World Ocean Weekly

Sustainability for a Vulnerable Ocean

We have done our worst to despoil the land; are we really prepared to destroy the global ocean and all its potential for sustaining us into the future?

Image Credit: John Towner

Our mission with the World Ocean Observatory is to advocate for the ocean through information and educational services. We do so in myriad ways: through these blog posts; a weekly radio program; an aggregated video channel; a digital magazine; a virtual aquarium; a monthly newsletter; online exhibits; a sharing space for classrooms; relentless social media; this blog; and the World Ocean Forum — a writers’ arena providing the best new voices with the best new ideas a place to share ocean solutions. The idea is to demonstrate the vast connection of the sea to every aspect of human endeavor, how the ocean nurtures us, and will provide for our future — if we will let it.

This relentless advocacy requires constant and varied activity, lots of bits and pieces that taken together provide content as wide, deep, and dynamic as the ocean itself’

Sometimes the subject seems so vast and varied that no amount of activity can do it justice and, as we see the constantly shifting shape of indifference, frustration abounds. Sometimes, then, it seems useful to review the challenges, the astonishing number of challenges, to the integrity and sustainability of this profound natural resource. Sometimes it serves to hear the names of our enemies read aloud:

Acid, carbon dioxide. toxic emissions, methane, oil, fertilizers, chemicals, organic pollutants, manufacturing waste, antibiotics, plastics, micro-beads, invasive species, noise, radioactivity, urban detritus, household garbage, construction debris, over-fishing, illegal fishing, abandoned fishing gear, human waste, cruise ship discharge, dissolved coatings, impacts of coastal development, war. There are many more challenges. This represents but a few in no particular order of impact and evil.

How does one even understand the full implication of all this aggressive destruction of natural resources? The ocean is now clearly proving vulnerable to such assault, its ability to dilute and absorb such behavior is increasingly limited; its resilience and capacity for renewal being tested. We have done our worst to despoil the land; are we really prepared to destroy the global ocean and all its potential for sustaining us into the future?

Most days, I leap to engage those enemies as best I can, with the tools and resources available. Success can be measured, and is always inspiring – the sharing and connecting, the responding and engaging that can be counted and interpreted as progress. Through technology, I can reach thousands of strangers all across the world; I can see their names and photographs, hear their comments, and welcome their posting of our observations on to more family and friends, to new “Citizens of the Ocean.” But today, here in down-east Maine there is a northeaster storm in train, our small world shut out by white, the bay absented from sight by a wild weave of horizontal snow. Strangely it seems less frenetic than the usual pace, and the calm permits reflection, the quiet enables a return to the ideas and intentions that generated our commitment to the ocean some fifteen years ago. Forgive me this instance of public introspection when I ask myself: have we gotten anywhere at all?

Can the ocean feel? Can the ocean know the many cancers that live within it, attacking its systems in so many ways at metastasizing scale? Certainly the ocean can show emotion – calm, anger, and on a day like today, as the contrast of snow and light makes it roiled, dark and brooding, a contained sorrow as if just now it knows the seriousness of the sickness within.

Image Credit: Igor Goryachev

Most all of us have known a friend or family member with sickness suddenly revealed, and understand to some degree the pain, the fear, and the determination of those who insist to survive. I lost a friend recently to a fast debilitating disease, watched her fight back with a fearsome Yankee determination, and yet, at some critical point along the way saw her lose hold and fail. It still seems unfathomable to me that she is no longer vital and capable to provide such friendship and goodness. The sorrow.

But what can sorrow teach us?

That we might lose the ocean? We could — part by part, a coastal area devoid of oxygen, a reef destroyed by acidification, a fish species taken beyond regeneration by over-harvest and consumption. We have evidence of such things, in some number, already. But this is real: our fresh water, food, energy, health, and security in the future will depend on a healthy ocean, thus we cannot despair lest we lose hold, succumb to our indifference and irresponsibility, and abandon our most important system for sustenance and survival.

What can sorrow for the ocean teach us?

That there is no time for sorrow. When the weather clears we must look forward to see that we have what we need, what we treasure, out there in that expanse of water and light. The mission waits.

The sea connects all things.

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“The Sorrowful Ocean” was originally broadcast as a 5-minute audio feature on World Ocean Radio that can be heard here. Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available wherever books are sold.

Climate Insurance in a Changing World

Bangladesh tops the Global Climate Risk Index. A study conducted by the water resources ministry forecasts a considerable portion of today’s Bangladesh will be inundated. Credit: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan/Marine Photobank.

