World Ocean Weekly

Climate Change Refugees: Reaping the Whirlwind

Here in New England, summer is gone. We are having a perfect fall: the calendar colors, magnificent sunsets, wide night sky, and crisp temperatures. In the harbors, the boats are being down-rigged, sails off, heading for the winter yards where they endure the cold, sufferable winter.

What a summer it was. Here in Maine we had fog for much of it, followed by several weeks of intense clarity, sunshine and revolving winds. But what about the rest of the world, where the consequences of climate engendered hurricanes and wildfires, droughts and tsunamis destroyed the lands and inundated the coasts? It was a summer of extremes, blowing in the air and in from the ocean. Those of us protected from those things this year could only react with awe and admiration for the response and resilience evinced by those affected worldwide.

There is a Biblical phrase that signifies the reality of consequences for human action: They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. We experienced one whirlwind after another this summer, and one wonders if it can be anymore possible not to equate the contribution of human intervention to these unnatural natural outcomes. The results are tragic, counted in the loss of human lives, community destruction, broken systems, inadequate response, and the inequitable distribution of the cost, the pain, and the loss among those who could afford it least.

Why is it that those who are the most vulnerable are made to bear the burden of bad policy, indifference, and willful governance that fails them over and over again?

Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters

What results is a measurable shift of population and finance. As an example, let’s take the people of the Virgin Islands or the people of Puerto Rico who remain still without adequate power, water, and services a year after struck by a similarly devastating storm. And then consider the irony of the most recent hurricane (Florence) hitting the southern United States coast just weeks ago. It caused the evacuation of millions, comparable destruction, and the prospect of equally prolonged restoration of home and health in a state where government had determinedly legislated against even the mention of climate change and willfully offered no plans for preparation and protection for probability predicted for years. Just how foolish is that?
Houses surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence. North Carolina. Jason Miczek/Reuters

But this is old news, sad to say. Today we see displacement everywhere: homes in California; farms in North Carolina; coastal villages in Indonesia and Japan; insects and birds changing their migration patterns; fish moving to different water; ice and permafrost melting; aquifers drying up and rivers disappearing; rains coming in torrents that defy the land to absorb, its irrational descent to the ocean taking with it topsoil, homesteads, occupations, whole towns, social stability, and optimism for the future in a mass flow that erodes the basic foundations of our living.

This displacement makes refugees of us all. Think about it: all these extreme weather events as resultant, not-so-subtle movements of people bereft of their belongings and their occupations, looking for shelter in another place that may not be prepared for or interested in their arrival. We see it in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Asia, South and North America: climate refugees, entire societies disrupted and made to move away toward uncertainty and the unknown.


Joanne Francis on Unsplash

The most challenging, underlying social, political, and economic conflicts in the world today revolve around refugees. Where can they go? How will they survive? What will they do once they arrive at a place that will not accept them? If we are not experiencing the outcome of our willful ignorance and mindless consumption of natural resources, if we are not proving the necessity for a revolutionary shift in our values, structures, and behaviors, if we do not change our ways wherever we may be to address the causes for all this misery, then we will continue to reap the whirlwind we deserve.

Summer is gone… We enter the autumnal time, and the winter is coming.

 

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

 

 

Ocean Literacy: A Conslusion

For the last eight weeks we have been discussing the concepts of ocean literacy, a framework for formal and informal education to help us better understand the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean. Our series wraps up this week as we challenge the existing methods for teaching and learning about the ocean, suggesting that traditional curricula could be re-examined and multi-disciplinary approaches explored so that we may begin to understand the ocean as the defining feature of our planet and the influence it has on all things living on earth.

A vital living natural system demands a vital living educational system to explain the vital living social implications of its value, as addition to our well being at every level. What has interested me about this discussion is the increasing revelation of scale. Conventionally, we approach education through data: the facts of history and science, the explication of philosophical ideas and works of art. We explore the record of inquiry and discovery as a map of knowledge that can be measured, parsed, interpreted, and understood. The ocean has been presented through the disciplines of geology, biology, physics, and engineering — more a didactic construct of many tiny functional parts than a dynamic flow of movements and processes, of discoveries and their consequences. When we speak of the ocean as a global connector, we can also describe it as the historical routes of trade and migration, and by so doing amplify its substance as a system of exchange of goods, people, and ideas. Thus, we have started small and ended large and that extent reveals a scale of awareness that may have surprised many, certainly challenged the existing methods for teaching and learning about the ocean.

Another provocation possible is the suggestion that we completely change the order of approach. That is, move from large to small, start at the largest possible human implication, relationship, and consequence and move downward in increments to reach the structure of the component parts. Let me offer two examples:

First, what if we were to begin our lesson with a powerful, relevant, essential experience of which every student would already be aware? Let’s start with salt. We salt our eggs, our French fries, the many dishes we love, and we have an inherent visceral knowledge of its meaning through taste. What is salt? Where does it come from? How is it made? By whom? What is it made of? What elements and by what process? How do we know this? What is the scientific process to get us to this understanding? In this reversed passage, from large to small, we have moved from the known to the unknown, to be explored and learned in smaller and smaller detail, with perhaps a more immediate and deeper meaning. There is such an ocean curriculum in Africa that is organized in just this way, and, incidentally, all the illustrations incorporate African figures and context to underscore the immediate relation and relevance to the students and their surroundings.

