From Micro to Macro and Return

When confronting the challenges to today’s ocean we make passage from micro to macro and return. A local problem can be used as the stimulus for worldwide investigation and creative thinking, codified into responsible policy, reforms of behavior, a new awareness applied through political will into direct action and change where we live.

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When confronting the challenges to today’s ocean, we must inevitably make passage from micro to macro and return.

We first become aware of the problem nearby, typically a local manifestation in the form of a use conflict such as aquaculture versus inshore fishing or a natural phenomenon such as a red tide closing a beach to recreational access. There may or may not be a local solution. Yes, the conflict may seem to be resolved, just as the algae bloom may disappear, but the larger questions remain looming beyond the micro-perspective.

Research is typically the next waypoint, the investigation of a condition or problem identified by the gathering of data or observation over time and place that provides insight into what actually is happening and suggests additional questions and, sometimes, possible solutions.  This research may seem somewhat distant, deep and detailed, ironically more general, less local in the scape of the problem and the scope of the inquiry. 

Recently, waiting for a nearby island ferry, I noticed a large official poster announcing the closing of vast areas along this coast to shell-fishing due to the presence of intense algae and toxins most probably the result of the remarkably, unnaturally, high air and water temperatures we are experiencing this year. The red graphics were a dramatic expression of a serious local problem, a condition nonetheless most probably extended in both directions along shore and surely the locus of an intense research and data collection effort in search of scientific understanding and solution.  This instance stands for many – an evident phenomenon detrimental to our relationship to the ocean that demands inquiry beyond the limit of its immediate impact and toward a universal explanation  -- it is happening everywhere.  The situation has moved from micro to macro.

There is no question that our knowledge of the ocean is increasing exponentially through global scientific inquiry over the past decade.  We have all heard the frequent quote that we know more about Mars than we do the sea. That may not be longer so. Through satellite surveillance, survey vessels, underwater vehicles, and fixed observations systems, enormous amounts of data have been, and will continue to be, collected exponentially about light, temperature, salinity, acidity, up and down welling, currents, earthquakes, hydraulic dynamics, marine species, known and new, volcanic activity, hydro-thermal vents, the mineral composition of the ocean floor, and much, much more. The data enters a parallel ocean of information into which will dive researchers who will extract value in the form of papers and reports, conclusions, speculations, and demands for more data. Take care; one can also drown in this sea.

I do not mean to belittle this macro-summation. It is powerful, implicative, and necessary work, in my view infinitely more important than whatever we know about Mars. The best use of data is its informing of policy, that is, its application and transformation into best practice in many different forms: new recommendations, voluntary modifications of behavior, regulations, laws, treaties, and other such agreements.  At this point, the tide changes and the derived knowledge begins a cycle of return, from macro cause to micro effect, from the coastal site or deep ocean through the laboratory and back again. What is learned becomes guidance for the future and catalyst for change.

It offends me when I hear science derided by those who find the results inconvenient and contradictory to their interests. To me it is comparable to burning books, censoring art, or demeaning another’s spiritual beliefs. The egoism and hypocrisy are all too evident. The irony is, of course, that in so many cases the advantages held by those who have these ideas are the result of previous science and comparable inquiry.  I invite them to look at that chart of the closed coast as a red line signal of danger that begins there and, as the data reveals, extends its perimeter invisibly outward into the world ocean dissolved as acid, chemicals, and man-made poisons, yes, too the product of science, misused or excessively deposited in amounts, however microscopic, now globally measurable and proven detrimental to our survival.

As we think about the future, the passage from micro to macro and return corresponds to our critical thinking – our perception of a problem locally, collectivized and used as the stimulus for worldwide investigation and creative thinking, codified in response into responsible policy and re-forms of behavior, as a new awareness applied through political will into direct action and change where we live, here by the nurturing ocean.


Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.