World Ocean Weekly

Notes from the Center of the Earth

Today we begin the 15th year of the World Ocean Observatory’s initiative to advocate for the sustainable ocean through communications. We began with a big idea and small staff and now years later, while the staff remains the same, we have met many of the ambitious expectations such an idea demands. Through our informational website, syndicated audio, aggregated video, digital magazine, on-line forum, exhibits, educational platform, curriculum catalogue, newsletters and book publications, social media and much more, we reach literally millions of “Citizens of the Ocean” worldwide with our message that “the sea connects all things” and must be sustained for the benefit of all mankind.

Recently we returned from The Economist Magazine Ocean Summit in Cancun, Mexico, where gathered some 400 ocean leaders and decision-makers from the United Nations, national governments, non-government organizations, academic and environmental institutions that embody the most active innovators and implementers of ocean policy, strategies, science and research exploration, and active engagement in the ocean world. It was gratifying and humbling to be among them. I learned much from their direction and accomplishment.

But it also became clear to me that, despite all this good intention and success, progress was being measured in evolutionary, incremental steps and it was hard not to conclude that we were losing ground. There was success to be celebrated, but there remained an underlying urgency -- yes, good things happening, but nonetheless time was running out.

It was not so much what was included in the agenda, but more importantly what was left out. For example, there was no representation of the essential fresh water aspect of the global water cycle of which the ocean plays just one part. Occasionally, there was a brief mention of the coast, as if that edge represented a disconnect with the land and all of its essential implication, both negative and positive, for the future of the sustainable ocean. It was as if half of the world was left out of the conversation, resulting in half a conference, half a policy, half a solution to an interconnected challenge demanding a full, holistic response.

Second, the focus was primarily on the ocean as a natural system violated by waste, plastic, and un-regulated fishing. All true, but it is also simultaneously a financial, political, social, and cultural system – and those perspectives were mostly absent. Given the role of The Economist as a reporter of news and analysis shaped by economics and finance, that omission was notable and ironic. As the emerging concept of ecosystem analysis is an innovative way to expand how we calculate the true value of nature, as the concept of Natural Capital is a new and provocative way of guiding how we invest differently in innovation and measure return, and as the externality costs of activity on land and in the sea must be acknowledged and incorporated into the financial equation, this partial focus was surprising.

Interspersed between predictable expert panels and messages from the President of Iceland and Mexico and the Prime Minister of Norway, there were several presentations by young entrepreneurs with bright ideas who excited us all by their optimism, energy, and commitment beyond mitigation and adaptation to the ocean challenge – to creativity and invention as a path forward. One among them exhorted us to “Think big! Think new! Celebrate success!” Celebrate we did, the successes of the extraordinary expansion of marine protected areas, of public programs to counter the scourge of un-recycled plastic, of coral reef protection, and of new approaches to aquaculture. To think big raised the always difficult issue of scale, and there were some suggestions in that direction regarding expanded observation and data collection, emerging national regulatory structures, and new inter-governmental policies and cooperative agreements.

But to think new is another matter. How? What? Why? After the conference concluded, my wife and I visited the Mayan ruins in Chitzenitsa and afterwards were taken for a swim in a small cenote, an underground limestone cave, a hidden pool part of the aquifer that underlies much of the Yucatan peninsula. We were alone there. A shaft of sunlight angled through the opening above that had collapsed to allow the place to be known and accessible.  The inner lining of the curved cave wall was covered with unexpected plants and geologic color caught faceted in the light. The water was absolutely still and absolutely blue. As we swam, I realized that this place was part of a subterranean river system that through seeps and streams in the stone links that fresh water to the sea. We were immersed in the continuum of connection; we were swimming at the center of the earth.

How? What? Why? Questions floating there, and here now, beginning another year of advocating for the ocean as a pervasive source and system for human connection and survival, I am resolved to commit evermore to finding and sharing the answers.

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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.

The Ongoing Race for Arctic Oil

The spoils of oil: pursuit continues, even as many alternatives emerge and investments are displaced.

credit: thomas hallermann | marine photobank

Oil, and the spoils of oil, are an ongoing siren song of temptation. Even with the accidents, the resultant pollution, the environmental damage, and the impact of foreign investment on local economies, the pursuit continues. Oil remains an enormous percentage of financial return for governments and corporations in Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Norway, and the United States, where the critical supply remains at the heart of economic viability and growth. For years, oil in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan waters has dictated tax policy, local development, and regulatory controls, accidents and spills notwithstanding, even as the global market price declines and alternative energy technologies emerge to displace new investments and future returns.

