Need or Greed? Biodiversity, Conservation & Ocean Health

Since the founding of the World Ocean Observatory more than a decade ago, I have attended many conferences and international meetings on ocean and climate policy and issues. Sometimes I have attended as humble registrant, other times I have presented papers and Power Point presentations, but never have I been invited to moderate a session, to shape a presentation and discussion on a specific topic. So you can imagine my surprise when the invitation came to organize a presentation at the 2nd International Ocean Research Conference to be held in Barcelona, Spain in November of this year.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, known as the IOC, is part of UNESCO and typically gathers together nearly 1,000 delegates from UN divisions, national governments, non-governmental organizations, universities and research institutes to address the state of the international ocean agenda, its goals and objectives, and progress, or the lack thereof, since the last meeting. The IOC is charged with coordinating all UN ocean activities through an inter-organizational working group call UN-Ocean, bringing together the cross-cutting interests and activities of the ten or more UN organizations with some kind of ocean brief. The conference, then, is a kind of public report of accomplishment, concern, and inter-action between ocean bureaucrats and administrators, scholars and research scientists, academics, and ocean advocates worldwide. For someone with my interest, it is a heady place to be.

But you cannot imagine my surprise at the title of the designated session: "Biodiversity, conservation and the interface with human need and greed." Yes, you heard correctly, greed. Never have I heard such a radical term used in such events, there being a definite level of diplomatic nicety in every exchange between all parties, as if the politeness and deference accorded to those with whom you agree must also always be extended to those with whom you may violently disagree. If you have ever tuned into the language of most any legislative body, you will have heard the florid address and convoluted argument in moderated argument and modulated tone that characterizes the most fervid debate.

The entire conference agenda will focus on biodiversity and conservation. There will be panels on climate policy and legislative initiative, high seas governance, fisheries regulation and enforcement, acidification and coral reef protection, marine protected area management--all contextualized by the assumption that the ocean matters, that its relevance to human need is understood, devoutly to be wished, and exalted. "Need" defined as something necessary and requisite, is the focus of the entire conference endeavor: to conserve, oversee, and sustain ocean resources as essential to the security, health, and continuity of civil society worldwide.

But greed, that is another matter altogether. Greed is excessive, inordinate, rapacious desire, at a level of aggression, acquisitiveness, and insatiability that is far beyond the necessary or the requisite. Greed is psychological, even psychotic excess; greed is pollution; greed accounts for the underlying causality of unrestrained extraction of natural resources, illegal manipulation of financial instruments, political corruption, extra-legal competition, indifference to the rule of law, and often the excesses of war. How does one moderate a panel discussion of such an immoderate term?

To address greed is to inject politics into what is traditionally an apolitical discourse. And of course, politics lies at the heart of the matter. When so many committed professionals and advocates are brought together around such a demanding crisis as ocean sustainability, knowledge, imagination, and optimism are the motivating watchwords for their enthusiasm and commitment. The best ideas and best practices abound inside the conference hall; all is possible, until the realization comes that the politics outside will not permit such things at this time; that this nation or that will veto; that this president or that will not endorse; that this corporation or that will object; that this region or that will be unfairly treated. Again and again, the hopefulness of these meetings is neutralized and the progress envisioned reduced to best intentions and postponed plans for the future. I never fail to admire the resiliency of diplomats.

What am I do? Nothing, of course, is always a useful option, just allowing the conventional practice to take its course and ignore the politics completely. Or let the politics speak. But to what avail, to what outcome that would somehow force the issue and in an outcome that finds traction, efficacy, and change? The question comes down to this: how do we transform research and policy into innovation and action?