World Ocean Weekly

Underland and Underwater

How often do we think about what lies below the surface of the land, below the sea floor? This week we're thinking about water and our reckless consumption of it for agriculture, industry, and what we consume for both our basic needs and for our survival. How long before we exhaust the supply? How long before a rapidly changing environment demands a response?

A world below surface, what does that look like? More and more it would seem that reality is less than skin-deep, often virtual, photo-shopped, shaped as illusive aspirations, as insubstantial and unrewarding gloss, and indifference to the harsh authenticity and deep meaning that exists below grade, under land, and under water.

How often do we think about what lies below? In some cities, there are underground systems of transportation, connection, and services that enable living without the sight of day. We hurtle through bedrock toward a place of work; we consume the energy extracted from deep within the earth; we hide our waste in forgotten shafts and pits.

Geology no longer fascinates other than those who explore the earth below for oil and gas, gold, diamonds uranium, rare earths, and other fossilized fuels and buried resources to energize and sustain our consumptive way of life. How long before we exhaust the supply? How long before the life sustained through the earth's inside is also rendered extinct?

The last value under is water - the most essential resource required by us all to survive no matter what. Think not just about the surface water that drops from the atmosphere in ever-increasing strength and frequency and that floods and erodes and spreads all the organic and in-organic stuff that we deposit in our expanding cycle of waste, but think also of the aquifer, all that hidden water deep in the center of the earth in caves and caverns and seams and veins in the stone, that invisible water that, because the geologists and engineers tell us it is there, we tap and pump and poison with more stuff until it all drains back into the ocean.

I recently visited southern Greenland and stood in a boat face-to-face with a massive glacial finger extending from the central ice cap to the fjord. As Greenland, like many other places around the world, was experiencing record heat, the already existing warming trends were accelerating in visible real time, with the edge calving in big chunks of dirty ice joining all the other iceberg bits already there. The most telling phenomenon, however, was the opening of a giant river of melt water, releasing millions of gallons dissolved from the ice cap and descending with a torrential roar as if a enormous dam had burst upstream and released untold volumes into a madcap rush to the sea. The sound, and the generated wind, the conflict of wave and water and ice - all mixed and too loud enough as if to shout: pay attention, something powerfully unique is evident here, and you had best accept, understand, and move to higher ground.

It seems far too easy to dismiss or deny climate change as a statistical anomaly or an anecdotal exception. But if you look below you begin to understand that all that underground water, all that precious surface water, is being lost to our use, our food supply, our health, and our survival. Consider this one stunning statistic: in 2015, the United States alone consumed 322 billions gallons of water per day, and of that most was wasted. Consider also that there are major cities today that cannot provide even basic sanitation treatment and drinking water to populations of millions. Consider that we are doing nothing to capture and re-capture water for re-use, nothing to change our industrial and agricultural demand for unlimited water, nothing to extract the additional energy inherent in this hydraulic movement, nothing to limit the price of consumption in terms of real cost, externalities, and critically diminished supply, nothing to understand the drought, the fire, and resultant conflict, nothing to address the declaration, at the face of the glacier, of impending collapse. What will it take?

The most evocative symbolic river is, of course, the River Styx, that biblical boundary water where sinners cross over into damnation. At the face of the Greenland glacier, I was surrounded by antithesis - white, light, clarity and beauty, an evocation more of a Heaven than a Hell - but it was all paradox, an incongruous demonstration of the emptying of the earth, inside out, upside down, and an unequivocal challenge to respond - and soon - with answers.

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 Outlaw Ocean: Chronicles of the Watery Wild West

 

This week: the untold stories of what happens at sea, in the context of a forthcoming book by Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Ian Urbina. Titled “The Outlaw Ocean”, this compelling new book profiles the most urgent ocean issues facing us today: illegal fishing, human and arms trafficking, slavery at sea, illegal dumping, piracy, and more.

 

It is a truism to state how little we know about the ocean. And we take solace in the efforts, increasing every day, to map and study the water column, the ocean floor, the community of marine species, the systems of circulation, weather patterns, and consequence of changing climate conditions. We are aware of the transport and trade aspects of the ocean connection in the distribution of goods, people, and ideas. We may be aware of the communications and financial exchange utility of underwater cables and other evidence of the overt value of the ocean for so many aspects of our lives.

But what we don’t know is the dark side of the ocean, the social involvement of many faceless people the world over who earn livelihood from the sea, build and install the ships and rigs, man coastwise transport and service vessels, and fish the water along shore and on the high seas far from our sight, outside our mind.

As an observer of the world ocean, I am too aware of the shallow spread of our knowledge and understanding of all these involvements: not just the science or the larger implications of globalization on our community living, but also the monetary intricacies of ship ownership, management companies, the use of national flag registries, manning and recruitment, port clearances, insurance, and the resolution of disputes that often take place outside of normal jurisdictions.