Paradox abounds: Saudi Arabia announces a major new strategy to switch energy generation from oil to solar. Norway announces major social programs, new technologies, and other investment strategies looking beyond oil dependence. The United States vacillates from administration to administration, from subsidy and support for alternative energy innovation to the sale of new drilling licenses — even in places where the practicality is proven unfeasible and dangerous. Russia continues its own independent reliance on oil and gas as its major economic export even as geo-political leverage of that strategy declines. And then there is the specter of the Chinese.

Norway announces major social programs, new technologies, and other investment strategies looking beyond oil dependence. The United States vacillates from administration to administration, from subsidy and support for sun and wind energy innovation to a return to the old drill-baby drill sale of new licenses even in places where the practicality for drilling as already proven unfeasible and dangerous. Russia continues its own independent reliance on oil and gas as its major economic export even as geo-political leverage of that strategy declines.

credit: jackman chiu for unsplash

And it gets worse, as the United States announces that areas previously inaccessible or off-limits will now be open for drilling, the Arctic and full length of the Atlantic Ocean, south to north, to be auctioned to the highest bidder. It would appear that we have learned nothing from history, and that we are impervious to the further natural and community destruction that this return entails.

As technology advances, some of it is corrupted to serve this retro-spectral vision. Big data, machine learning, cloud computing, financed to private shareholder advantage at public taxpayer expense, is turned backward toward the search for new reservoirs of oil and gas in a complex calculation of who has be biggest reserves, who is going to control a world economy based on a bankrupt paradigm of growth at any cost enable by consumption until all the value is gone. Algorithms suddenly inform decision-making; automation removes the danger of the loss of human life in one of the most dangerous occupations on earth, regardless of the consequence of technical failure. The capacity to respond and clean-up after accident remains no more fully developed that it was before. The impact on local communities becomes greater with the loss of jobs and lesser as funds for social programs remain unavailable allocated elsewhere. And so we enter another circle down, and down again into the fossil fuel whirlpool, one turn further toward loss of control over any aspect of the destructive outcome with no concern for the future. It is at tragic entropic gyre without prescience or conscience.

These events are difficult and energy consuming to resist and counter. In autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, there is little room to oppose. In the European nations, there is political push-back, even the irony of the collision with progressive public polices that the public has already accepted intellectually and politically. In the United States, the opposition is galvanized to fight in the courts of law and public opinion. What a waste of human energy that is, when all that resource and resourcefulness could be invested in the clean technology that is to come, inevitably as the market rejects the illogic of vested interest and fear of change and adopts process and politics that leaves old world values, structures, and behaviors behind.

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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 OCEAN FUND: A Societal Call for Responsible Corporate Investment

One of the most powerful and hypnotic things about the ocean is the relentless succession of wave after wave, originated from some faraway place, stimulated by earth tremors, currents and tides, extreme weather, as a repetitive reminder of things powerful and changing beyond our control. We may not ever fully understand the ocean, but we are fully vested in its force and foment.

Now please forgive me an unexpected metaphoric shift from a natural phenomenon to an economic one – the vicissitudes of the equally diverse investment conditions and capital markets by equally changing, often inexplicable sources and conditions difficult to anticipate, much less harness as a power than affects us all, whether or not we are investors.

The power of one does, however, relate one to the other. As the ocean is the prevalent scape for human connection, it facilitate the markets through trade, transport, resource harvest, resource extraction, energy production, climate impacts on global agriculture, communications, and devastating storms – all of which can devastate the stability of capital exchange and determine the rise and fall of workers, corporations, nation states, and international relations. It is not so far-fetched to suggest the ocean and global financial conditions are integrated perhaps beyond even the ways we understand.

In January, Larry Fink, the Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, a $6.3 trillion asset manager issued the following statement: “Society is demanding that companies, both private and public, serve a social purpose.” Fink insisted that must be able to describe their strategy for long-term growth, preparation for changing conditions, review by directors, communication with shareholders that “reveal understanding of the societal impact of your business as well as the ways that broad, structural trends – from slow wage growth to rising automation to climate change – affect your potential for growth.” He continued, “Today, our clients, who are your company owners, are asking you to demonstrate the leadership and clarity that will drive not only their own investment returns, but also the prosperity and security of their fellow citizens.”  

This is an astonishing statement itself coming from one the world’s most influential asset managers and indicating that his company’s investment strategies and recommendations will focus on those companies who meet the challenge, and on those who do not.  A cynic might suggest that Mr. Fink is engaged in a clever, timely marketing ploy, but I doubt that very much. My conclusion is that as someone with an almost cosmic overview of the world economy, he sees beyond the predictability of investment assumptions to see the storm forming beyond the horizon that demands preparedness and response.

