Sustainability and The Blue Economy

Sustainability is the word we hear most often in discussions of how to deal progressively with the social and economic challenges resulting from the world’s radical population growth, global economy, and voracious appetite for non-renewable natural resources to meet those needs over time.  The most common usage derives from the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission Report that defined sustainable development as that ”which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” From this has emerged an industry of academic proposals, new standards and accreditations, non-governmental organizations and policy institutes devoted to full amplification of the concept in the form of environmental management, financial analyses, planning processes, and the inclusion of the alleviation of poverty, social justice, human rights, and cultural traditions as factors also essential to the response. In some cases, sustainability may be expressed by a formula relating population, affluence and technology as measurable elements of an equation, or to a newly inclusive accounting system, or to a calculation of previously ignored factors reduced to an index; in others, it seems more like an idealistic, unobtainable philosophical concept that at least offers hope, however illusionary and elusive.

From the specific perspective of the ocean, sustainability as a doctrine may at first seem beyond the more narrow and obvious applications regarding fisheries and sustainable seafood: species protection, regional quotas, gear restrictions, and regulated market forces; or aquaculture: a means to increase alternative supply against insatiable demand; or coastal management and marine protected areas: schemes to protect inshore artisanal fishing, coral reefs, seed ground, and sheltering habitat against extreme weather, sea level rise, and the predations of resort and high rise developers.

But if you step back, and take the broadest ecosystem view, the ocean then becomes an enormous contributor to any new strategy of resilience, maintenance, and enhancement of global bio-diversity and capacity, essential to the life-support system of the earth from the beginning, but ever so much more needed now. As we continue to deplete underground aquifers, to increase irrigated land, to disrupt and pollute streams and rivers, the ocean becomes even more valuable as a primary component of the world water cycle, a necessary circulation, filtration, and purification system, and an inevitable source of desalinated drinking water to meet future global demand. As the ocean is essential to our need for fresh water, as water security and food security are linked, as food security and the alleviation of poverty are linked, and as alleviation of poverty is key to civilization, justice and peace, the ocean simply cannot go the way of the earth, be brutalized, ignored, taken for granted, or abandoned.

The ocean is the true commons, a vast reservoir of natural capital without which the mechanics of the earth will break down. There is much talk of a green economy, a shift away from relentless growth fueled by forests, minerals, and fossil fuels, toward renewable energy, pricing that incorporates the true value of ecosystem service, and development based not on consumption but rather on utility and quality of life.  All those new ideas for changed behavior on land are welcome and must be supported. But the green economy will not succeed without the blue economy that includes in the calculation the ocean as a redeeming source of renewable protein, energy, fresh water, and biodiversity with unimagined implication for the future of human survival.

The blue economy has a chance to succeed because it is open and free. No one owns it; no one can fence it; no one can master it no matter how hard they try. Oh, to be sure, governments will still assert their exclusive economic rights along their coasts, corporations will still seek to impose their extraction values offshore, but it will not be enough; it will only postpone the inevitable and prolong the decline. When we learn to see the ocean as integral to the land, when we design physical places, make financial and social decisions, and take political action based on that symbiosis, then we may well have achieved the means by which to build a world that is truly sustainable.


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