World Ocean Day gives us a chance to reflect on how we’ve all been unavoidably exposed to the dropping tide of nature. Each successive generation is born to a newly diminished wild world and, with no experience of the thriving natural world of the past, accepts it as the environmental standard, or baseline, that they should fight to protect. This Shifting Baseline Syndrome, progressively obscures our view of what a healthy wild world should look like.
What society actually needs now is Lifting Baseline Syndrome – an expectation of more nature from generation to generation. We should all expect a natural world pulsating with diverse life from the seabed to mountain peaks.
For centuries we have been collectively gaslighted to the benefits of the industrialisation and control of nature, at best tacitly supporting the corporate rampage through the wilderness, at worst applauding from our concrete isolation. All whilst ignoring the far more precious intrinsic and essential benefits nature provides us in its highly-evolved and mind-boggling complexity. Nature makes our best super computers look basic.
This Ocean Decade presents us with a unique and, some might say, final opportunity to redress our imbalance with the marine and other ecosystems we depend on. An opportunity to make space for more nature for our successors, not less. We must seize the opportunity to reject the ‘business as usual’ that has got us into this and embrace the unusual – the weird, wild, wonderful and intricate nature around us that we depend on.
Human civilisation has already eradicated 83% of wild mammals on the planet and over half of plants. Almost 90% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted or fully exploited - with subsidies enabling industrial fishing fleets to hoover up all life from large swathes of the ocean, leaving behind lifeless deserts of destruction. There are increasing numbers of ‘Dead Zones’ in the ocean – 400 and counting – where excess nutrients and runoff from agriculture and cities halt life in its tracks. Consumption and convenience drive over 12 million tonnes of plastic pollution into the ocean every year.
In what has to be the decade of environmentalism, the current cascade of national and international rhetoric, targets and commitments for nature is accelerating at a welcome pace but this must be matched with action to deliver Lifting Baseline Syndrome. The measure of success is when the public witnesses the increase in nature – more forests, more wildlife, more whales, more fish and more diverse and complex life on Planet Ocean.
The ocean is fast becoming the focal point for action – perhaps because it is the last, vast wilderness that offers us the most hope for a transformational decade of action. It provides the foundations to change our relationship with nature from destructive and exploitative to restorative and truly sustainable. We do however need to be careful of the so-called ‘blue economy’ and make sure that the blue gold rush doesn’t diminish the ocean in the same way as the industrialisation of the land. The ocean can provide us much more if left alone to recover.
This year, at the start of the Ocean Decade, the UK has the huge responsibility of the G7 and COP26 Presidencies to unite world leaders to ensure we build back better from the global pandemic and create a greener, bluer, more prosperous future for all. With the G7 taking place in just a few days on the rugged coastline of Cornwall – the home and centre of energy for Surfers Against Sewage - the Atlantic vista will hopefully ensure that our leaders will place ocean recovery at the heart of human recovery.
The UK is leading strongly and we must all welcome the commitment from all G7 countries to the 30x30 target to protect 30% of our land and seas by 2030. Impressively, the UK has committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030 – a soon to be legal requirement that will need huge action and investment to deliver. It will be up to all of us to hold the Government’s feet to the fire with these new commitments.
We are perhaps only now left with only 10 years to reverse the damage humans have inflicted on this blue planet. Alongside the destruction caused by deep-sea mining, unsustainable fishing and pollution; climate change is causing ocean temperatures and acidity levels to rise dramatically. The ocean is on fire.
But the ocean also has a crucial role to play in tackling the climate crisis. From seagrass meadows and kelp forests that lock carbon deep below the sea floor, to ocean currents that regulate global temperatures, the ocean can provide vital solutions. As the hosts of COP26, the UK government has a responsibility to make sure the ocean is at the forefront of climate negotiations.
The restoration and full protection of massive bands of the ocean can be central to solving the convergence of mounting and emerging issues including the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and threats to human wellbeing globally.
Decisions made this year in the UK, in both Cornwall and Glasgow, will set our course for how we recover not just from the pandemic, but also how we allow the blue planet to recover from the scars of our society. The time is now to reinstate ourselves as a part of nature and learn what we can and, more importantly, what we can no longer take from nature.
We must now ensure that the action matches the rhetoric, and that the ocean truly becomes central to the recovery of this beautiful planet we call home.
We will all be lifted up by a rising tide of nature and ocean recovery.
Hugo Tagholm is CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, follow @HugoSAS
Surfers Against Sewage declared an Ocean & Climate Emergency in January 2021. Sign their Ocean & Climate Emergency Petition here
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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