World Ocean Weekly

As Regulations Roll Back, Environmentalists Take Fossil Fuels To Court


In a time when environmental regulations and protection statues are being removed and rescinded in the United States and elsewhere, we are threatened for a serious return to overt, uncontrolled corporate consumption of the world's natural resources - a phenomenon that was rejected in the 1970's with the passage of legal protections such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act that protected citizens from the consequential, health-harming effects of pollution associated with fossil fuels, industrial manufacturing and agriculture, and the general poisoning of air, streams, rivers, coasts and ocean to a degree no longer acceptable by the public.

From the very moment of creation of these legal frameworks, corporate interests began an insidious, incremental attack through exception, exemption, tax credits, and other means to prolong the profitable enterprise without such controls to maximize profits no matter what the human devastation that ensued. And so we see communities destroyed, land and water polluted, and political action taken to put the vested interests in power to continue the return. It has never been more evident and deleterious than it is today.

To combat this inexorable regress, environmentalists have abandoned politics for law. The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, has brought hundreds of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act to enforce application of the law to protect fauna from this industrial return. Other organizations have sued to conserve plants and marine species through a network of land-based reserves or marine protected areas. Individual suits are brought against developers, tourism promoters, and governments, using local ordinances and state laws to oppose enterprise oblivious to the value of clean air to breathe, natural parks, coasts, and the deep ocean. One we have spoken about here often is the Children's Trust suit in federal court to force the U.S. Government to apply the legal precedent of the Public Trust Doctrine to the licensing of private consumption of natural resources to exhaustion, a "taking" through misapplication of the law of natural value from ensuing generations. Despite intense government opposition, that case is moving through the courts toward most probably a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, among all these, the fossil fuel industry has been the most egregious in its indifference and direct action toward business as usual, and hydro-fracturing, a process used to force additional fossil fuels from spent or marginal wells, is promoted, seemingly an extension of supply even when there is a world glut, and certainly a process with well documented disastrous impacts on land, water, and communities. Over and over again, the suits are brought, the briefs filed, the opinions rendered, the appeals made, as the process grinds on as an apparently inexorable waste of time, money, and human health.

Last month, a case against fracking was brought before an international tribunal - The Permanent People's Tribunal on Human Rights, Fracking and Climate Change - that asked its judges to apply the standards of international human rights law and to render an opinion on the following four questions:

  1. Under what circumstance do fracking and other unconventional oil and gas extraction techniques breach substantive and procedural human rights protected by international law as matter of treaty or custom?
  2. Under what circumstance to these techniques warrant the issuance of provisional measures or judgment enjoining further activity, remediation relief, of damages for causing environmental harm?
  3. What is the extent of responsibility and liability of States and non-state actors for violation of human rights and for environmental and climate harm cause by these techniques?
  4. What is the responsibility and liability of these actors, both legal and moral, for violations of the rights of nature related to environmental and climate harm?

Experts will be called to testify, exhibits will be introduced, arguments will be made to sway the judges' opinion. This may all seem like a charade to some, but I think not. What is happening here is that the force of those advocating for interaction with nature for the benefit of all mankind, not for the shareholders and industry profiteers, has reached the highest level in a global court of law and public judgment. It is such a sad story, and it cannot continue despite the regressive efforts of those most vested interests. There must be accountability and judgment. Too much damage has been done to the land; it is visible for all to see. Too much injury has been done to families and communities. Too much anger has built toward the demand for redress. Too much of the rule of law and morality has been corrupted to bitter end. Too much consumption of the resources on land and sea has brought us to this critical moment where law, at every level, must be affirmed to protect life, freedom, and social justice. It is that serious; we must pay attention lest the inalienable rights of nature be taken away forever.

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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.


World Oceans Day is this Friday, June 8th

On June 8, we celebrate World Ocean Day, a date designated by the United Nations to recognize our relationship with the ocean through so many different ways of global connection. Around the world, through the World Ocean Network, The Ocean Project, and many other organizations with ocean interests, events will take place to highlight the value of ocean resources. There will be maritime festivals and beach clean-ups, school projects and environmental presentations the world over - in Africa and Asia, Europe and the Americas. What was once a bright idea is now an international event that for one brief moment focuses some part of ephemeral world interest on the ocean and its benefit for all mankind.