How might we protect against the far-reaching impacts of extreme weather, changing temperatures, sea level rise, and other phenomena that affect everyone, even when no single cause can be identified?

Insurance is an element prevalent in every aspect of our lives — a massive global industry that exists to protect us against risk, accident, personal circumstance — against almost every manifestation of human endeavor where there is an opportunity to use an insurance scheme to protect us financially against loss.

In some cases, such as car ownership or business liability, insurance is required by law. There is fire insurance, property and theft insurance, unemployment insurance, mortgage insurance, bankruptcy insurance, crop insurance, flood insurance, marine insurance, and many more such specific coverage types that are financed by premiums paid by individuals and corporations into a collective pool from which claims, as they arise, can be paid. In the meantime, the insurance companies use the aggregated monies for investments, marketing, and dividends to their shareholders. It is a lucrative business, and is often re-insured — that is, company claims covered by yet another company that protects for another premium, against corporate loss.

As we consider the threats we face in our changing world, insurance might be a hopeful tool or discipline to protect and compensate for events not heretofore covered but potentially devastating to us all — the impact of which extends beyond that of specific events and massive financial and social disruption.

Dauphin Island, Alabama. Credit: David Helvarg, Blue Frontier Campaign/Marine Photobank

The effects of climate change are being felt everywhere on earth, and nowhere more destructively than in the most vulnerable communities where development and poverty are at the highest. So what about climate insurance? How might we protect against the far-reaching impacts of extreme weather, changing temperatures, sea level rise, and other phenomena that affect everyone even when no single cause can be identified, no accountability possible? If these are defined as acts of God then insurance does not apply. But if these are defined as the result of collective actions, by many entities in many places, how is it possible to insure against the predictable economic consequence and critical social detriment?

The Munich Climate Insurance Initiative (MCII) is a response to the growing realization that insurance-related solutions can play a role in adaptation to climate change, as advocated in the UN Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. The initiative provides a forum for insurance-related expertise on climate change impacts. The Initiative also brings together insurers, experts on climate change and adaptation, NGOs and researchers intent on finding effective and fair solutions to the risks posed by climate change, as well as sustainable approaches that create incentive structures for risk and poverty reduction. The Munich Initiative is hosted by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and issued its first report in October 2016.

As with all insurance policies, the language is complicated, but the report is based on seven principles that represent a clear bias toward the needs of the poor and a real intent to address comprehensive need-based solutions, reliable coverage, affordability, accessibility and participation through practical programs and associations, transparency and accountability, sustainability over the longer term, and enabling the environment through capacity, literacy, regulation, partnerships, and technology.

Unsplash, Tulen Travel, Budva Municipality, Montenegro

The possible role of insurance represents a positive and optimistic step forward through the adaptation of a conventional tool for risk management to serve those most vulnerable. It is an alternative to the sequential, one-time disaster financing we have seen in the aftermath of tsunami or typhoon or other sudden and new examples of climate-related destructive events. Will insurance find a new and useful form and application? Will it be financed adequately and responsibly to provide the amounts and continuity of funds surely to be required? Will it be supported by other government programs or private financing schemes that will address the roots causes of poverty in the context of rapidly changing environmental circumstance? Will it lead us to adapt and mitigate climate change otherwise by new values, systems, and behaviors? These are big questions; how do insure they are answered?

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Local Action for Global Change: Waste-to-Energy and Single-Sort Recycling Efforts

Remember the 3,000-ton garbage barge that prowled the eastern seaboard in the late 1980s? The barge that could not find a place to offload its fetid cargo? Dubbed the “Mobro 4000” or the “gar-barge”, it carried six million pounds of garbage that could not be disposed of up and down the eastern seaboard. It quickly became a symbol for an international waste crisis that both foreshadowed and fueled the modern recycling movement. Recycling programs thereafter began to pop up in earnest around the country, municipalities began to invest in trucks for curbside pick up, and facilities began to adapt as a way to divert substantial volume of burgeoning waste from land-fills to recycling centers.

“MOBRO 4000” “gar-barge” in New York City, 1987.
Credit: New York Times

World Ocean Observatory and a small midcoast Maine local action group — Renew Rockland — recently visited ecomaine, a not-for-profit organization providing municipal services to about a third of Maine’s population with its waste-to-energy and single-sort recycling facilities. It was an eye-opening experience: not only for the sheer volume and speed of the recyclable materials sorted and baled for resale, but also for the startling amount of trash that makes its way to the mass-burn facility via household trash cans — materials that are either largely recyclable or compostable.