My point here is that this statement requires notice and change within companies with concretized organization and purpose that has brought serious consequence on our planet in the form of pollution of air, land, and sea, resource appropriation and exhaustion, uncertainty and volatility in production and exchange, and debilitating, perhaps irredeemable damage on communities at home and abroad, distribution of wealth, health,  and social justice. Add to that the financial cost of adapting and mitigating the destruction and you have a global balance sheet in critical deficit.

There is much similar talk these days of social impact and responsible investing. There are a growing number of investment options that abandon the vertical strategy of single stock ownership in favor of mutual funds for all sectors and investment returns, funds that spread risk, apply certain standards to shape the portfolio, and include multiple companies usually in a single sector – energy, health, financial services etc.

But what if we created an investment fund based on the reality of the ocean – a broad, inclusive, cross-sectorial horizontal fund that includes progressive companies engaged in inventive, forward-looking technologies and their applications that would spread the investment globally to all areas of enterprise, companies meeting and exceeding the BlackRock challenge?  How that might emulate the dynamic return of the ocean; how that might integrate sustainability and responsibility in the markets; how that might foment and shape change in the 21st century! .

You heard it here first. The World Ocean Observatory announces the first World Ocean Fund. Prescient individuals are lining up. Mr. Fink, call me.

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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.


< Social Investing: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly |

< The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (SRI)

< Socially Responsible Investing | Green America

< World Ocean Council | International Business Alliance for Corporate Ocean Responsibility




Emerging Ocean Technology: Sail Drones

“The future is in the hands of those who explore…and from all the beauty they discover while crossing perpetually receding frontiers, they develop for nature and for humankind an infinite love.” 

~ Jacques Cousteau Emerging ocean data technology from Alameda, California. FMI:

Technology over the past decades has been driven in large part by exploration of space. Rockets, orbiting stations, and satellites seemingly as prevalent as stars are common to our experience and don’t surprise much anymore. Pictures of Mars might grab our attention, and photographs of mighty storms coming ashore to wreak anonymous devastation do catch the eye, but we’ve grown blasé and, with our ever shortening attention span, cast about for new unknowns to know, new amazement to discover, and so we turn to the ocean about which, the cliché asserts, we know less about that we know of the moon.

The ocean is, without doubt, a place of endless fascination. BBC Television is currently broadcasting Blue Planet II, an astonishing compendium of underwater filming of ocean creatures.

Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) distribution of data monitoring devices in the Pacific.

The technology continues to expand and suddenly we know more and more about the ocean. The scientists will tell us that there is never enough data to conclude, but it is not for lack of trying. We now have a Global Ocean Observation System [GOOS], “a means to guide the ocean observing community as a whole to establish an integrated and sustained global observing system — one that includes ocean physics, bio-geochemistry, and ocean biology and ecosystems, and addresses the variables to be measured, the approach to measuring them, and how their data and products will be managed and made widely available to modeling efforts and a wide range of users.” If you look at a map of the number of observation stations and instruments, fixed and floating throughout the ocean today, the number appears comparable to similar visualizations of the number of ships at sea. It is a complicated, inter-governmental, inter-agency research collaboration costing millions, justified as a first step toward mapping the ocean, understanding how it works, and learning what inhabits there from the surface to the underwater mountain ridges to the anomalies hidden in the darkness of the abyssal plain.

A new technology has caught my eye. Sail drones: a new programmable, inexpensive mobile platform powered by wind that can provide cost effective data collection over large ocean areas, mitigating the cost of very expensive ship time, easily recoverable, delivering real time data to a portal that can be accessed by any computer or smart phone any where. The drone can be modified with custom sensors, operated remotely, steered to avoid extreme weather and collision, re-programmed at sea, to gather complicated, changing information on climate conditions, to monitor fish migration and management, and to study health hazards such has pollution events, acidification concentrations, and migration of hazardous chemicals over large ocean areas. The drones can do more than any fixed or floating buoy, is simpler to build, install, and maintain, and represents a major increase in productivity at a major reduction of expense. More than half of the older technology monitors are broken or obsolete, so the drones arrive at a moment the research community is looking for greater capacity, enhanced flexibility, and significantly lower cost. This latter is a key. With government funds dramatically reduced, the availability to finance fixed monitors, build and operate submersibles, and avoid expense of supporting research vessels, at literally thousands of dollars per day, is simply unaffordable. The drones are manufactured, installed, and operated by SAILDRONE based in Alameda, California, and has already performed over 60,000 miles of open ocean research expeditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Atlantic. The drones were first launched in 2013, with a proof of concept voyage in cooperation with NOAA, and in 2016 the company received $14 million in venture funding to expand the fleet and meet demand for future operations.

