How the ocean can save us
Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
For many, the sea remains an expanse of ‘blue space’. What lies below the surface most humans may never see or experience first-hand. For me, I had the good fortune of a childhood spent in close proximity to the coast, full of the wonder of tidal movements, the power of the sea, and fast moving weather fronts. At a very early age I learned about the life of intertidal zones from time spent in rock pools, before following my mother and father into the surf. In a way, how we surf must honour the natural processes, flows, constraints and rhythms that are beyond human control.
The power of the sea to instantly bring me back to myself, to calm and restore, never ceases to amaze me.
And yet, our desire to be cleansed, to wash away the stress and worries carried on land has become tainted in an ocean that is also becoming saturated with our terrestrial waste. I’ve directly experienced the consequences of surfing in water contaminated by untreated sewage overflow at one of Ireland’s most popular surfing spots, with no warning for water-users of the risks. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon issue at many coastal bathing sites around the Irish coast, and around the world. Surfers have been identified by scientists as being at higher risk of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria. All of this only reinforces for me the dynamic, fluid and interdependent nature of our relationship with the ocean and how that can hinder or enable our sense of wellbeing. This is what underpins my work as a marine social scientist and my drive to understand the links between ocean health and human health.
Even though the ocean covers three quarters of the surface of the Earth, 90% remains unexplored, unknown. The ocean is also poorly recognised as our most powerful ally when it comes to addressing our greatest global challenge of all, the climate crisis. To quote my friends and colleagues, Dr Ayana Johnson, founder of Ocean Collective, Chad Nelsen, founder of Surfrider Foundation, and Bren Smith, founder of GreenWave, the award-winning regenerative ocean farming initiative, there is a ‘big blue gap’ in our approach to mitigating Climate Change.
Here are just some of the ways the ocean can it help mitigate climate change and heal both the planet and ourselves:
The ocean regulates our climate – marshes, wetlands, seagrasses, seaweeds and mangroves can absorb up to 5 times more carbon per acre than terrestrial forests. As well as producing 50-85% of our oxygen. These coastal ecosystems also provide better and less expensive protection from storms and flooding. And yet, coastal and marine ecosystem are the most threatened and degraded ecosystems in the world.
The sea is the lifeblood of coastal communities from fishing to coastal tourism and recreation – which require healthy oceans. As Johnson and colleagues argue, there is also tremendous potential to develop new employment opportunities, strengthen food sovereignty, buffer against storms, reach net zero carbon emission through considered and community-based renewable energy schemes, as well as drawing down atmospheric carbon through regenerative ocean farming.
The ocean has the power to heal – research is evidencing the powerful therapeutic and restorative benefits of being in, on or near the sea and water for diverse groups of people. Not to mention the incredible advancements and breakthroughs in medicine from new discoveries of marine species.
Instead of giving thanks for these gifts, we have turned the ocean into a commodity and lost any sense of a culture of reciprocity.
The most vivid example of how tangled our societal actions and human behaviours are with the natural environment is the emergence of plastic pollution in our oceans. Microplastics are so widespread that they are in our drinking water and entering our bodies every day, with poorly understood consequences.
This is just one type of pollutant, there are a vast array of industrial, agricultural and domestic chemicals passing through our rivers and estuaries and from the land directly into the sea every day. Since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in the 1960s to the present day, overall chemical production rose 50-fold to keep pace with our demands. By 2050 chemical production will triple again. As Prof. Mike Depledge outlined in Issue -7, this level of pollution and toxicity poses a huge threat to human health. It is weakening the oceans capacity to offer us its life-sustaining gifts and its ability to protect us from the worst effects of climate change. In response to an online survey with over 10,000 European citizens across 14 countries as part of the EU funded SOPHIE project on ocean and human health, citizens identified issues related to pollution and the need to protect our marine environment among their top priorities for a healthy, sustainable future.
What actions can we take to mainstream our ocean connection and restore the ocean’s capacity to heal?
In no particular order I share my top 5:
Reconnect with the natural world. My work reveals how shared experiences in nature lead to greater social connection and empathy. Groups and organisations in Ireland are tapping into the restorative power of the ocean to tackle issues like mental health and environmental degradation in novel ways and reverse the trend in declining nature experiences. In turn, small simple actions for the environment like beach cleans can help to foster a greater sense of social wellbeing and community.
Become an ocean literate society. To be ocean-literate means to understand how and why we are connected to the ocean. To create a more diverse and inclusive global ocean community, we need to share and celebrate new stories and experiences for why the ocean matters and a remembering of stories past of how we have always been shaped by the sea.
Restore the ocean as a safe and healthy space for all. Our ability to access and experience the sea in a positive way is shaped and determined by our history, culture, class, race, gender. If we are to create greater understanding of how ocean and human health are intrinsically linked then we must create better access for those with diverse needs and abilities, and restore the ocean as a safe and healthy space for all to experience and appreciate the wonderful health benefits from the sea in a responsible and sustainable way.
Re-plant, re-green and restore our coastlines and marine ecosystems – leading scientists, including Dr. Ayana Johnson, are calling for natural solutions to the climate crisis. This should be a core part of our governments goals to reducing pollution, removing carbon emissions, protecting coastal communities, mitigating climate risks and reaching our sustainable development goals.
Invest in women in marine science and ocean leadership – If the ocean is core to climate solutions then women’s leadership is key to climate action and justice, as outlined in the new Women’s Connected Leadership Declaration on Climate Justice. The declaration states how women and girls are already boldly leading on climate justice, addressing the climate crisis in ways that heal, rather than deepen systemic injustices. Yet, these voices are often under-represented and efforts inadequately supported. The declaration asks us, “to rise and lead on climate justice, and for those with relative power and privilege to make space for and support others.”
We depend utterly on the sea, our beating blue heart, for our survival. We do not need to save our seas, we need to recognise how our seas can save us.
This column appears in ISSUE 9: Dancing with orcas of Oceanographic Magazine
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