Why we need to respect Earth’s last great wilderness – the ocean

why we need to respect earth’s last great wilderness – the ocean

Photograph: James RD Scott/Getty Images

The real payoff from the Apollo missions had nothing to do with the moon. The prize was travelling far enough out into space to look back properly at planet Earth. Those two unforgettable images – Earthrise and Blue Marble – showed us our fragile and precious planet, defined by its blue. Since then, we’ve talked proudly about our “blue planet” but without thinking any further about what that blue actually is. We talk about fish and whales, plastic and pollution – the things that are in the water – but not the water itself. The great ocean engine has just kept turning while we scurry about near its surface, only caring when its churning causes something dramatic that we can see – an algal bloom or a giant swarm of jellyfish.

More than 50 years after Apollo, the ocean is starting to get more attention, but a growing slice of the discussion is based on the assumption that it is there for us to use, a resource to be exploited, a great volume of “nothing” that human inventiveness is going to turn into “something”. And this is incredibly dangerous. Unless humanity starts to see the ocean for what it really is – a critical part of our planetary life support system – we risk sleepwalking into destruction.

Things are starting to change. The ocean was formally mentioned in the Paris climate agreement of 2015, but it was only in 2019 that an “ocean and climate change dialogue” became part of the UN’s climate COP processes. We’re hearing about the importance of the sea for the Earth’s carbon cycle, and possible changes in ocean circulation due to polar ice melt. But alongside all that, there’s a detectable assumption that the sea is available space to expand into. We’ve filled up the land with our buildings, infrastructure and agriculture, and just look at that vast expanse of water, waiting for humans to give it a purpose!

The two most obvious examples of this are schemes to use the ocean to take up more carbon from the atmosphere, and to mine critical minerals from the deep sea. Carbon dioxide removal schemes do not allow us to keep burning fossil fuels – the focus must be on rapid decarbonisation – but they will be necessary in a few decades’ time to reach our current climate goals and maybe even reverse some of the damage. Some of the proposed technologies involve using the sea as a carbon sink, and advocates for scaling them up often give the impression that all this blue is just a giant pond to be exploited, ignoring the fact that the 3D ocean engine is intricately structured and that its living components are already under considerable stress.

When it comes to removing carbon from the atmosphere, the ocean is already doing us a gigantic favour

You can’t “just” fertilise the ocean, or change its alkalinity, or park huge new farms there, or dump billions of tonnes of biomass into the deep sea without affecting the existing ocean physics, chemistry and biology. I have frequently heard engineers and businesspeople state that they have two aims – to restore a pristine ocean and to make the ocean do the clearing up for us by taking up carbon, producing vast quantities of seaweed as a material resource, or whatever this week’s scheme is. That betrays an ignorance of just how intricately woven together the ocean’s systems are, and how interlinked the whole thing is. It is also the language of control dressed up as concern for everyone else’s welfare. Of course, restoring ocean ecosystems is beneficial for lots of reasons, and it will have climate benefits, but we need to focus on the restoration, not manipulating the ocean environment to do stuff for us before we fully understand how it works now.

Tracking the long term net effect of these ocean carbon uptake schemes is incredibly difficult, because it’s hard to predict how much carbon they will move from the atmosphere to the ocean and whether it will stay there. We don’t yet have the science (known as “measurement, reporting, and verification”, or MRV) to be sure that any of these interventions in the ocean would work. And it ignores what the sea is already doing for us. Before the industrial era, it was a small source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but now it takes in around 25% of all our carbon emissions. That’s 10bn of the 40bn tonnes of CO2 we emit every year. When it comes to removing carbon from the atmosphere, the ocean is already doing us a gigantic favour, and we are still working out whether we will continue to benefit from that favour in the future.


Back in 1858, the Great Stink of London finally convinced the politicians of the day to find a way to pay for Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system, as they accepted that the Thames was overwhelmed with human waste, the slop from abattoirs and tanneries, and the general dross of a huge and dirty city. But the language of the time talked of the Thames itself being the problem, rather than recognising that this tidal estuary had been quietly disposing of London’s disgusting mess for centuries. If anything, the Thames was due an enormous thank you for allowing the city to ignore its excesses for so long, and an apology for being biologically ruined in the process.

We are guilty of this same attitude with the sea all the time – the assumption that it’s a place called “away”, which makes pollution vanish, and that access to this convenience is a natural right rather than a failing of our own systems. We’ve used the sea as a dump for years – not just for sewage, but for toxic materials, space junk, unwanted munitions and far more – and it’s high time we stopped.

Dismissal of the idea that the ocean matters is apparent in a different way with deep-sea mining. There are vast areas of the deep sea floor that are covered with “polymetallic nodules” – potato-sized lumps rich in manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt. The nodules take millions of years to form in this incredibly calm environment. These plains are home to a phenomenal array of strange life that drifts and crawls across the nodules, secure in the darkness and the quiet.