Science opens our world by measuring and recording things. Sail drones and comparable technology is about measuring for the benefit of the scientific community; the BBC is about visualizing and engaging the public. The great oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau is famously quoted, “The future is in the hands of those who explore…and from all the beauty they discover while crossing perpetually receding frontiers, they develop for nature and for humankind an infinite love.” And then he concluded, “People protect what they love.”

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 upon which this blog is inspired.

Arctic Futures: How to Speak, How to Listen

Lucas Jackson | REUTERS

We live in cacophonous time, language broadcasting, berating, and bewildering us at every moment in every space through every device, sending, receiving, sending, receiving… We can’t hear ourselves think much less communicate. Again and again, I realize that I must speak so many different and new languages to be understood – not just the old structure of many languages distributed around the world and translated simultaneously and transcribed into books stored in libraries that constitute the compendium of everything named, thus known.

And there are new languages: the languages of science, of finance, of data, of software code, of acronyms and forms of bureaucratic speak, of visual images, of abstract sounds, of dialects once thought forgotten, of gender identity, of new languages invented, and of vocabularies attempting to share ideas and values using the same words with different meanings.

There is today a constant hum of chatter as if we’re all speaking at once, and the terrible irony is that, even with all the translation and transcription and best intentions, we are failing to communicate on a global scale. One such example of cross-talk is much on my mind as I work on a book about the future of the Arctic, seemingly far away and not so pertinent, but an excellent example of how good people can use the same vocabulary, repeat the same phrases, claim to be listening assiduously, and not hearing a decibel of what the other means by saying.

The Arctic is a unique place to be sure – cold, distant, mysterious – but it is no more or less peculiar than any other place where human beings attempt to live, together and within a unique environment, be it equally as cold, distant, and mysterious as it can be in the midst of an urban density beyond imagination.  Whether by charts or maps, global positioning, stars, or dead reckoning, the challenge to place oneself within the vastness of ideas and disorder is inevitably a function of language, muttered to yourself in hope or hopelessness, or declaimed to all in a generational argument, a town meeting, a regional dispute, or the halls of government.

Is anyone listening? Does anyone really care?

John Salvino

In the circles of Arctic interest and governance, I hear a single conversation in two languages. First, there is the language of native peoples who for centuries have observed Nature as land and sea, as living among other living things, and have developed a wisdom of experience to be deeply felt, protected, and conserved as cultural value for future generations. Second, there is the language of other peoples from another place who have arrived, drawn by resources – minerals, fish, oil and gas -- to be extracted and consumed, and have asserted in a different language a wisdom of exchange, export, and economic value. little of which is left behind for anyone.

The single conversation centers on mutual intent, that the governance and use of natural wealth be implemented and executed by the benefit of all. But the two languages speak to a conflicting methodology and calculation of return and, no matter mutuality and intent, contradict in both process and consequence to everyone’s disappointment. What is supposed to be a constructive dialogue is actually a contradictory argument, spoken softly, incrementally, agreement postponed, mostly left unsaid.

Many are vested in the best part of the conversation and I respect their determination and resilience. But many are not however, many are advancing their governmental, corporate, and institutional goals, speaking in tongues, slowly building a construct of treaties, contracts, cooperative agreements, and aspirational reports that may have no more meaning for the natural resources, the cultural traditions, or the health and well-being of communities in the Arctic than what has occurred before.

J de Gier

Today, drilling for oil and gas is being reconsidered in Arctic waters. The extraction of uranium and other valuable minerals, on land and underwater, is being proposed with limited royalty paid. The development of tourism as an alternative source of revenue is being out-sourced to foreign capital and management. The northern sea routes are being envisioned as a means to bear witness to the beauty of the Arctic without contact, without concern for the consequence of accident or cultural compromise that will destroy that beauty. The paradox of nations declaring for solution to the global impacts of climate change while rushing to drill, extract, hunt and fish, and contribute overtly to the already compromised conditions is painful. The decline of the unique environment, the melting of sea ice and permafrost, the populations of flora and fauna, and the social distress of the indigenous communities is evident to an extreme that no words can deny. How to speak? How to listen? What we have here is a failure to communicate through words with no meaning, spoken persuasively, unheard.

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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 upon which this blog is inspired.