Of course, every day is ocean day. And we can claim that with the authority of the headlines that every day point to some ocean issue of import: the catastrophic disaster of a failed drilling rig or shipping accident, piracy in Arabian waters, the trade impact of an expanded Panama Canal, the security implications of the opening of Northern Arctic passages, the decline of fisheries across the world economy, the vast plastic wasteland floating in mid-Pacific, the arrival of Japanese tsunami debris drifting onto American shores, and the continuing, growing evidence of the negative impact of climate change on the ocean and its capacity for supporting all aspects of human survival.

What is World Oceans Day meant to do? If all those concerned with ocean issues were to shout at once, there would be a compelling noise, enough to let us know that others around the world also care, enough to give us confidence that our whole is greater by the sum of our individual voices, and perhaps enough to penetrate the consciousness of a political structure that for the most part continues to ignore ocean issues, willfully waiting until it is too late. Sadly, if we hear anything at all, it is either the silence of indifference, or the shrill pitch of denial, or occasionally, the clear prescient voice of science and reality, there, but apparently not yet loud enough to make the necessary difference for the deciders.

A 2012 survey conducted by The Ocean Project indicated that public awareness of ocean issues in the United States has not advanced at all over a ten-year period - no progress at all, despite consistent and continuing efforts by conservation, ocean, and other environmental organizations to inform and educate. What, then, does it take for the will of the people to coalesce around a single issue, to be informed and changed into a voice for change, and to counter the lassitude and cynicism? The analogy that occurs of course is the ocean itself, believed to be infinite in its capacity to dissolve the toxins, absorb the oil, sequester the CO2, cleanse the waste, circulate the protein and fresh water, heal itself along with the poisons of others. Cleaning the beaches on Ocean Day is a reminder of what the ocean cannot assimilate - poly nets and fishing lines, plastic bags and containers, and congealed residue of too much oil spilled or chemicals deposited, fish and birds struggling to recover from polluted, de- oxygenated waters, and disrupted lives of so many worldwide who have for generations made their living from the sea. This detritus, both natural and social, is ample evidence that the ocean has reached its limit and that, if we continue to despoil it, we risk a vast, terrible, irretrievable loss.

When we stand by the sea, or when we imagine it in our minds, we perceive Nature in the reality of its movement, shifting light, and sense of life. When we study the ocean, we understand its contribution to our health and well-being through water, food, energy, and economic, cultural, and spiritual connection. Why would we put such a valuable thing at risk? Why would we subvert a national policy to protect it? Why would we ignore a system of governance and law for the sea to manage it? Why, deliberately, through acts of commission and omission, would we allow such a vital, fecund thing to be compromised, poisoned, and killed? Surely, if on this Oceans Day we can come to the realization that such acts are truly self-destructive, we can then use every other day to spread the word, to act in some overt way to change our behaviors, and to otherwise transform the will of one "citizen of the ocean" to become thousands, to become millions, who demand that the ocean be returned from scarcity to abundance, from conflict to accommodation, from exploitation to sustainability, from ignorance to intelligent action for our future.

The ocean will serve us well, forever, if only we demand, now, to serve it better.

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And on Saturday, June 9th join MARCH FOR THE OCEAN in Washington, D.C. Join one of more than 70 satellite marches and events around the globe. MARCH FOR THE OCEAN is about the survival of our blue planet. Learn more at


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, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Can We Build a Sustainable Food Future?


Many years ago during a visit to the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo, Norway, I came across a series of diagrams in the small boat hall: there were circles in a mandala-like form that visualized the cycles of the year, of the harvest on both land and at sea, of the work patterns of men and women, and of the inter-relationship of the generations - grandparents, parents, and children - to the sustainability of their remote oceanside communities.
These diagrams were an intellectual and emotional revelation, in that they provided me, very much a city boy from America's heartland, extraordinary insight into the patterns and practical collaborations among the inhabitants of coastal communities. For the first time, I appreciated the primarily social organization of such enterprise, the inherent wisdom of experience that determined that success in a challenging place that demanded the participation of every resident, old and young, in a series of inter-related activities that enabled a healthy, happy, and sustainable livelihood.

