do not have multiple conversations about the ocean. Whether face-to-face, or by telephone, email, or social media, the discussion continues to grow among people all over the world, most of them strangers, who connect with the World Ocean Observatory and its mission to promote public awareness and political will toward actions, policies, and behaviors that address the challenge to conserve and sustain the world ocean as a natural system, political system, and social system for the benefit of all mankind. Big job, seemingly impossible. But these connections, however remote or abbreviated, are the indicators that people out there are listening, believing, and acting as best they can to meet the challenge.
There are many negatives: the continuous litany of oil spills, fish kills, marginalized communities, once secure in their relationship with the ocean, now threatened by climate change, extreme weather, depleted fisheries, toxins and pollutants, industrial incursion, and disrupted patterns of life. All are the resultant insecurities from which no ocean dweller, rich or poor, today can hide. Thus, frequently in these conversations I hear expressions of hopelessness: What can I do to combat these forces, distant and powerful, that seem indifferent not just to the natural environment, but also to the values and traditions that have been part of our engagement with the ocean forever? The situation is hopeless. I am paralyzed by the overwhelming vastness of the challenge. It is beyond hope.
To counter this despair, indeed to transform it into some kind of solace, renewed optimism, and engagement, ocean advocates actually use the language of hope. Sylvia Earle, the American oceanographer and tireless proselytizer for the world ocean cause, points to Hope Spots, a network of pristine places around the world, some protected by conservation structures and agreements, some not, still vulnerable, but momentarily still pure and needful of protection. Through her tireless calendar of speech and promotion, Sylvia embodies and advances the definition of hope: the feeling that what is desired is possible, the message that things will turn out for the best if only we believe and work to make it so. Don't lose hope, be hopeful, and the best of the ocean will be recognized, sustained, and endure beyond the threats into the future.
Personally, I too am an optimist. But I struggle with this emotional approach, based on profound empathetic identification with the beauty of marine animals and nature in that it omits the awful counter-force of human activity that does not respect these things or share the emotion, indeed dismisses it as naive and ineffective. That is the quandary that all ocean advocates face - the reality of the dark side of ourselves, our inability to coalesce around specific actions to combat the power of excess and pollution, and the sense that, optimism not withstanding, we are not winning the argument against the degradation of the ocean worldwide.
Is hope enough? What lies beyond hope; isn't that the fundamental question? What do we do next? How do we apply our optimism and to what end? How do we as individuals, groups, associations, and movements focus the force of hope against the oppositional force of irresponsibility and excess, unsustainable consumption, profit at any cost, and delusional justification for behaviors that even the perpetrators know will not end well? What about the inadvertent victims of such behavior--those poor and displaced by coastal inundation and rising sea level, those whose livelihood depends on a healthy ocean, those who follow and will need what the ocean provides to survive? Where is their hope? Where is their justice?
Thinking about this makes me angry. And that frustration often finds its way into my personal encounters and, yes, sometimes into these blog posts. A friend counseled me recently: "Peter, rage is not effective; it is too easily dismissed as shrill invective and works against the positive engagement communicated by the quieter language of hopeful belief." But aren't we, as advocates, meant to advance the cause, to plead in favor, to urge by argument, to recommend aggressively and publicly the counter-strategy, to promote specific solutions, to share commitment far and wide, and to reach for a just outcome? Are we not obligated to channel our anger forcefully for the fundamental, revolutionary change required to meet our most hopeful aspirations for the health and welfare of the ocean and for all of us who live by and around it? "Hope springs eternal," writes the poet. Eternity? No time for that.

< Follow Peter Neill as he blogs on

< on Twitter @The_w2o

< on Facebook /WorldOceanObservatory