The advocates of mining these nodules give their investors the impression that there is nothing there that matters so the mining is consequence-free. But of course that’s not true. These are delicate ecosystems that are difficult to study, and we’re still picking apart the basics. Two things are clear: any mining would generate huge plumes of sediment that would have great effects downstream, and monitoring the mining carefully enough and for long enough to check for the full environmental consequences and compliance with regulations would be extremely hard to do. Society needs to have the debate about the pros and cons of this – maybe the eventual decision will be that it is a necessary trade-off – but you can’t start from the assumption that the ocean isn’t doing anything of value down there already.

What if we could look at the remains of Earth’s last great wilderness and have some humility in how we approach it?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have any ocean infrastructure. Offshore wind is going to be a critically important energy resource, and there may be places where tidal and wave energy generation is the best option. But even these projects should start from the recognition that there is already a physical fluid engine and an ecosystem there, and we should understand that and minimise our influence on it as we stamp our mark on the sea.

The ocean of salty water that surrounds our planet has layers, currents, an intricate structure and a very dynamic existence. Life is woven through the physical engine, its locations and abundance dictated by the character of water produced by the swirling, flowing patterns generated by a liquid engine on a spinning planet fed with solar energy.

Life in the sea is different from life on land. On land, a tree is our model for the best of the natural world: huge, decades or centuries old, stationary, a reliable feature in a fixed landscape. In the sea, about 60% of the biomass is too small for us to see with the naked eye, and it has rapid, fleeting lives with no long-term storage of resources. These living passengers form the foundation of the ocean food chain, and there is almost as much photosynthesis in the sea as there is on land (although it’s not true that the ocean generates half the oxygen we breathe, because almost all of the oxygen produced in the ocean is consumed in the ocean). The dolphins are lovely, but to think that sea life is all about such charismatic megafauna is to miss the point.

It is time to move on from this language and this mindset. What if we could look at the remains of Earth’s last great wilderness and have some humility in how we approach it? The first deep sea explorer, William Beebe, travelled into the depths in a small metal sphere with tiny windows, which he described as “dangling in a hollow pea on a swaying cobweb a quarter of a mile below the deck of a ship rolling in mid-ocean”. He knew his place: a visitor to an alien world, there to look and admire, not to plunder or conquer or modify. We need to shift our view of exploration from drawing maps to understanding processes. And we need to shift our expectations for our activity in the sea from creating our own processes to fitting in with the ones that are already there.

Our planet is defined by its ocean, and therefore so are we. We cannot afford to speak of the ocean as though it is simple or empty or worthless. We have to see this dynamic engine as a critical part of our existing planetary life support system, in whose shadow we are privileged to live. Instead of seeing the ocean as a “solution” for climate change, we need to see it as a test of a new attitude to our planet, one that doesn’t treat it as a combination of universal rubbish bin and exploitable resource. Ask not what the ocean can do for you, but what you can do for the ocean.

Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes Our World by Helen Czerski is published by Torva (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

News Related


Hundreds of most vulnerable left in Nagorno-Karabakh after mass exodus

Only a few hundred ethnic Armenians, mostly the sick and the elderly, are left in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said, describing ... Read more »

UK's best places to retire to: Which? magazine compiled the list taking in factors such as GPs & crime rates

Healthcare access is the most important factor in knowing where to retire to – according to a new study UK’s best places to retire to: Which? magazine compiled the list ... Read more »

The places we often forget to clean, according to the professionals

While most of us like to think we do a pretty thorough job of cleaning our homes, we all have blind spots we sometimes miss. We spoke to a professional ... Read more »

Surprising that Human Rights Act wasn’t called ‘Criminal Rights Act,’ says Suella Braverman

hDfspXnN-720.jpg Suella Braverman suggested the Human Rights Act should have been called the “criminal rights act” during a speech at the Tory party conference on Tuesday, 3 October. “Our country ... Read more »

OPINION - Susan Hall suggests Jewish people are ‘frightened’ by Sadiq Khan

BRITAIN-POLITICS-CONSERVATIVE Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate for London Mayor, is once again facing a political storm of her own making, this time for suggesting that Jewish Londoners were ‘frightened’ of ... Read more »

Black History Month: African boxer Charles Minto used North Shields building as safe space for black people

Charles Minto played a pivotal yet somewhat overlooked role in helping those from the black community settle into the UK Black History Month: African boxer Charles Minto used North Shields ... Read more »

'Creative' Manchester City gem now receives international call-up to U21 squad, well above his age group

Emilio Lawrence is a talent currently making a real name for himself at Manchester City after a strong start to the 2023/24 campaign. The 18-year-old was recently tipped to replace ... Read more »

Tories ‘absolutely failed’ to lead debate on net zero, says minister

Nuclear minister Andrew Bowie feared the Tories had absolutely failed’ to lead debate on net zero Nuclear minister Andrew Bowie said that the Conservatives had “absolutely failed” to have a ... Read more »

US House Speaker removed from office for first time in history

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been removed from office after a historic challenge to his leadership from his own party. Kevin McCarthy faced a vote brought forward by a ... Read more »

Tottenham: Ange training plan to improve "one of the best passers at Spurs"

Tottenham: Ange training plan to improve “one of the best passers at Spurs” Tottenham Hotspur manager Ange Postecoglou has been working on a behind-the-scenes training plan to improve “one of ... Read more »