But what frustrates me the most is the untold human stories, the invisibility of the maritime worker and his or her life at sea. Where do they come from? Why do they engage in what is surely a most lonely and dangerous way to make a living? How do they find their way to the sea? How are they paid and treated aboard? What happens when things go wrong?

Ian Urbina, a prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, has provided answers to these questions in The Outlaw Ocean, to be published in August by Alfred A. Knopf, as a compelling, informed, sympathetic revelation of a reality in which so many of these workers live, the corruption and criminal indifference, the inhuman physical and psychological conditions, the few safety and legal protections in the face of constant dangers, the physical and sexual abuse, and the violations of contracts, protective regulations and laws, and any basic sense of moral obligation and human rights for any workers anywhere. It is a sordid, sad, infuriating story told by Urbina with thoroughness, responsibility, narrative grace, sympathy, and insight into what is, and what can or cannot be done to illuminate an unknown problem and to rectify an unacceptable situation that underlies every aspect of the maritime contribution to the well-being of the rest of us worldwide.

The contents cover the extent of the problem: a Greenpeace vessel tracking and challenging an outlaw fishing ship in the Southern Ocean; the futility of enforcement even where good laws exist; the invention of an independent sea-based nation; ships and crews abandoned for unpaid bills; smuggling; insurance fraud, wreck thieves and repo men; poachers and conservationists; conflict between deep ocean engineering and conservation interests; sea-bound abortion providers; slavery and human trafficking; illegal waste disposal; violence between ships at sea; piracy; confrontations with whale hunters; and other examples of brutality, exploitation, and criminality in “a floating world where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.”

Urbina bears witness by putting himself in the midst of all this, not as some distant observer, but as real-time participant in events and places where good sense might argue against his need for a story, “a process,” he writes, “that felt both worthwhile and pointless…feeling like an explanation for its own sake: that single abiding certainty at the core of journalism, that there is merit…in giving voice to those who lacked it.” He wonders, “if these were legitimate motivations or professional delusions.” “Still, I clung to the hope that by my putting the information out there, other people might use it somehow to change things.”

Legitimate and powerful journalism, without delusion, is the outcome of The Outlaw Ocean. That these stories are finally, and brilliantly told, is an essential contribution to what we need to know about the ocean and what we must do to protect and sustain every aspect of its human dimension.

Ian Urbina is a prize-winning journalist who has spent the last several years reporting on lawlessness at sea for #TheOutlawOcean project. The Outlaw Ocean, available for pre-order now, is the culmination of that investigative exploration. Ian’s journalistic endeavor is an investigative exploration of the diversity of crimes that occur offshore including the murder of stowaways, arms trafficking, illegal fishing, pollution, dumping, drilling and human slavery on fishing ships, as it occurs on the two thirds of the planet covered by water.
 

#TheOutlawOcean Project’s goal is to create an increased sense of urgency by raising awareness and broadening the public’s understanding of what happens at sea, both above and below the waterline. Follow along for the collaboration series from The Outlaw Ocean.

 

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.

Environmental Crime

As we consider the solutions that must evolve if we are to meet the serious challenges to the integrity and sustainability of the world ocean, it behooves of us to remember the decisions that brought us to this moment. With the wisdom of hindsight I suppose, we can look back and identify the actions and decisions taken by individuals in corporations and government to whom we owe the crisis we face.  In retrospect, I dare say these are environmental crimes committed sometimes inadvertently but most times with the eyes of those accountable wide open. Here are five that I consider most egregious:

First, there was the full amplification of the industrial revolution with its reliance on growth driven by fossil fuels, coal then oil and gas. All of us have benefited from this historical progress and it has energized our security and defense, built our economy, and defined our work, our play, and our future. Decisions made along the way can be excused perhaps, the novel short-term benefit and rewards of scale out-weighing consequence, then mostly unforeseen. We established fossil fuels as the engine for civilization and pursued consumption as the essence of our national and international system. How could we have foreseen the negative outcome? How could we know that the release of carbon in various forms into the air that would be revealed as localized smog, then atmospheric distribution, then out-fall into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, then the disruption of water temperature, changing weather patterns, glacial melt, shifting currents, sea-level rise, and all the other outcomes with which we are now forced to deal?

Well, now of course, it is revealed that we did know, that the scientists at the energy companies and research academies were aware of the reality, the extent, and the full implication of what was to come, and they ignored the knowledge, subverted the studies, denied the emerging evidence, and still to this day work against full public understanding of what such action has meant for our health and well-being.  If crime is defined as “an action or incidence of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or the State,” then these decisions qualify as criminal and those who made them should be held accountable.

