Nature always wants to restore equilibrium

Hugo Tagholm leads the national marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage. He is part of the Edinburgh University Ocean Leaders programme and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Exeter University for his services to the marine environment.

Words & photographs by Hugo Tagholm


We are at the start of what needs to be the most radical decade of environmental action the world has ever seen. The transition away from our unsustainable expectations of Planet Ocean is urgently required and we all have a part to play. There will be no reneging on the changes we all have to embrace. 

The global community will need to rise as one, collaborate across all sector and set aside political differences to overcome the challenges and adapt to the converging impacts of the climate, ocean and biodiversity crises. There is already strong consensus between most politicians, business leaders and the public about the need for action. The questions remain though; How fast? How far? At what cost? And who?

The extreme impacts of climate change are already with us, accelerating towards and perhaps surpassing tipping points that scientists thought decades away. Extreme temperatures, reaching 49.6C, in Canada; water shortages, wildfires and drought in Southern California; and a new record temperature in the Antarctic. According to a recent UN report, 20 million refugees annually are already created by climate change events, in search of more habitable conditions, water supplies and the sort of climate stability that has enabled global societies to flourish, until now. These refugees are often some of the poorest and least equipped to cope, living on the front lines of the climate emergency.

From a marine perspective, the ocean absorbs most of the excess heat created by human-induced climate change, impacting marine species and ecosystems, reducing their resilience and abundance, and changing the breeding grounds and behaviours of fish and marine mammal populations. Temperature induced coral-bleaching events wipe out some of the richest and most biodiverse areas in the ocean. Adding industrial fishing to the mix squeezes marine life to an ever-diminishing area where it can truly thrive. The increasing fragility of the ocean now threatens human resilience, compromising our food security, driving extreme weather events and removing the protection that intact coastal ecosystems provide for communities worldwide. The natural equilibrium we depend on is being lost.

Whilst some of us are fortunate enough to have the resources to escape the current impacts of our changing world, it’s now clear that the extreme impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss are already with us. These impacts call for radical action from us all, particularly the most fortunate and wealthy. Rather than succumb to eco-anxiety or bury our heads in the sand, we must do everything we can to create the change we want to see over the next decade, to tip the scales back in the favour of the ocean, the environment and to secure a long-term place for our species on this incredible blue planet.

As a campaigner and leader of a small but influential NGO, I subscribe to a theory of change that couples individual action and grassroots campaigning with the need for sweeping systemic change amongst government and businesses. People united in action, calling for systems & legislation change, were central to our successes on water quality and plastics. This model dates right back to the inception of Surfers Against Sewage in 1990, at the start of a decade that also saw radical uprisings on environmental, social and economic issues in the UK. 

However, those times often just seem like a dress rehearsal for the scale of the issues and action required for today’s issues. But dress rehearsals are always helpful in making sure the big show is a success. And we are all centre stage now, in front of a global audience. The last two years has also been a crucial part of this rehearsal, with the dramatic uprising of the global climate movement and the pandemic sweeping across continents and jumping oceans. 

People are demanding radical change – ending fossil fuels, banning industrial fishing; rewilding the planet; a circular economy; abundant renewable energy; and a fairer society. Public expectations of governments are not step changes but staircase scale changes.

I agree with this – governments and global corporations must set the level playing field for us all through policy, legislation and innovation. They create the conditions that we all operate and exist in. They must be more ambitious on ocean, climate and environmental justice policies and legislation that will drive change. They must also innovate and act faster. We don’t have any time to lose. The decisions they make and, more importantly, the actions they take this decade will arguably become the inflection point of how history judges them. It’s a high stakes game. 

I’m proud to help keep the pressure on those that can make the biggest changes. The record-breaking G7 Paddle-Out Protest was a great example of this people power – over a thousand activists joined us in the ocean off Falmouth in June to call for global governments to put ocean protection at the front and centre of climate action.  The global pandemic has shown that governments can act at speed, innovate, collaborate and mobilise huge levels of finance to tackle an emergency.

However, individually and collectively, we can’t just wait for governments to act. If we expect governments and business leaders to act and radically change the world around us, we must also hold ourselves up to the light. Are we playing our part? Are we doing enough? What more can we do? What can we do without?

More and more people are taking environmental action and I’m encouraged to see the depth and diversity of the new communities rising up to protect Planet Ocean. We must all start somewhere but it’s important that we grow the actions we take, that we don’t offset a high impact lifestyle with just a few small acts. We must challenge ourselves with an expanding portfolio of radical everyday acts – what we eat, how we travel, what we consume, the NGOs we support; the actions we take to drive the changes we want to see. Action creates hope.

We must all change and act to restore the natural equilibrium on Planet Ocean that we all depend on. 

Issue 20
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen

This column appears in ISSUE 20: Antarctica: Cousteau's call of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 20
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen

current issue

Back Issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.