An Ocean Ethos for a World That’s Lost its Way
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
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Through the sustainable management of water and oceans, progress on all global goals and development objectives can be achieved.

A new paradigm for the 21st century is suggested, the "hydraulic society,” where managed growth is based on sustainability and enabled by the ocean and the movement of water — from ocean to atmosphere to land and watershed to ocean and round again.

The world has lost its way. The physical and political turmoil we face is symptomatic of a failed system of values unable to support our environmental, social, economic and political security.

Since the industrial revolution, we have placed our faith in an operative paradigm that promotes unlimited growth based on consumption and enabled by fossil fuels. But now, the negatives of that historical vector seriously overwhelm the positives, as manifest in the resultant environmental degradation and all the ancillary effects on air, land, and water pollution and the resultant global instability we see around us. The scientific community tells us so, and the market tells us so. The evidence of climate change and its pervasive and complicated impacts on how and where we live is incontrovertible. Suddenly, we are all environmental refugees. The collapse of the price of oil, the glut of supply, the reliance by states and communities on a single means for generating revenue and employment — all of these and more, are declarations of fact and failure that are inflicting real pain, disruption, and loss for economies, communities and individuals the world over. The old value equation is bankrupt.

The world knows this harsh reality to be true, and this is reflected in the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals address the need for sustainable consumption and production as an alternative to unchecked consumerism globally; they call for the healthy and viable use of the Earth’s resources, and stopping climate change before it does further damage. The Goals realize the need for sustainable energy and an energy system that leaves fossil fuel in the ground. But most importantly, the SDGs call for the holistic management of the water cycle and sustainable management of the world’s ocean.

Why are the SDGs on water and oceans most important? Because through the sustainable management of water and oceans, progress on all global goals and development objectives can be achieved. While a start, these Goals are far from enough to achieve such a critical outcome.

The fundamental question then, is “how do we do this?”

I suggest a new paradigm for the 21st century: managed growth based on sustainability, enabled by the ocean and the movement of water — from ocean to atmosphere to land and watershed to ocean and round again — the circles and cycles of conveyance that nurture our world and hold the key to our survival. I call this the “hydraulic society.” We all learned the “water cycle” in our first science class, and we teach it still as a fundamental explanation of how our planet breathes and sustains life in all its forms. Some 70% of the earth is covered by water; 97% is salt; 2% of the remaining fresh water is frozen in the Polar Regions; thus, the world today subsists on the remaining 1% to meet its needs for drinking water, food, health and hygiene, in a global hydraulic system.

This new paradigm has impeccable logic based on the fact that water is the most valuable resource on earth. Why would we not organize our system of values, social structures, and individual behaviors around it?

A “hydraulic society” calls for an alternative organizing principle whereby the ocean and the movement of water is conserved, managed and re-utilized to meet basic human needs and the goods and services required to sustain them. We can conserve through awareness and changed public behavior to increase the capacity of water we already have. We can desalinate to meet our future fresh water needs. We can manage our fisheries and new production through policy and aquaculture to provide essential protein and associated employment. We can generate energy through wind, solar, tidal, current and geothermal production, and can provide power generation in the coastal areas where an ever-increasing percentage of the world population chooses to live. We can investigate ocean species, known and still to be discovered, as a new pharmacopeia for future cures for disease. We can modify our centralized structures of governance to protect this new system, make it more effective and efficient, moving to a more collaborative watershed system for preservation, governance and regional advancement. We can price water as a universal right, guaranteeing every individual a minimum supply at no cost to meet essential needs and thereafter establishing a valuation and pricing system based on utility and need, rather than on private ownership.

A “hydraulic society” calls for an alternative organizing principle whereby the ocean and the movement of water is conserved, managed and re-utilized to meet basic human needs and the goods and services required to sustain them.

All this, and much more, can be achieved now, with existing knowledge and technology, if we could only find the political will to make it so. If we can wrap our minds around this new paradigm, understand the authenticity and implication of a “hydraulic society,” apply its logic, and act thereby in our own and our children’s best interest as the beneficiaries of Earth’s natural value, we can surely transcend the short-term profiteers, political fear-mongers and subversive opportunists who are anathema to progress.

The world cries out for a context for change, a vision for the future that moves us beyond morbid reality and hopelessness to a better place. We need an ocean ethos, a change in the fundamental character or spirit of our culture, organized around the pure and enduring value of our water planet.

Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org. He is author of ‘The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society’ (Leete’s Island Books, 2016).

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