The oceans and us
By Bruno Costelini
Oceanographer and PhD candidate in Law at Durham University
As our colleague Julia Weston put it in her last column, this June 8th marks the World Oceans Day, a celebration of the oceans and our links to them. This year’s theme is ‘The Ocean: Life & Livelihoods”, a direct allusion to those connections. But what exactly is so special about the oceans? What specifically sets them apart from land or the atmosphere? Are they just another space to be conquered, to be reaped for resources, to be occupied and exploited, or is there anything intrinsic to their nature that we can capture, something that elevates the relationship we’ve carried out with nature throughout history?
Now, I am not going to play philosophical charades, but there is, to put it simply, an ontological distinction to the oceans, that is easily graspable, that one is forced to acknowledge. The oceans are (mostly) liquid, they have volume, depth, and movement. And even though life comes from the oceans, by most accepted theories of the origin of life on Earth, at our current form we find it hard to get back to it. And still we do. For millennials man has come back to oceans, navigating it, fishing, farming, swimming and diving.
How this ontological nature reflects back in the way our laws and regulations try to tame the oceans, that is another story. Lawyer readers will be familiar with the distinction between ontology and deontology, the first being the nature of things in themselves, the latter the axiomatic values we impinge upon them, fabricating juridical realities and imposing morals and behaviors which are ideal, but ultimately alien to their nature. This naturally occurs to the oceans as well.
When representatives of dozens of countries sat down to write up a Convention for Law of the Sea (which took at least three attempts over three decades), they drew up lines, dividing up territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, extended continental shelves, the ‘area’ (the seabed beyond national jurisdiction). They not only applied different regimes to each of those spaces, but also different possibilities and rulings, notwithstanding the fact that these areas are adjacent, communicable and in constant flow and movement.
Reality imposes itself, however, and soon enough we discovered how fishing upstream ends up affecting fisheries downstream, and so bilateral and multilateral agreements were needed to circumvent those problems. The same goes for pollution and the spread of it via surface currents, which are unstoppable and global. Great incidents, like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf coast, affecting the whole Caribbean, or the Fukushima Daiichi disaster spreading nuclear elements all across the Pacific, are both examples that no fixed lines in the bottom of the sea can account for the ultimate connected nature of the oceans.
And the oceans are certainly not contained in themselves either. Water vapor flows upwards, affecting our climate all the time. In its frozen state it locks up whole regions of the planet, and now that it is quickly melting, it may elevate the surface line, inundating large areas in the coastline, where most humans live. The oceans also work as a carbon sink, consuming most of the CO2 that we spread in the atmosphere, and its increase has been leading to acidification and a whole range of ecosystem shifts that we barely understand.
So, my point is, when we stop for a second today to celebrate the World Oceans Day, let us remember that the oceans have a singular nature, yes, one that in some instances sets it apart from land. At the same time, let’s not forget that this singularity is part of a whole. The pale blue dot that is our planet is only blue because of the oceans. It seeps into all spaces and allows for life to flourish. It is a part of us, and we are a part of it, so when we celebrate it, we celebrate ourselves, so let that be the better part of us and not the worse.
Cover photo credits:
UNWOD Photo Contest 2019 – 1st place Human Interaction by David-Salvatori