Sustainability for a Vulnerable Ocean

We have done our worst to despoil the land; are we really prepared to destroy the global ocean and all its potential for sustaining us into the future?

Image Credit: John Towner

Our mission with the World Ocean Observatory is to advocate for the ocean through information and educational services. We do so in myriad ways: through these blog posts; a weekly radio program; an aggregated video channel; a digital magazine; a virtual aquarium; a monthly newsletter; online exhibits; a sharing space for classrooms; relentless social media; this blog; and the World Ocean Forum — a writers’ arena providing the best new voices with the best new ideas a place to share ocean solutions. The idea is to demonstrate the vast connection of the sea to every aspect of human endeavor, how the ocean nurtures us, and will provide for our future — if we will let it.

This relentless advocacy requires constant and varied activity, lots of bits and pieces that taken together provide content as wide, deep, and dynamic as the ocean itself’

Sometimes the subject seems so vast and varied that no amount of activity can do it justice and, as we see the constantly shifting shape of indifference, frustration abounds. Sometimes, then, it seems useful to review the challenges, the astonishing number of challenges, to the integrity and sustainability of this profound natural resource. Sometimes it serves to hear the names of our enemies read aloud:

Acid, carbon dioxide. toxic emissions, methane, oil, fertilizers, chemicals, organic pollutants, manufacturing waste, antibiotics, plastics, micro-beads, invasive species, noise, radioactivity, urban detritus, household garbage, construction debris, over-fishing, illegal fishing, abandoned fishing gear, human waste, cruise ship discharge, dissolved coatings, impacts of coastal development, war. There are many more challenges. This represents but a few in no particular order of impact and evil.

How does one even understand the full implication of all this aggressive destruction of natural resources? The ocean is now clearly proving vulnerable to such assault, its ability to dilute and absorb such behavior is increasingly limited; its resilience and capacity for renewal being tested. We have done our worst to despoil the land; are we really prepared to destroy the global ocean and all its potential for sustaining us into the future?

Most days, I leap to engage those enemies as best I can, with the tools and resources available. Success can be measured, and is always inspiring – the sharing and connecting, the responding and engaging that can be counted and interpreted as progress. Through technology, I can reach thousands of strangers all across the world; I can see their names and photographs, hear their comments, and welcome their posting of our observations on to more family and friends, to new “Citizens of the Ocean.” But today, here in down-east Maine there is a northeaster storm in train, our small world shut out by white, the bay absented from sight by a wild weave of horizontal snow. Strangely it seems less frenetic than the usual pace, and the calm permits reflection, the quiet enables a return to the ideas and intentions that generated our commitment to the ocean some fifteen years ago. Forgive me this instance of public introspection when I ask myself: have we gotten anywhere at all?

Can the ocean feel? Can the ocean know the many cancers that live within it, attacking its systems in so many ways at metastasizing scale? Certainly the ocean can show emotion – calm, anger, and on a day like today, as the contrast of snow and light makes it roiled, dark and brooding, a contained sorrow as if just now it knows the seriousness of the sickness within.

Image Credit: Igor Goryachev

Most all of us have known a friend or family member with sickness suddenly revealed, and understand to some degree the pain, the fear, and the determination of those who insist to survive. I lost a friend recently to a fast debilitating disease, watched her fight back with a fearsome Yankee determination, and yet, at some critical point along the way saw her lose hold and fail. It still seems unfathomable to me that she is no longer vital and capable to provide such friendship and goodness. The sorrow.

But what can sorrow teach us?

That we might lose the ocean? We could — part by part, a coastal area devoid of oxygen, a reef destroyed by acidification, a fish species taken beyond regeneration by over-harvest and consumption. We have evidence of such things, in some number, already. But this is real: our fresh water, food, energy, health, and security in the future will depend on a healthy ocean, thus we cannot despair lest we lose hold, succumb to our indifference and irresponsibility, and abandon our most important system for sustenance and survival.

What can sorrow for the ocean teach us?

That there is no time for sorrow. When the weather clears we must look forward to see that we have what we need, what we treasure, out there in that expanse of water and light. The mission waits.

The sea connects all things.

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“The Sorrowful Ocean” was originally broadcast as a 5-minute audio feature on World Ocean Radio that can be heard here. Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available wherever books are sold.