The ‘Dying’ Ocean of the Anthropocene

A few days ago Outside Magazine published an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef. The article soon went viral. Since then, coral reef scientists have condemned the story as “wildly irresponsible.” The Great Barrier Reef they point out, while under threat, is not yet dead. To announce its demise, they argue, is to give up hope.

Declarations that the ocean is dying have become commonplace. We read that the seas are choked with plastic, overfished, and acidifying. This begs the question: is fostering a public narrative of a “dying ocean” helpful or damaging to conservation efforts? To answer this question an attention to the history of changing human visions of the ocean may be helpful.

In the present day, the ocean has become emblem both of the natural world victimized by humanity and of nature’s vengeance. In a video by the non-profit organization Conservation International, the ocean is given a voice in the growling baritone of actor Harrison Ford: “I give. They Take. But I can always take back.” The message is powerful because it conjures images of the primordial sea as the crucible of life, and of the biblical flood – the destruction of earthly life as punishment for humanity’s sins. Yet, the “vengeful” ocean is but one of several competing human visions of the marine environment, some of which have gained prominence over others at particular moments while others have faded away.

In the 1960s and 70s many scientists, engineers, and policy makers saw the ocean as a vast reservoir of untapped natural resources. The hostility of the ocean was understood in the context of national calls for increasing marine resource extraction. American Rear Admiral C. Hushing described the ocean as “hostile in almost every way you can think.” The task set for “Man” was  “to train himself for the hostility” and eventually to “find ways to convert the hostility to friendliness.”[1] The depletion of global fisheries and the destructive legacy of the offshore oil industry reveal the devastation this perspective enabled.

Today it is humans who have become the real threat. It is us, not the ocean, that has taken too much. Unfortunately, the projection of sentience onto the natural world fails to move self-declared skeptics. Appeals for the safeguard of individual charismatic species, like the polar bear, are mocked as devaluing human existence in favor of the animal world, while descriptions of “the Earth” as a victim of human agency are dismissed as scientific hubris. Even publics potentially receptive to appeals for conservation risk being demoralized by the imaginative invocation of the death of large-scale non-human actors like the ocean or Great Barrier Reef.

This is not the first time that marine scientists have pointed out the perils of  environmental pessimism. As an editorialist in Smithsonian Magazine explained, “we’ve gone from thinking the ocean was too big to hurt, to thinking that the ocean is too big and too sick to help.” I share the concern that portrayals of large-scale systems as cohesive non-human entities limit public understanding of local variability and discount the positive potential of human agency to achieve conservation and restoration.

February 2016 marked the tenth anniversary of the Canadian ocean observatory, a fiber optic network allowing permanent in situ monitoring of oceanic conditions off the coast of British Columbia. Ocean observatories are now in development off the coasts of the United States, Brazil, Japan, the Azores, China, and in the arctic. Globally, sea surface layers are monitored by a fleet of nearly four thousand autonomous “Argo” floats which relay data to land-based centers via satellites. So-called “deep argo” floats are being tested for depths of up to 6000 meters. In fact, scientists have employed dedicated ocean-observing satellites since 1978. In other words, while the scale of the ocean is vast, so is the scale of scientific ocean monitoring. As I have argued before, the ocean increasingly resembles a laboratory.

In 2013, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, announced a contest called “Ocean Challenge.” The contest awards “$10,000 to the most promising new science-based concept for mitigating environmental and/or societal impacts of ocean acidification.” The winners of the 2013 contest were Dr. Ruth D. Gates of the University of Hawaii, and Dr. Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Their project is to select and cultivate corals that possess natural resistance of ocean acidification. Dr. Gates describes herself as “a futurist.” “A lot of people want to go back to something. They think, if we just stop doing things, maybe the reef will come back to what it was,” she explains. In contrast, her project acknowledges that “a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural.” For Gates the ocean isn’t exactly dying, but its survival means it must become something new.

In her history of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Elizabeth Nobel Shor began with the simple statement: “oceanography is not so much a science as a state of mind.” I have long mulled over the meaning of this phrase. One interpretation is that marine science, like all branches of scientific knowledge, is shaped by underlying assumptions about the human relationship to the natural world. We now face a crisis in the scientific and lay imagination of the ocean wrought by the arrival of the Anthropocene.

Perhaps a new “hybrid ocean” narrative will emerge. Dr. Ruth Gates may be correct that scientific solutions for an ocean understood as “dying” can only be reached by recognizing that the present-day ocean fundamentally includes humans. But, this perspective is also not without risk. Any manipulation or interference with nature can result in unpredictable effects. It may be hubristic to think that we can artificially cure the symptoms of which we are the root cause. Nevertheless, it remains imperative for those seeking to achieve marine conservation to first try to understand the underlying assumptions that shape how scientists and publics understand the natural world and humanity’s place within it. In the case of the oceans, this is a task for which historians may be well suited.

[1] William C. Hushing, “The Impact of High Performance Science and Technology on Manpower Requirements at the Undersea Interface,” Critical Interfaces for Engineers and Scientists: 4 Appraisals (New York: Engineers Joint Council, 1967), 2.

[My thanks to Margo Boenig-Liptsin and the other members of the Harvard STS fellows group for their input as I was working on an earlier version of this post]

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