Much of this wisdom was based on the observations of the seasons, the changing of the light, temperature, and resultant practicality for growing things ashore. Each season provided its work list: tasks that were assigned to the most able and skilled to perform just those things. The men turned and tilled the land, the women planted, every one harvested, and the additional tasks that transformed this plenty into food to be eaten, stored, dried, processed, and saved as seed for the next season to begin again.

There was also a division of labor related to the sea - gear and boats to be prepared, fishing by crews of men and boys, and the transformation of that harvest into dried fish, export product for trade, and other needs for community life through use of 100 percent of the fish: needles, buttons, thread, health products, clothing and other uses.

There was also a further circle, that of the social and religious celebrations and events associated with each activity and each season. The sum of the circles was a telling portrait of how society can be organized around the plenty that nature so generously will provide for our well-being.

Last week, I received a press release announcing a new partnership of the National Family Farm Coalition and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, wherein the synergy of activity, needs, and political interests between the two was recognized as common threats facing land-based and sea-based food. The partnership affirmed the similar challenges faced by many family farmers and fishers in recent decades: corporate consolidation of food systems at the expense of small- and mid-scale producers, the decline of rural communities, the reduction of food workers, the destruction of environment and ecosystems, the delimited access to real food, and collective health. "The expansion of a more sustainable food future is dependent on this declaration of interdependence and solidarity between us," the release declared, "a vision to unite family farmers, ranchers, and fishers in a collective effort for economic empowerment and food justice."

At issue here is the recurring impact of scale - the growth of food production from artisanal and local to industrial and global. That enormous growth has had astonishing impacts on national economies, building an international market for certain foods and grains at the expense of other production, of the land saturated with pesticide and nitrate-based fertilizer, of exhausted and poisoned earth blown and eroded away into our streams where it descends through watersheds to the sea where it subsumes oxygen and aquatic life turning large areas of coastal water into a place where no animal, no plant, no human can survive.

Perhaps such consequence has convinced us? Perhaps such destruction, now further aggravated by climate change and extreme weather, can be overcome by the diminution of scale, the return to the local, to cooperation among those who live by this small scale production, to the revitalization of land and community by return to sustainable values.

Where I live there is a strong revival of fishing and agriculture. Our fastest growing profession is organic farming, young people returned from the city, educated and prepared to pursue hard work as a reflection of quality of life, outdoor living not compromised by the demands of consumption, and fueled by the natural energy of earth and ocean. They are becoming much more politically involved, engaging in the determination of policy and direction, and joining together in value-added enterprise, fairs and farmers markets to which so many of us flock for good food, real value, and investment in the health of all aspects of our community.

Fishers and farmers, unite! Let those circles and cycles of health and vitality return, revitalized, from an exhibit on a museum wall to a regenerative way by we can live, successfully again, together today.

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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.

It's Time to March for the Ocean!

On June 9th, 2018 a March For The Ocean (#M4O) will take place in Washington, D.C. and in cities around the world. Let's gather in the nation's capital or at a march in a city near you. Let's organize. Let's volunteer. We must declare, loudly and publicly, that the ocean will prevail and will continue to support us for generations to come if only we have the courage and the will to sustain it.

On Saturday, June 9th I will join countless others to march for the ocean in Washington, D.C. and in other places around the world. The ocean is not a place apart to be exploited irresponsibly or taken for granted. The ocean has shaped our past, is an undeniable focus of our present, and is the inevitable source for our future survival. It unites us all and pertains to every aspect of our lives: climate, fresh water, food, energy, health, security, community development, cultural traditions, and so much more. It is a natural system, yes, but it is also a technical system, a financial system, a political system, and a social system that will sustain us if only we resolve to sustain it for the benefit of all mankind.