Second, this first crime was compounded by another: fracking--the continuing effort to reclaim the last value from exhausted wells that has destroyed farmland and farming communities, displaced thousands from their livelihood, created new problems of polluted run-off and waste, poisoned water and sludge that has found its way into watersheds, been secreted in hidden dumps, and extended profits to the industry as a last initiative to offset the reality of social and climate consequence. This decision was even more cynical, the executives and investors acing with pre-meditation, and the regulators subverted by lobbyists and political donations.

Third, fossil fuels also drove the invention of fertilizers, insecticides, and plastic – all now revealed as deadly as evinced by nitrogen run-off, industrial farming, and the manufacture and discard of containers and other stuff that defiles our roadsides, clogs our dumps, streams in our rivers, and deposits useless deteriorating debris the world over that is now ingested as deleterious poison by animals in the water column and by us in our ignorance.

Fourth, there is the cumulative crime of acidification – the aggregations of all this consequence into chemical change in the pH of the ocean that degrades habitats, modifies nutrition, and works up and down the food chain threatening every species on earth with its very survival. And fifth, as if this is not enough, there is the unregulated, often illegal harvest of the “fruits of the sea,” the ocean-nurtured protein on which the entire system relies. All these are connected. They begin not with some kind of big bang accident or divine will, but rather with the overt decisions of every one of us who, willingly or unwillingly, has participated in this syndicate of crime.

Is this over-wrought, as a useless retro-hand-wringing accusation of responsibility and guilt? Some will say so, but I am moved to write this down to make certain that I understand that it is not just the irresponsible executives or greedy shareholders or compromised politicians or uninformed citizens that are to blame; it was and is all of us, then and now, who participate, enable, fail to vote, and otherwise decline to take back and preserve the integrity and sustainability of the ocean as the primary source and system for our future.  To not do so is criminal.

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.

A Climate Conversion

Paper mills to aquaculture facilities, retired military bases to incubators for green start-ups, the possibility of re-purposing a shipyard for destroyers into a hub re-programmed to 21st century needs and jobs: industries are shifting away from conventional and failing ways of doing business to an embrace of enterprising and inventive opportunities for a sustainable future.

We speak of climate change and the climate challenge; we articulate our growing despair over what can be done at what scale to mitigate or adapt; we fear that no single person, or no single action, can make a difference on a scale of consequence that is affecting every aspect of our lives. We cling to straw, Styrofoam container and plastic bag bans,knowing that, while each bit helps and counts, the total does not even approach a transformative response to the problem.

So what constitutes a real solution? Some friends and neighbors here in Maine, ardent advocates for change and social justice, have begun a movement for conversion — the re-purposing specifically of Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, and the state’s largest defense contractor and a major employer, that is now contracted for construction of Zumwalt destroyers for the U.S. Navy at its shipyard on the Kennebec River.

BIW is a small element in the so-called American military industrial complex. The U.S. Navy is a massive collection of firepower and mobility, and is larger than the next 13 national fleets combined. The cost to operate, maintain, and renew this Navy is astronomical. A Zumwalt destroyer costs $7 billion. General Dynamics has already received corporate subsidies of $194 million from the State of Maine and the city of Bath, with another $45 million recently approved by the state legislature. How many times do the taxpayers have to pay for these ships — at federal, state and local levels — to a for-profit company that in 2017 compensated its CEO at a reported $21 million and otherwise distributed ample profits to its private shareholders? The entire enterprise is a house of cards justified in the name of national security.

But changing climate is now also understood as a challenge to national and local security. Sea level rise threatens to inundate the thousands of U.S. Navy coastal facilities in the U.S. and around the world. Ironically, for over a decade now, the Pentagon has acknowledged the immediate risks and threat-multiplier effect of climate-caused conditions in the form of flooding, drought, wildfires, dislocation, refugee relocation, in turn leading to further political instability, escalating conflict, and the possibility of climate war. Additionally, the Pentagon has the largest carbon footprint on the planet, generating more than 70% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and uses more oil than that consumed by 175 countries combined. U.S. foreign policy is predicated on oil, with military deployments engaged overtly and covertly in the protection of global oil resources worldwide. Bath Iron works is a very small part of a very big situation. Frankly, as such, it is dispensable, American national defense not really compromised by one less destroyer.

But BIW could become a model example of climate conversion, a shift from a fragile and artificial viability into a new place attuned to the new realities of the climate-changed world, a more stable workplace for a skilled workforce re-programmed to 21st century needs, national and regional, and engaged in the creation of new responses to changing natural, financial, and social circumstance. BIW could run on new non-fossil fuel energy; it could build new cargo ships and coastwise transports that will be required to service offshore wind or distribute goods beyond the already exceeded capacity of highways and trucks; it could fabricate alternative energy devices, high speed trains, electric buses, wind and solar arrays, hi-tech greenhouses, underwater turbines, aquaculture and desalination equipment, and other applied design and manufacturing production for a sustainable planet. It could determine its own future, not just rely on presidential, congressional, or private corporate budgetary whims desperately affirmed by the State political delegation.