A second example of change in the conventional order is to not present the ocean simply as a natural system at all. At the World Ocean Observatory, we have changed the definition of the ocean from a natural system apart to an integrated global process that begins at the mountain-top and descends to the abyssal plain, transcends the established focus on marine species and habitat, and relates the ocean to climate, fresh water, food, energy, health, trade, transportation, science, research, finance, planning, policy, governance, international relations, community and regional development, and cultural traditions. This is a transformation assumption that upsets the educational order, confronts existing structures, and assumes alternative behaviors to be successful. Traditional curricula must therefore be re-examined, singular disciplines must meld into multi-disciplinary content and team teaching, and other subjects, including civics, history, and art be allowed to inform the lesson plans and activities. Technology has a key role to play as a means to research, manage data, communicate results, and share knowledge of the ocean as a determining force in the educational process.

So, what is ocean literacy? The literate Citizen of the Ocean understands the pervasive influence of all things ocean on all things human, the full range of its contribution to our health and welfare worldwide, and the imperative to conserve that understanding and give back for the benefit of all mankind.

* * *

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Ocean Is Largely Unexplored

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on earth.

We’re discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean is largely unexplored.

No one argues this point with such authority as Edward O. Wilson, university research professor emeritus and an honorary curator of entomology at Harvard University, who, in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know,” writes,

“The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can only be roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet…”

To preserve these organisms, Wilson and other conservation scientists propose to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity. Called the Half-Earth Project, they argue for conservation of places chosen by three main criteria: First, areas judged best in number and rareness of species by experienced field biologists; second, hot spots: localities known to support a large number of species of a specific favored group such as birds and trees; and third, broad-brush areas delineated by geography and vegetation, called eco-regions.

These, applied to the ocean, underscore the efforts by governments and ocean advocates to designate marine protected areas around the world as reserves to protect the natural biodiversity from further destruction, human intervention and exploitation. Associated tactics such a marine zoning are corollary to this effort, by additional designation of remaining areas to restrict specific enterprise such as industrial fishing, limited shipping routes, prohibited waste disposal, and all the other activities that occur on the ocean as a result of destructive behaviors on land.

Wilson continues,

“In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of other living worlds — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, corals, loriciferans and on and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life… With new information technology and rapid genome mapping now available to us, the discovery of Earth’s species can now be sped up exponentially. We can use satellite imagery, species distribution analysis and other novel tools to create a new understanding of what we must do to care for our planet.”

So where and how are we looking? Research vessels, fixed observation systems, autonomous vehicles on the surface, in the water column, and on the ocean floor. Ice cores, hydro-thermal vents, coral reefs — all these ocean places contain evidence of past and present life with enormous implication for future life in the form of new species, discoveries, medicines synthesized from marine organisms, mimicry of ocean processes, and more complete knowledge of what surely is the last great wilderness where Nature still exists to support life in all its forms, now and to come.

Ocean literacy comprises principles and awareness that will inform our world. We cannot be truly educated without it, reliant on only half of Earth’s supporting assets. We can also learn from what has gone before: the exhaustion by indiscriminate use of the land, the corruption of the air, and the already evident compromise that may delimit the essential value of the freshwater/ocean continuum. To be literate means to know the history and to learn from it; to see the reality and challenges of the present; and to engage in the pursuit of knowledge — in the vast ocean world — on which our future will depend.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Other episodes in the Ocean Literacy series:

< 01: An Introduction
< 02: One Big Ocean
< 03: Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth
< 04: Weather and Climate
< 05: Ocean Made Earth Habitable
< 06: Diversity of Life and Ecosystems
< 07: Ocean and Humans Are Inextricably Linked

Ocean and Humans Are Inextricably Interconnected: Part Seven of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

We're discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.

The full extent of this statement is key to any future resolution of today's challenges to the natural health and social value of the ocean. First, there is the affirmation of human presence - action and reaction - in all aspects of the natural world. Denial of the impact, positive or negative, is simply not a fact of life. Second, there is the finality of inextricability, the certainty that there can be no separation one from the other, no compromise of the actuality of connection. Third, there are the implications of the prefix, inter: to be located or existing between, in the midst, as in inter-grated; to be reciprocal or carried on between, as in inter-national; or to be occurring among, as in inter-vening. There are linguistic subtleties here that relate to nuance that, when amplified to a global scale, have incontrovertible meaning and significance.

