In his book Half-Earth, the famous biologist E.O. Wilson proposed setting aside half of the planet’s surface for conservation purposes. Deborah Rowan Wright will do you one better; given how important they are for life on the planet, how about we completely protect the oceans. What, all of it? Yes, not half, all of it. We need a gestalt shift, from “default profit and exploitation to default care and respect” (p. 11). Such a bold proposal is likely to elicit disbelief and cynicism – “Impossible!” – and Wright has experienced plenty of that. But hear her out, for sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Future Sea is a surprisingly grounded, balanced, and knowledgeable argument that swayed me because, guess what, the oceans are already protected.
This was the book’s most surprising revelation, at least for me. Legally speaking, the oceans are already under full protection. Having worked on topics such as ocean governance reform and public-trust law, Wright is perfectly positioned to dig into law statutes and serve up the relevant sections to prove her point. Between the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS III), the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity, and a raft of other global codes and treaties, 96.5% of the Earth’s oceans are already legally protected from exploitation, pollution, and other miscreants. This is where Wright starts asking the first of a series of very simple, seemingly naïve questions, a strategy she repeats throughout the book. The laws are there, why are they not working?
Unfortunately, like so many other international laws, they are paper tigers that are not really enforced. We have no planetary government, if you will, that has the power to hold individual countries to account. And although countries can exert pressure on one another via high-level organisations such as the United Nations: “when it comes to the sea the weight of the upright majority isn’t available to force compliance because much of the upright majority is itself breaking the laws that protect it.” (p. 22).
Of all the perils facing our oceans that Wright mentions – plastic pollution, deep-sea mining, marine aquaculture, climate change, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, ghost fishing – she focuses on overfishing. She explains that vital concept of shifting baseline syndrome: the creeping form of collective amnesia that makes each generation accept a progressively more degraded environment as the new normal. How industrial-scale overfishing came about, and how government subsidies are now keeping it afloat. And how many regulatory bodies such as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations seem set up to fail by focusing on profit rather than protection. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) is mentioned here as a particularly egregious example.
“[…] Wright starts asking the first of a series of very simple, seemingly naïve questions, a strategy she repeats throughout the book. The laws are there, why are they not working?”
However, as she clarifies early on, “Protection doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use something. It can also mean using something well.” (p. 12-13). She is balanced enough in her argumentation to highlight that properly managed large-scale fisheries do not necessarily deplete fish populations (this was also an important theme of Ocean Recovery). Furthermore, the benefits of Marine Protected Areas and marine reserves have been well documented. Fish and other species can recover so quickly that even sceptical fishermen frequently become their staunchest defenders when their livelihoods improve again. Next to these top-down approaches, she discusses successful examples of community-based marine conservation, such as small-scale fisheries in Fiji and Palau.
Another important concept to understand is how the sea is divvied up. Every coastal country has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that extends for two hundred miles seawards where they have exclusive jurisdiction. Everything outside of that (64% of ocean surface, 95% of ocean volume) is the high seas. A global commons* that, on paper, should be a jointly owned resource set aside for public use. In reality, it is a lawless wild west where some of the most depraved excesses of human cruelty play out. Yet, where overfishing is concerned, it need not be so. Ecosystem-based management, which considers whole ecosystems with all their interdependencies, is all the rage nowadays. We already have an example of this strategy working on the high seas: the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which was initially negotiated to protect Antarctic krill.
So, how can Wright’s bold plan of protecting the oceans become reality, she asks? In short by modernizing, implementing, and enforcing the law. As she shows here, all three steps are already underway or can be achieved. Political inertia is great, however, and time is running out. So, how do you get governments to act now? As Adam Ansel once wrote in Playboy, horrified: “[…] we have to fight our own government to save our environment” (p. 79). Recent years have seen unprecedented legal cases where citizens have taken governments to court for neglecting environmental laws. And won. We, the people, have to hold them accountable, for they do not have to live with the repercussions of their poor decisions. Wright pointedly observes of politicians and business leaders that: “They’re mostly wealthy men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies and will be dead before very long” (p. 84).
“[…] Wright [points] out the power of language in shaping our perception. Take that loaded term “ocean management” […] “we should be managing ourselves […] “Ocean management” then becomes “people management”“.”
At this point in the book I started shifting in my chair uneasily. As I have written elsewhere, I am frustrated with the environmental movement’s narrative that casts politics and business as evil overlords. These discussions are hollow, hypocritical even, if they do not also consider the question of self-limitation: what is each of us willing to forego and give up for a better world?
I was very pleased, therefore, that Wright fully acknowledges and embraces this ethos. Best of all, she discusses more than just token efforts such as “shop responsibly” and “avoid single-use plastics”, tackling the big topics such as dropping meat and dairy from your diet and, significantly, having fewer children (I am so pleased to see this becoming part of the mainstream conversation around environmental issues). On that note, one last noteworthy thing is how Wright takes a leaf from Eileen Crist’s Abundant Earth when it comes to pointing out the power of language in shaping our perception. Take that loaded term “ocean management”. Given that oceans have existed for billions of years before we appeared (and did just fine, thank you very much) “we should be managing ourselves […] “Ocean management” then becomes “people management”” (p. 97)
I admit that Wright’s initial brief raised my eyebrows. However, her even-handed treatment of the subject and her insights into environmental law quickly tempered my scepticism. The way forward proposed here will not be easy, and she never pretends it will be, but the urgency with which she makes her case is utterly convincing. Future Sea is a galvanising book.
* The term “commons” was made famous by ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Science paper The Tragedy of the Commons, though it need not be a tragedy, political economist Elinor Ostrom would later argue in Governing the Commons.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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