Today, Americans haul more than 100 million tons of recyclables to these kinds of centers each year. While this may seem like an encouraging statistic, it represents only 25% of what is produced in the United States annually. The rest is tossed “away” in landfills or burned. Ecomaine is able to mitigate 42,000 tons of recycled material annually that would otherwise end up in our space-strapped landfills. Since the plant was built in 1988, the organization reduced the volume of trash that it receives from participating municipalities by 90 percent through the combustion process, thereby extending the life of their landfill. The material that is received as trash is burned in their pollution-controlled steam-to-energy system that currently operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, producing 110,000 megawatts of electricity per year: 10% is used to power the entirety of the ecomaine plant, the remaining 90% is sold back to the power grid in Southern Maine.

ecomaine single-sort Bollegraff system.

In 2007, the company added single-sort recycling equipment: a Bollegraaf system manufactured in the Netherlands, that reduces recycling time to 3 minutes — from sort to bales of mixed paper, numbers 1 through 7 plastics, cardboard, newspaper, glass, tin, and other mixed metals that are then sold on the commodities market to be ground up or melted for reuse. Single-sort (also called single-stream) means that consumers need only separate recyclables from their garbage, a convenient, consumer-friendly system that has increased participation and curbside pick-up and pay-as-you-throw programs by 22%.

What can each of us do to further mitigate waste from the trash cycle? First, incorporate “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle” into your daily routine; remembering that refusal of certain single-use items is a best first strategy. Second, recycle as much as you can. Third, get involved at the local level to infuse recycling values and practices into your workplace, schools, church, and other institutions. Fourth, find or introduce a municipal composting program in your area. Fifth, use reusable drinking containers whenever possible to reduce the astonishing 35 billion plastic bottles currently discarded by Americans each year. And sixth, purchase products made from post-consumer recyclables whenever you shop.

Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, buy products from post-recycled materials.

Sustainability-focused groups such as ecomaine and other waste-to-energy plants are the way forward for a world drowning in plastics, the behavioral change that it will take to have no more Mobro 4000 “gar-barges” looking to dump this waste in the ocean, no more plastic gyres swirling around in the distant ocean, no more plastic clogging waterways and beaches, no more photographs of dead marine mammals with stomachs filled with plastic. These images have been both the reality and symbol of the extent of our patterns of consumption, excess, and un-managed waste. But we can solve this problem with existing technology and public engagement. And by so doing, we become the ones who will reverse the pollution of land and ocean for benefit at home and around the world.

We are optimists who are making the difference. We are the agents of change.

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Sustainability and The Blue Economy

Sustainability is the word we hear most often in discussions of how to deal progressively with the social and economic challenges resulting from the world’s radical population growth, global economy, and voracious appetite for non-renewable natural resources to meet those needs over time.  The most common usage derives from the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission Report that defined sustainable development as that ”which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” From this has emerged an industry of academic proposals, new standards and accreditations, non-governmental organizations and policy institutes devoted to full amplification of the concept in the form of environmental management, financial analyses, planning processes, and the inclusion of the alleviation of poverty, social justice, human rights, and cultural traditions as factors also essential to the response. In some cases, sustainability may be expressed by a formula relating population, affluence and technology as measurable elements of an equation, or to a newly inclusive accounting system, or to a calculation of previously ignored factors reduced to an index; in others, it seems more like an idealistic, unobtainable philosophical concept that at least offers hope, however illusionary and elusive.

From the specific perspective of the ocean, sustainability as a doctrine may at first seem beyond the more narrow and obvious applications regarding fisheries and sustainable seafood: species protection, regional quotas, gear restrictions, and regulated market forces; or aquaculture: a means to increase alternative supply against insatiable demand; or coastal management and marine protected areas: schemes to protect inshore artisanal fishing, coral reefs, seed ground, and sheltering habitat against extreme weather, sea level rise, and the predations of resort and high rise developers.

But if you step back, and take the broadest ecosystem view, the ocean then becomes an enormous contributor to any new strategy of resilience, maintenance, and enhancement of global bio-diversity and capacity, essential to the life-support system of the earth from the beginning, but ever so much more needed now. As we continue to deplete underground aquifers, to increase irrigated land, to disrupt and pollute streams and rivers, the ocean becomes even more valuable as a primary component of the world water cycle, a necessary circulation, filtration, and purification system, and an inevitable source of desalinated drinking water to meet future global demand. As the ocean is essential to our need for fresh water, as water security and food security are linked, as food security and the alleviation of poverty are linked, and as alleviation of poverty is key to civilization, justice and peace, the ocean simply cannot go the way of the earth, be brutalized, ignored, taken for granted, or abandoned.