NHS doctor struck off for saying Covid is a hoax and spreading other conspiracy theories

A senior NHS surgeon has been struck off for claiming the Covid pandemic was a “worldwide conspiracy”. Muhammad Adil, 64, had described it as a “flu like virus” and spread ... Read more »

Voices: Abandoned by their Soviet ‘peacekeepers’, Armenia is crying out for our help

2023-09-29T171531Z_1392460369_RC20H3AQABG8_RTRMADP_3_ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN-KARABAKH.JPG What is happening now, at an astonishing rate, in Nagorno-Karabakh is effectively ethnic cleansing on a mass scale. A formerly autonomous province of Azerbaijan, populated overwhelmingly by people of ... Read more »

Ryder Cup: Luke Donald gifts Europe heroes customised Air Jordans after Rome triumph

Luke Donald has gifted Team Europe’s Ryder Cup winners a pair of customised Air Jordan Nike trainers each. The victorious captain has rewarded his Rome heroes after they delivered an ... Read more »

Three reasons to consider North Carolina for a female-family golf trip, according to a tour pro

Whether you’re looking for a trip that’s all about golf, or are looking to incorporate a round or two into a group vacation full of other activities like hiking and ... Read more »

'That's nonsense!' Tory audience erupts as Lee Anderson slaps down claims Brexit's failing

Lee Anderson today denied claims Brexit is failing as he mocked doom-mongers and naysayers. The Tory deputy chairman was speaking at a fringe event at the party’s conference in Manchester ... Read more »

New on Disney Plus in October 2023 — All the new shows and movies to watch

New on Disney Plus in October 2023 — All the new shows and movies to watch Fall is finally here, and with it comes a selection of fresh movies and ... Read more »

The European city at risk of a supervolcano eruption as it is shaken by daily earthquakes

A powerful earthquake shook Naples this week. Residents of a European city live in fear of a Supervolcano eruption with earthquakes every day. The powerful earthquake that shook Naples on ... Read more »

Ryder Cup 2023: Shane Lowry celebrates Europe’s Ryder Cup win … by rewatching Europe’s Ryder Cup win

Ryder Cup 2023: Shane Lowry celebrates Europe’s Ryder Cup win … by rewatching Europe’s Ryder Cup win Shane Lowry was a lot of things at the 2023 Ryder Cup. Veteran, ... Read more »

'Game changer' therapy could slash prostate cancer treatment time

Patients could see treatment sessions cut from 20 to five, with high success rate Higher doses of radiotherapy can slash prostate cancer treatment time by as much as 75 per ... Read more »

Dyche demands three January signings to save Everton season with priorities revealed

Everton have three remaining priorities they want to address during the January transfer window, according to a report. Five new players arrived at Goodison Park during the summer transfer window, ... Read more »

Michelle Dewberry brilliantly hits back in 'unbalanced' ITV row over GB News suspensions: 'Exception not the rule'

GB News presenter Michelle Dewberry fiercely stood her ground during an appearance on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Friday. Fronted by Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway while backed by guests ... Read more »

Most fertility apps are unreliable, German consumer researcher finds

Countless apps promise to give women a better understanding of their cycles, and yet roughly half of all such apps are unreliable when aiming for or avoiding pregnancy, according to ... Read more »

Toto Wolff reveals how Lewis Hamilton and George Russell issues will be dealt with

Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and George Russell raised eyebrows when they found themselves entangled in a tense on-track battle during the Japanese Grand Prix. However, team principal Toto Wolff has ... Read more »

Winter fuel allowance could be scrapped for most pensioners to pay for triple lock

Rishi Sunak reacts as he talks with members of the community attending a breakfast club at Wormley Community Centre in Broxbourne All but the poorest pensioners face having their winter ... Read more »

Only 'really smart people' can solve tricky bridge riddle which requires brain power

Riddles can be seriously confusing – and this bridge one is no different (Stock Image) Riddles can be seriously tricky and can leave you sitting there feeling baffled wondering how ... Read more »

Refugee children from Ukraine struggle with trauma, barriers and educational gaps in EU

Refugee children from Ukraine struggle with trauma, barriers and educational gaps in EU Children who fled Ukraine for EU countries after the war started are struggling with far-reaching problems. According ... Read more »

House rejects GOP-authored spending bill as shutdown looms

GettyImages-1441764442.jpg The House of Representatives has rejected a Republican-authored attempt at a short-term spending bill that would have kept the federal government from shutting down, making it much more likely ... Read more »

Premium Bonds prize dates for the coming year

Do you know when to check to see if you’ve landed a big prize? We publish the winners a day before the NS&I Prize Checker is updated Our table below ... Read more »

Chelsea player who Pochettino loves could soon sign new contract

Chelsea player who Pochettino loves could soon sign new contract Chelsea have a number of players who are out of contract in the near future, but one of those could ... Read more »

'Snowflake' workers spark highest workplace absences in a decade with 'stress' as major cause

‘Snowflake’ workers spark highest workplace absences in a decade with ‘stress’ as major cause Workplace absences have hit their highest level in over a decade, new analysis has revealed. The ... Read more »
Top List in the World