An Ocean Irony

If the ocean constitutes 70% of the earth's surface and is as dynamic and inclusive as we claim it to be, then it should also be equally representative of the qualities of civilization - 70% of triumph, tragedy, and the many other aspects of the human condition. Irony, for example. Sometimes the many ambiguities and contradictions we confront when investigating both the natural and social ocean can coalesce into one stunning realization such as what I discovered recently in a copy of the New York Times Global Edition. Here was a juxtaposition of two ocean stories, linked in the most unexpected oppositional way:

The first story dealt with the proposed construction of two futuristic luxury hotels underwater -- one in Dubai, one in the Maldives Islands -- planned by a Polish firm and in search of investors. The design and visual representations on the website were amazing, a central vertical core linking a circular structure underwater comprising glass suites with views to underwater life and surrounding coral to an above surface structure for welcome, concierge, restaurants, meeting rooms, service areas, helipad, and the other conventional trappings of a high-end destination hotel. It is a fantasy realized: living underwater surrounded by beauty, pampered by luxury, entertained by the day and night antics of plants and creatures illuminated by sunlight and phosphorescence in an ever-moving sea, lost in a private, personal ocean.

The second story dealt with the school children of Bangladesh whose schools are disrupted annually by monsoon-driven floods in the rainy season from July to October when the Bangladeshi delta is inundated and mostly impassable, a situation likely to get worse if sea level rise and extreme weather intensity occur as predicted. The story quotes the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate that more than 1 million people in the area may be displaced by 2050 under such conditions, an immense potential tragedy and contribution to the further distress of a country of 152 million, already poor, mostly unemployed, and understandably uncertain and insecure.

The article focuses however on the work of Shidhulai Swanivar Sangstha, a not-for-profit that has served over 70,000 children in one area by the creation of 20 free floating schools, classes housed in refurbished traditional wooden boats that can be moored in rivers and safe places, unaffected by the water environment, and thereby keep the children involved in consistent learning in facilities that are "resilient against natural disasters."

The program was started by Mohammed Rezwan who founded the organization with $500 and began to reach out to students, families, local officials, and eventually granting organizations. Shidhulai has received support from Global Fund for Children in the United States, a financial prize from the World Innovation Summit for Education, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, and a major grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that enabled Rezwan to build more boats, install solar power, and create a library.

The article goes on to report that the organization today has 20 schools, 10 libraries, 7 adult education centers, and 5 floating health clinics that transport medical staff to remote, otherwise inaccessible areas. Shidhulai proposes to add 100 more boats over the next five years to reach another 100,000 people.

So there you have the irony - the juxtaposition of luxury with poverty, of leisure with learning, of multimillion dollar corporate investment in futuristic facilities for elite tourists, with old boats refurbished with nothing for schoolchildren with even less. These examples seem to evoke two different oceans. Would I enjoy an overnight stay in one of those underwater rooms? Yes, I confess I would. But would I invest in those hotels versus in Mr. Rezwan's floating schools? No, I confess I would not. That is my personal choice, and really not the point here.

What is the point, however, is the fact that in such revelatory extremes the ocean can be understood to inspire and affect all elements in between, from one minute to the next to challenge and confront our behaviors and values with opportunities as disparate as these. We must comprehend that the capacity of the ocean to provide for us is as vast as the distance from light to dark, from peace to war, from profit to loss, from life to death. That capacity is astonishing, ironies notwithstanding, and we must revel in it, respect it, and keep it right.