The ocean is the true commons, a vast reservoir of natural capital without which the mechanics of the earth will break down. There is much talk of a green economy, a shift away from relentless growth fueled by forests, minerals, and fossil fuels, toward renewable energy, pricing that incorporates the true value of ecosystem service, and development based not on consumption but rather on utility and quality of life.  All those new ideas for changed behavior on land are welcome and must be supported. But the green economy will not succeed without the blue economy that includes in the calculation the ocean as a redeeming source of renewable protein, energy, fresh water, and biodiversity with unimagined implication for the future of human survival.

The blue economy has a chance to succeed because it is open and free. No one owns it; no one can fence it; no one can master it no matter how hard they try. Oh, to be sure, governments will still assert their exclusive economic rights along their coasts, corporations will still seek to impose their extraction values offshore, but it will not be enough; it will only postpone the inevitable and prolong the decline. When we learn to see the ocean as integral to the land, when we design physical places, make financial and social decisions, and take political action based on that symbiosis, then we may well have achieved the means by which to build a world that is truly sustainable.


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Solutions for Recycling, Repurposing, and Profiting from Modern Day Waste

Image Credit: Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries, Marine Photobank

Let’s talk about recycling. The idea is certainly not new. For millennia humans have maintained, re-purposed, and re-used tools and resources as part of an essential economy based on what is available, what is the need, and what is the best way to meet that need without waste. The behavior was reality; there was no choice. But as we multiplied and responded with innovation and technology, we discovered that we could make more than ever before, into goods and necessary services; we could build and earn our way beyond scarcity to a new standard of making, consuming, and living that today is both system and expectation of surplus, even excess.

Waste and its management are the new challenges of this day. How do we dispose of toxic tailings and spoils, plastic containers and packaging, discarded automobiles, old refrigerators, outmoded televisions, superseded computers, or out-of-fashion smart phones? Where does it all go? Into dumps where we attempt to cover and contain its seepage and deterioration; into the groundwater and watershed and ocean where it does invisible damage to the land and sea and all that lives in it or depends upon it.

Take that to scale and your have poisoned aquifers with water unfit to drink, lakes and streams hostile to native species, an ocean surface pocked with vast clusters of floating debris, and a water column corrupted solution of poisons we cannot see, taste, or feel until we can through algal blooms, dead fish, and sick people.

We recycle what, and how much of this waste? We collect aluminum cans, some glass, paper, and cardboard and a small percentage of the plastic discard, and turn them into similar products for similar uses. We feel good about this. Not everyone does it.

We also have some bright new ideas. For example, we recycle discarded ocean plastic into clothing and soap bottles and surfaces for parking lots; we recycle fishnet and line into carpet tiles, skateboards, and doormats; but when you really consider what percentage of everything we produce and then recycle to be produced again, it must add up to a pittance.

How do we turn bad trash into good cash?

Here are some thoughts:

First, what if we refrain from creating the trash, at all by conserving or using less of the things that enable its making? Use less plastic by not using plastic bags, rejecting plastic packaging, substituting re-usable containers, glass not Tupperware, for just one example. These small individual protests, and many more such similar actions, are easily done now by any of us and our families at home.

Image Credit:

Second, what if we recycle more, by insisting that all plastics be recycled, that all engine oil and fast food frying fat be recycled, that all manufactured items be made of recyclable products or, if not, carry a penalty deposit for the true cost of their safe disposal? What if we held corporations responsible for their industrial waste, enforced, not diluted or contradicted regulations justified by the right of the public to be protected from such premeditated impacts on human health? Some of these have been tried and successful, until they are subverted by the narrowest interest that asserts mean shareholder return over basic human rights. These, too, are achievable through political will.

Finally, what if we built a new economy on a recycling ethic, a price or tax structure built on the inherent value of re-use, the concept that an item is more valuable if it can be used longer or it can be re-used for a process and production that exploits and affirms its economic basis again and again in a cycle of maximum utility and return? What if it costs more, not less, to purchase a non-recyclable item built from a waste-based process? This would not be a new principle on Earth; it too is achievable as the revival of a principled behavior that attacks waste at its irresponsible, anti-social core.

Without substantive recycling, in these ways or others, we perpetuate waste. Waste is excess. Excess is pollution. Pollution dirties our air, corrupts our land, fouls our water, poisons our ocean, and diminishes our future.

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