How can we better communicate this connection? For example, most students learn about the water cycle in their earliest science classes. They see and understand the circular inter-action between ocean water, evaporation, circulation in the atmosphere, and condensation into fog or rain or snow far inland that further deposits and flows through run-off, streams, lakes, rivers, to an extent ending back again in the ocean near or far from each drop's point of origin. It is simple, elegant, easy to explain, and so most students retain it as a fundamental understanding of a natural system. But what about the human impacts of this circulation? While these may seem obvious, it is surprising how disconnected this knowledge is from understanding of the social consequences of the cycle as essential for our daily lives in the form of drinking water, irrigation, sanitation, manufacture, and so much else. When we claim that the ocean begins at the mountaintop and descends to the abyssal plain, we are amazed at the surprise such a declaration engenders, as if we have re-defined the ocean far beyond and in some original way from how it is conventionally understood as a distinctly separate place apart from the land.

Another similar example pertains to our patterns of consumption and exchange. Most people don't understand that almost every thing we make or purchase for our use has its economy and efficiency affected by maritime transportation and trade. Much of our energy, appliances, electronics, automobiles, processed foods, computers and communications, and even financial products such as currency and trading, are produced somewhere else and exchanged via ships or underwater cables that are, even in port cites such as New York or Shanghai, located away from the concentrated populations that consume these goods and services. When we interrupt this delivery, as a result of market forces, tariffs, regulations, or other economic or political actions, this global network slows or stops with further devastating inhibition of world security and stability. This ocean system is invisible and necessary as a structure for the circulation of goods that unites us in the best of times and separates and alienates us in the worst.

Finally, there are connections of people and ideas. Never have the people of this world been more mobile, moving as business executives, tourists, migrants and refugees seeking opportunity or fleeing tyranny. Never have ideas and innovations been more shared between teachers, students, policy-makers, governors, creators, and curious individuals who find connection though art, language, and invention. We have all become inter-connected citizens of the world through media and information facilitated by the same network of connection that brings us to the admixture of things and people that we call civilization.

We look at a world map and we see the continents as if floating in a unifying ocean. It has been so since the beginning of time.

We are not separated by the ocean; the sea connects all things.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Other episodes in the Ocean Literacy series:

< 01: An Introduction
< 02: One Big Ocean
< 03: Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth
< 04: Weather and Climate
< 05: Ocean Made Earth Habitable
< 06: Diversity of Life and Ecosystems

Diversity of Life and Ecosystems: Part Six of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

 

For the next three weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems

The ocean is an astonishingly rich and fertile place at every level: micro to macro. Infinite bits and pieces are simultaneously organized into relationships, processes, and amplified systems that are in constant movement of generation and re-generation, life and death, life again, and life again, that is dynamic beyond our present knowledge, perhaps our imagination.

How is such a phenomenon to be observed and understood? How can science even begin to access, collect, analyze, and conclude such a vast work and world of seemingly infinite change?

Several ideas come to mind.

One way to understand the ocean is to enumerate its component parts. And that is precisely what science does today, with a global network of observation stations, buoys, autonomous vehicles, satellites, and research vessels with underwater instruments for exploration and discovery. The old adage that we know more about Mars that we do the ocean is changing. Yes, Mars has its exciting aspects and intimations, but knowledge of the the ocean as a physical, geological, chemical, and biological space is accelerating exponentially, driven by expanding technology, the power of curiosity and revelation, and a growing sector of the public that wants to see and know what’s out there and how it pertains to our living in so many ways. In my informal anecdotal poll of career aspirations among the young, Astronaut have been handily replaced by Oceanographer or Marine Scientist, an encouraging sign for the future of ocean exploration.

Another way to understand the ocean is to reduce its vastness to manageable elements such as marine protected areas, whereby large parts of the ocean map are designated for restricted use and safety from extraction and polluting activities at risk. A similar method is the partition of the total fecundity into definable species of flora or fauna that can be studied horizontally across a migration path or food chain or life cycle that relies on the efficiency and economy of specialization. And yet another method is to focus on the whole, not so much as a sum of parts, but rather as an arrangement of connections that run off energy generated from outside or inside the ecosystem, viewed as an entity in and of itself and interacting with other system of similar composition and scale.

A third way toward understanding is, of course, the amalgam of these two as affected by human responses in the form of utility and additional layers of social interaction as defined by finance, community, and culture. The complexity of the ocean system is further complicated by human applications and interactions, comparably organic, fraught with possibility, fraught with pain. Human life is but a part of ocean life. An ecosystem relates biological organisms to one another and their physical surroundings, just as it is political entity that seeks to protect its value from all forms of pollution.

Finally, there is a fourth way to understand, by the negative value of the deprivation of diversity and life, activities that consume species to extinction, degrade habitats to dead zones, poison the sustaining cycles of food and food chain, modify or destroy the genetic cycle, and deprive all participants in the ocean world of succeeding parts of its total fecundity, its implication for global health, a process of subtraction of value until the other ways of understanding are subverted, compromised, and left for dead. It will take more than a generation of aspiring marine scientists and ocean explorers to protect us from this destructive regress.

So what will it be? A process of addition, or subtraction, in an ocean account book of ecosystems and diversity? Ours to choose. A future that is ours to gain or lose.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.


Other episodes in the Ocean Literacy series:

< 01: An Introduction
< 02: One Big Ocean
< 03: Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth
< 04: Weather and Climate
< 05: Ocean Made Earth Habitable