The Blue Planet: Oceans in Crisis

The astronauts of Apollo 8, on the first mission around the moon in 1968, took a now famous photograph. Called “Earthrise,” it shows the grey and lifeless horizon of the moon — and suspended above it, against the infinite blackness of space, is our bright and blue home planet.

Along with other images from space, that photograph has had a huge impact on humanity’s collective consciousness. It offered an undeniable vision of our interdependence, proof that we all share a single home, with nowhere else to go should we irreparably damage this one.

The photograph also revealed another fact: the predominant color of our planet is blue. That’s because, of course, more than 70 percent of its surface is covered by water. Oceans, not land, are the predominant feature of the earth, and sea creatures the predominant form of life.

Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, land-dwelling humanity has by and large taken the world’s oceans for granted. Viewed through a traditional mindset that held that their wealth was free for the taking, the oceans were long seen as a bottomless supply of fish, seafood and other natural resources — and also a nearly infinite waste dump.

It now appears that humanity’s heedlessness may soon catch up with it.

A series of recent reports and studies indicates that the oceans are on the verge of a crisis. They include the 2003 Pew Oceans Commission, the 2004 Status of Coral Reefs of the World report, and the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Within this body of research, there is a common theme: that the activities of humanity — fishing, farming, development, industrial processes, and consumerism — are having a huge and distinctly bad impact on the world’s oceans. Moreover, this impact is going largely unnoticed and undiscussed.

Humanity’s collective prosperity and long term prospects for survival are intimately linked to the health of the world’s oceans. To cite just a few key points: fishing provides some 12 percent of the world’s food supply, photosynthesis in the oceans provides about half of the world’s oxygen replenishment, and the oceans play a crucial role in moderating the global climate.

The economic benefits derived from the oceans are huge, as well. Fishing and fish products provide direct employment to some 38 million people and an estimated $124 billion in economic benefits. The oceans provide an essential transportation link for global trade, not to mention their recreational value. Oceans also provide a resource for petroleum and scarce minerals.

Our collective neglect of the world’s oceans, however, puts much of this at risk. Among the urgent problems facing the oceans are:

• Overfishing. Recent studies indicated that the number of fish species has declined by 50 percent in the last 50 years — and that the populations of large fish, those species that have traditionally been sought by fishermen, have declined by 90 percent over the same time period. Specialists blame the rise of high-tech, industrial-scale fishing fleets that use sonar, satellite data, and other systems to track schools of fish to their most remote habitats for much of this problem.

• Pollution. While oil-spills and toxic substances like mercury and PBBs have perhaps been uppermost in the public’s mind when they think of ocean pollution, a far larger problem is emerging as excess fertilizer runs off from farms and fields into the world’s rivers. The nutrients in fertilizers, as well as sewage run-offs, are causing a wide variety of problems, from toxic algae blooms that overwhelm other sea life to the proliferation of harmful bacteria.

• Acidification. Excess carbon dioxide, a by-product of fossil fuel use that threatens to change the atmosphere’s average temperature, is also finding its way into the oceans. And when water absorbs excess carbon dioxide, it turns acidic — an effect that scientists are beginning to link to further declines in fish and other sea creatures. By the end of the century, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, ocean acidity is expected to be two-and-a-half times what it was before the Industrial Revolution. “Such a change would devastate many species of fish and other animals that have thrived in chemically stable seawater for millions of years,” the Times reported.

• Plastics. The accumulation of cast-off garbage — and particularly plastic garbage — is killing off seabirds and ocean wildlife at increasingly higher rates. By one count, nearly 90% of floating marine litter is composed of plastic, which when ingested by sea creatures often slowly strangles or starves them. Such plastic litter does not degrade, and it can be expected to last in the ocean for hundreds of years.

There is an increasing awareness of the scope, scale and interconnectedness of these threats — and the degree to which they threaten both humanity’s near future and long-term prosperity.

“Humankind has used and exploited the ocean’s resources extensively and sometimes destructively,” said the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences in a July 2005 statement. “Through the interconnectedness of the ocean’s physical, geological and ecological systems, we all ultimately bear the consequences, good or bad. There is thus an inescapable international responsibility for what happens in and to the ocean.”

This shared international responsibility is recognized in a limited way in such agreements as the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets out rights regarding navigation, rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, seabed resources, and the passage of ships through narrow straits, as well as on the conservation and management of living marine resources and the protection of the marine environment.

Yet, as can easily be inferred from the list of threats to the ocean, the Convention does not go far enough in protecting one of the planet’s greatest resources, not for now, not for future generations.

Part of the problem is that there are many competing interests — from nation-states to corporations to individual fishermen, farmers and sailors. And there is much at stake — from wholesale questions about the use of fertilizers, which are currently so important to land-based food production, to issues of biodiversity related to the extinction of aquatic life. So it is hard to envision from where and how the impetus for international cooperation and coordinated action will come.

What’s needed now is a comprehensive recognition of our underlying interdependence and essential oneness. Only that can provide the insight and motivating force to bring about the kinds of changes in our laws, lifestyles, and consciousness that will be necessary both to protect the oceans and draw on their wealth in a way that benefits all humanity.

All of these issues also properly fall under the rubric of sustainable development, which is of course the generalized term for the emerging paradigm that seeks to balance such varied issues as development, environmental conservation, consumption, human rights, population, and justice.

For Bahá’ís, the answer to balancing such competing concerns, whether for the oceans or sustainable development in general, lies in achieving a better understanding of the spiritual principles and realities behind human existence. Foremost among the new spiritual principles for this age is the oneness of humanity.

“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh. “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

In numerous statements, the Bahá’í International Community has long underscored the importance of this principle in any vision of sustainable development. “Only when individuals see themselves as members of one human family, sharing one common homeland, will they be able to commit themselves to the far-reaching changes, on the individual and collective levels, which an increasingly interdependent and rapidly changing world mandates,” said the Community in a statement in 1992 in the lead-up to the Earth Summit.

Moreover, the Bahá’í writings ultimately anticipate the creation of a world federal system with a representative world parliament “whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and people.”

Humanity is beginning to awaken to the collective damage that is being done to the oceans of the world. Humanity is also coming to understand that our oceans are part of the global commons — something that must be held in trust for future generations. What’s needed now is a comprehensive recognition of our underlying interdependence and essential oneness. Only that can provide the insight and motivating force to bring about the kinds of changes in our laws, lifestyles, and consciousness that will be necessary both to protect the oceans and draw on their wealth in a way that benefits all humanity.

It’s worth re-considering the Earthrise photograph taken by astronauts nearly 40 years ago. The earth is one — and blue. These facts are fundamentally interlinked.