The ocean resembles an enormous life-support system, performing a series of key roles, albeit often in the background, that keep our planet hospitable for life. It absorbs a tremendous amount of carbon, and produces much of the oxygen we breathe. It moderates temperatures, keeping Northern and Southern climes from becoming too cold, and sweeping excess heat away from the equator. The ocean may even have been the crucible of life on earth—and it continues to support countless livelihoods the world over.
This helps explain why campaigns seeking to foster ‘ocean literacy’ are so important. Scientists, activists, and academics have helped drive home to people just how vital the ocean is to life on our planet—and also how fragile its ecosystems may turn out to be. In the United Kingdom, surveys have shown that school students are very keen to learn more about the ocean, and teachers are also keen to educate them —but, studies also show, they require better resources to be able to do so. Educating the wider citizenry is also important. In the 1950s and 60s, legendary figures like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau did so much to engage citizens with the wonders of the ocean, and some of the environmental threats it faces. In our own time, icons including Sylvia Earle and David Attenborough have joined the fray.
But here is an important question: what does an ocean-literate citizen do with their new-found knowledge? Knowledge can be an end in itself, of course. But citizens informed about the many environmental challenges the ocean faces might also have ideas about how the governance of the ocean can be improved, or how some of its environmental challenges should be tackled. And here, the next steps are not as clear as they might be.
Citizens can, of course, take personal action to protect the ocean, within their local communities. Many people—including surfers and dog-walkers—do sterling work in collecting refuse from local beaches. We can also make an important difference by changing some of our shopping habits. We might decide to stop eating fish, or switch away from eating particular species associated with destructive fishing practices. We might moderate our consumption of plastic, since so much of the plastic we use ends up in the ocean. Or we might work to reduce our own carbon emissions, since climate change—which drives ocean warming and acidification—is one of the major threats the ocean faces.
But none of this quite amounts to a politics of the ocean. If the ocean is so vital—and so threatened—it might be that we should also organise, and act collectively to reduce or minimise the threats it faces. To some extent, local communities have taken up this task already. Organisations like Surfers Against Sewage in the UK, or Oceanswell in Sri Lanka, are committed to educating and engaging local citizens when it comes to ocean-related challenges. But the ocean is often notable only by its absence in party politics. Visions of the future of the ocean do not feature prominently in party platforms and manifestos. From time to time ocean-facing issues rear their head (debates about fishing rights were an issue in the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, for example, though the political salience of that issue has since faded).
But by and large, the ocean is out of sight and of mind within everyday political life. Politicians are rarely even called upon to explain their views about the ocean and its governance. Governments do not tend to include ministries of the ocean, although they do sometimes include ministries of fishing. This is not because the ocean does not matter, or because decisions do not need to be made about its future. Vitally important decisions are made about the ocean—consider the move to radically extend states’s marine territories, as part of the Law of the Sea Convention (which came into force in 1994). Or consider the agreement on a new High Seas Treaty earlier this year. The fact that a new Treaty had been agreed was greeted with some fanfare in the media. But the years leading up to its creation were not characterised by sustained democratic discussion. Decisions about the ocean are often made with very little in the way of public input.
None of this is to say that there is no politics of the ocean. Politics is present whenever decisions with important consequences for our well-being are made, and whenever power gets exercised. But what we lack is a lively, democratic politics of the ocean, in which political leaders are called upon to set out their competing visions of the ocean’s future, and held to account for acting on them. Instead our politics of the ocean is largely technocratic, with decision-making the preserve of administrators, civil servants, and international lawyers.
I believe this is not only a great shame, but also an obstacle to just ocean governance. But why is a vibrant, engaged politics of the ocean so important?
First, because the ocean matters to all of our lives. Democratic principles suggest that when decisions are made that will have a major impact on our well-being or our life-chances, we should be involved in those decisions, or at least have a chance to challenge them. Since the ocean is the world’s biggest ecosystem, perhaps its largest carbon sink, and the driver of so many vital biochemical processes, citizens have a right to be engaged in its governance.
Second, the governance of the ocean has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades, and the ocean economy is also changing fast. Many economists have pointed to a ‘Blue Acceleration’ in recent years. This captures the fact that the ocean economy is growing faster than the economy as a whole. But who will be the winners in the ocean industries of the future, and who will be the losers? These too are decisions ordinary citizens have a right to participate in, or at least to be explicitly consulted on.
Third, there are competing visions of what the future of the ocean economy looks like. For some, the future of the ocean economy is sustainable and artisanal. Perhaps regenerating coastal communities means replanting mangroves, seeding long-degraded oyster beds, or farming seaweed. That might open up opportunities for small, worker-led businesses, at the same time as nurturing ecosystems back to health. Alternatively, the future of the ocean might be an industrialised one, with a growth in large-scale fish farms, their expansion into new fields such as octopus farming, and the mining of the deep seabed. Such industries might bring large profits to some, but are unlikely—to say the least—to play a role in regenerating marine ecosystems.
The choice between these rival futures is a momentous one. And it is a choice that everyday citizens have a right to participate in. A first step, certainly, is to educate citizens about the choices that we now face concerning the future of the ocean. The vital second step is to involve them in decision-making, and to start to build a vibrant, democratic politics of the ocean.
Chris Armstrong is professor of political theory at the University of Southampton. He is the author of Global Distributive Justice, Justice and Natural Resources: An Egalitarian Theory, and Why Global Justice Matters: Moral Progress in a Divided World.