New Internationalist

Planet Ocean

Issue 397

David Ransom looks beyond the horizon as seen from the beach.

Greenpeace / Marco Care
Greenpeace / Marco Care

Planet Ocean – this is where we live. The Ocean makes us blue to the rest of universe. It gives us life. We may name pieces of it as we please, like the bits of rock where we perch so precariously, but there is just one Ocean. Its miraculous substance, mindless of boundaries, swills around us in patterns so complex they seem chaotic, so harmonious they can endure for millions of years.

The more’s the pity, then, that our senses have come to rest so firmly on utility; on the Ocean’s usefulness to our own pressing needs and dimly perceived ends. Our knowledge of it is so slight that it can be likened to that of visiting aliens who hover over, say, Washington DC, lower a dragnet and conclude, because it comes back with Vice-President Dick Cheney in a bullet-proof limo, that all humans are brutes beneath contempt.

In 1950, when Rachel Carson published The Sea Around Us, only two people had ever penetrated deeper into the Ocean than sunlight.1 A good deal has been learned since then. We now know, for example, that the planet is made up of tectonic plates, its crust constantly created and destroyed, moving at roughly the speed human fingernails grow. We know that, like the Ocean, there used to be just one continent. We know that in the ocean depths there is life, where before we thought it impossible. We know that across the deep ocean floor there are seamounts (isolated mountains) scattered like oases in a desert. Here too, in the abyss, there are storms, waterfalls, volcanoes, canyons. We know that the Ocean holds 90 per cent of the planet’s biomass, ‘the weight of life’. We know that it contains 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, absorbing anywhere between a third and a half of what’s produced by people (see page 17). Through the photosynthesis of phytoplankton it produces the oxygen for every second breath we take. If the Ocean were ever to cease to function as it does, human life would come to an end.2

But we’ve hardly started to learn. We still know less about the Ocean than about some of the planets. Oceanographers still have to rely for part of their work on disused hardware and scraps of data thrown their way by the military or space programmes. Some of what little is clear about such things as the topography of the ocean floor remains a military secret. Over 90 per cent of it is unexplored, and our understanding of the remaining 10 per cent is incomplete. Out of anywhere between 14,000 and 50,000 (or possibly twice that many) seamounts, no more than 200 have been studied in any detail. We cannot even be sure where the water came from in the first place.

All that can be said with any certainty is that we know less than a tenth of what there is to know about almost three-quarters of our own planet’s surface area – or what lies beneath it. There is, however, a barrier to further understanding. The number of people willing or able to sit for hours in a canister sunk deep into inky, freezing darkness, in imminent danger of being compressed to the size of a pea in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, is limited. Should these unusual people see anything at all, it is quite likely to be some sort of creature – like sea cucumbers – hideous to most humans, that breathes through its backside or makes mountains out of its own shit. This place was not made for people.

Still, acting as if the Ocean were impervious to damage, even as we discover it is not, we have advanced to the point where giant fishing trawls can be dragged across the deep ocean floor, trashing seamounts we never even knew were there. We track large fish species so successfully that 90 per cent of their stocks have disappeared. We dump plastic in such quantities that the entire ocean surface is now infested with particles no natural system can break down. We develop agriculture so destructive, and leave human sanitation so rudimentary, that nutrient-rich waste kills huge areas of ocean stone dead.

Dead zones

The most recent UN survey put the number of such ‘dead zones’ – in places like the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea – at 147 in 2004. They had been increasing in number by roughly 10 every decade since the 1960s. Then, in October 2006, a new survey reported over 200 (see Facts page 20). This might mean that the rate of increase has jumped to more than 50 in two years – or that we still know next to nothing about what’s really going on. Either way, there is accelerated decay in ocean systems that otherwise evolve over millennia rather than decades.

One Ocean. One climate. One people – with a multitude of ways to pursue their own self-interest, but very few to confront their common fate. The shallows, the continental shelves off national coasts, have been claimed as a myriad of ‘territorial waters’ and ‘managed’ – to little or no effect. Teaming shoals of cod have disappeared from off the Atlantic coast of Canada and never recovered – so too the once-rich fisheries of Europe. The huge fishing fleets of China now scour the entire Ocean in pursuit of their vanishing prey. Pirate fishing vessels roam the seas virtually unhindered. Deadly nutrients and garbage spew ever-faster from rivers and coasts, in the reckless belief that they will somehow vanish as well. As large ocean creatures at the top of the evolutionary scale disappear, and ancient organisms at the bottom multiply, it is possible to speculate that evolution itself may be going into reverse (see page 6).

We’ve hardly started to learn. We still know less about the Ocean than about some of the planets

At the UN the sum total of national self-interest has stalled even the most meagre efforts to ban the destructive practice of deep-ocean bottom trawling. Elsewhere there are proposals that what’s been done on land, to such disastrous effect, should now be done to the entire Ocean, including the ‘high seas’ – the 60 per cent of it that lies beyond the continental shelves. It should all be privatized.3

As with the atmosphere – and closely integrated with it – we are confronted in the Ocean with a single interactive phenomenon. Sometimes this is called the ‘global commons’, though if that implies human ownership it is wrong. Short of mystical belief, we are still as ignorant of how to treat such things as we are of the Ocean itself.

There is only one thing to be done: to recognize, in all humility, our limitations. That means protecting the Ocean from ourselves and creating giant reserves, much like national parks only bigger – and doing so now (see page 25). This will not stop the damage entirely, nor will it heal the climate. But it will provide a breathing space for us to learn faster, think again and mend our ways.

In one sense, the most serious threat of all is the improbability of this ever happening. We are, apparently, so sold on utility that it’s pointless to count on anything else. Immensely powerful vested interests are intent on keeping it that way.

Passion

But they could just fail. As if by instinct, people seem to feel a passion for the Ocean, laced with fear, resentment and romantic illusions though it may be. How was it that, as a child, my first sight of the sea, so flat and enticing, filled me with such joy? Why are people drawn so inexorably towards the Ocean for the experience of pleasure and freedom?

Because of its beauty. The Ocean is beautiful not just to see but to understand, even if it is reluctant to reveal itself entirely to people – and, with the rage of cyclones, the terror of tsunamis, it can bite back. We find mountains beautiful because we can see them – but we cannot see far below the surface, or much beyond the horizon, of the Ocean. We find music beautiful because we can hear it – but the sounds of the Ocean are for the most part too subtle to be heard by people.

To recognize the full beauty of the Ocean requires imagination, which is what makes us human. Perhaps we are fearful and reluctant because then we might be less able to trash the Ocean. But with mere utility we are sunk – lost in its final uselessness. With imagination we can survive and prosper.

Beauty may seem a paltry thing to set against the insistent demands of utility. But increasing numbers of people are destined to live within a narrow strip of land around the Ocean, where most of the world’s great cities already are. If, in doing so, we destroy more coastlines, spew out more sewage, keep killing life more quickly than it can reproduce, we shall find ourselves living – if we are not yet extinct – beside a dead, rising, stinking cesspit that stretches around the globe.

An act of great collective imagination will be required to make this otherwise. But the full beauty of the Ocean gives us the greatest gift of all. •

  1. Robert Kunzig, Mapping the Deep, Sort of Books, London, 2000.
  2. These and all subsequent general facts from Dorrick Stow, Encyclopedia of the Ocean, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  3. See, for example, Rögnvaldur Hannesson, The Privatization of the Oceans, The MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2004.

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