There are, in fact, stunning examples of such a conversions — one in Bath, Maine, of all places, where the closing of a naval air station brought sudden devastating despair to some 5,000 employees and the community economy. However, now, a regional re-development authority has mobilized to use public finance to convert and improve the facilities and to attract aerospace industries, small manufacturing companies, green start-up businesses, plastic recycling facilities, and other 21st century enterprise to re-employ workers, enlist new skills, and attract new investors with inevitable positive consequence for the community and its quality of life.

A second comparable example is a new state-of-the-art aquaculture facility just down the road in Belfast, Maine, being constructed on the site a recently bankrupt paper mill, from the closing of which the community thought it would never recover.

Out with the old, in with the new; that’s called regeneration. Swords into plowshares, isn’t that how the story goes? These are examples of applied optimism, a positive reaction to the climate challenge, not as closing and collapse, but as opening and opportunity. Invention and conversion: these are pathways to the future.

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.

The Halcyon Ocean

hal·cy·on
 /ˈhalsēən/
1.
adjective
denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy, calm, and peaceful.
2.
noun
A bird in Greek legend generally associated with the kingfisher. There was an ancient belief that the bird nested on the sea, which it calmed in order to lay its eggs on a floating nest.

Here is an evocative story: According to Greek mythology, Alkyone, the daughter of the god of the winds, became so distraught when she learned that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck that she threw herself into the sea and was changed into a kingfisher. As a result, ancient Greeks called such birds halcyon and the myth ensued that these birds built floating nests on the ocean that so moved the wind god that he created a state of breathless quiet on the water that protected the eggs until the fledglings were born. This legend prompted the use of halcyon both as a noun naming a genus of kingfisher and as an adjective describing unusual, primordial calm.

Calm can be associated with the ocean - a state desirable as an alternative to chaos. On a recent trip to Antarctica, there was much discussion of the Drake Passage, a convergence of current and weather from Cape Horn south, that was portrayed as a collision of wind and wave that wrecked ships and marked its sailors for life as survivors. Our passage both ways was across a placid sea, birds and dolphins racing alongside, not even a hint of any storm to come. I can't say that I was disappointed.

Calm can be also associated with an inner state of being - a neuro-chemical-physical quietude, a desirable condition that expels and denies the neurotic conditions of our lives and brings us peace of mind and body. Be calm we say to our children grappling with their futures; be calm we say to our parents and friends in illness or grappling with the fear of death; be calm we say to ourselves en route to Antarctica, it's going to be a Drake Lake. And it was.

Why is it that all major religions involve water as an essential place of ritual: baptism, cleansing, purity of purpose and soul? The ocean is a vast reservoir of water to the point of no dimension: its horizon has no meaning; its depth and breadth cannot be perceived, disorienting in space and disconnecting in time. The ocean is in constant movement and there is no foretelling, even with the best observations above and below, that can be said to be certain. A storm can materialize in a sudden shift of pressure; a wind can reach gale force by a minor adjustment of degree; a reef or bar can appear when the charts and satellites assert that for all time there has been nothing there. Clearly, the ocean strikes every chord, each lost in one coherent resonating tone.

Dr. Nichols has shared blue marbles around the world with millions of people in celebration of our beautiful, fragile, planet, carrying the simple and clear #BlueMind message.I have a friend, colleague, and fellow ocean advocate, Wallace J. Nichols, who for years has given out a simple blue glass marble as a evocation of the Earth from space - presented to any and all, from national presidents to the Dalai Lama to the most secular surfer, literally to thousands who understand the ocean calm, directly or indirectly, through experience, study, and intuition.

I have emulated this distribution myself, carrying marbles with me as an almost perfect metaphor that I can hold up to the light to release the calm, the fluidity, and the peace of the ocean world in my hand. It connects, it captures and refracts all the available light, and it consistently elicits a quiet understanding between those assembled, even in a crowded elevator, a giant auditorium, and across borders of nations and the boundaries of language. J. writes about Blue Mind - what he measures physically in the body, psychologically in the head, and spiritually in the heart - a pervasive state of harmonic blue. He has relentlessly spread this message and I hope he will never stop.

How many stories in how many cultures is there an account of the wife bereft of her fisher husband lost at sea, grieving and regenerating through immersion in such a dynamic, mysterious space? How many floating nests will be accommodated by the ocean, over how many generations? How many fledglings will find the ocean calm to clear their way?

Halcyon!

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.