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No sustainable development possible if our oceans are sick

Par Josep Lluís Pelegrí Llopart, Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC)

In January 2021, the Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development, proclaimed by the United Nations and coordinated by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, started.

The main objective of this Decade of the Oceans, which will last until the end of 2030, is to promote scientifically-based management of the oceans and coasts, making healthy oceans one of the pillars of the progress of all of humanity.

Under the theme “The Ocean We Need For The Future We Want”, the Oceans Decade is based on the premise that oceanography must be the driving force behind the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. This will only be possible through reflection, cooperation and transformation: a process based on scientific knowledge and which integrates the participation of governmental organizations and civil society, with a regenerative scope for the entire international community. and the planet itself.

In this article, I will begin by recalling the preponderant role of the oceans as builders of life on Earth and the possibilities they offer us as providers of sustainable resources. I will end with a reflection, from a naturalistic perspective, on the principles of social justice and individual and collective evolution that underlie the concept of sustainable development.

The oceans: our greatest collective resource

The oceans govern the life of our planet. They govern the life of all species, including the human species, as well as the life of the planet itself. 97% of the water on the Earth's surface, which is the basis of life, is found in the oceans. The phenomenon of ocean evaporation provides 34% of the water that flows in the form of precipitation on the continents, thus ensuring the life of terrestrial ecosystems.

The oceans are also the main players in the complexity and resilience of our planet. They are the major reservoirs and distributors of solar energy, regulate the greenhouse gases necessary for the climate and store most nutrients and minerals necessary for the cycle of life for millennia.

The oceans are also the great planetary linking agents, functioning on the same model as the circulatory system of a living being. They maintain, at the global level, a continuous process of production of resources and remineralization of organic matter. It is a cycle that is perpetuated year after year and allows a optimized homeostatic operation requiring only solar power.

Thanks to their resilience, the oceans also act as major regulators of planetary anthropogenic impact, which includes both global change and climate change. By global environmental change we mean the multiple changes that nature undergoes, from local to global scale, due to pollution, degradation of ecosystems and overexploitation of natural resources.

By anthropogenic climate change, we essentially mean global temperature rise caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, mainly resulting from the use of fossil fuels. This increase in temperature is accompanied by a change in climatic regimes, a rise in sea levels and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events.

Sunset over the Canary Islands basin. Photo taken on board the Sarmiento de Gamboa oceanographic vessel.
Ignasi Vallès, Author provided

Blue economy: maritime and sustainable

Global environmental change and global warming go hand in hand and do not have the same consequences for everyone: the planetary human impact is falling more brutally on the most vulnerable groups. Besides the inequality of access to different levels of well-being, which is very evident between different communities and regions, there is also a disparity in the ability to develop measures to curb the impacts of human presence.

This social injustice contrasts with the notion of the common good applied to the oceans. Not only does the ocean remain essential to the balance of planetary ecosystems, but it is also the greatest shared wealth of humanity, the guiding principle of what we now call blue economy : an economy based not only on the material aspect of resources and logistical possibilities at the service of all, but above all on a new way of thinking and working with nature.

These resources are sustainable fishing and responsible aquaculture, renewable marine and wind energy, drinking water, marine resources of animal or plant origin, as well as biotechnology and genetic resources. They also include activities that revolve around the coastal and marine environment, from ecotourism to local commerce.

To this common heritage are added the cultural, aesthetic and physical and emotional health benefits of a sustainable natural environment. All of this represents an unprecedented opportunity to make a myriad of sustainable resources available to all individuals, communities and nations.

Artisanal fishing on the beach of Pangandaran, Indonesia. Fishing accounts for 17% of the protein consumed in the world and exceeds 50% in many of the least developed countries.
Azwari Nugraha, Author provided

Harmonious "unwrapping"

The concept of sustainable development is often confused with the idea of ​​“using” natural ecosystems for the well-being of humanity. The term "durable" presupposes a necessary condition: the mode of use must not alter the stability of the system over time. But is this condition sufficient? Is the utilitarian perspective of the planet compatible with sustainability?

From a naturalistic point of view, the health of any organism is impossible without the harmonious development of this organism with its ecosystem. Thus, applied to our relationship with the planet, the concept of “use” should give way to the idea of ​​“being part of”. This reflection stems from the very etymological meaning of the expression “sustainable development”.

Development - developing or unwrapping - comes from unrolling, extracting something that is kept inside (in English "to develop"). Therefore, development must necessarily involve inner growth, the evolution of an already existing or latent potentiality.

Sustainability, on the other hand, should not imply the idea of ​​a permanent and unchanging state, but rather that of a dynamic and harmonious evolution. It is a question of maintaining at the base a homeostatic and resilient system, organized with a minimum of entropy, which evolves towards greater complexity.

Back to nature

Nature, with the oceans as a main and essential component, appears to be the best example of sustainable development. Our challenge as a species is to be part of this harmonious planetary development. The human species can reach a peak in its evolution if it is oriented towards the fundamental intelligence of our living planet.

Listen to and learn from nature, integrate into it instead of owning it. Our individuality should not distance us from our communities and our communities should not distance ourselves from the planet. Our differences should not separate us, on the contrary, they complement us and contribute to planetary complexity and resilience.

A pod of dolphins glide placidly past the oceanographic vessel Sarmiento de Gamboa in the upwelling waters of northwest Africa.
Anna oliver, Author provided

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should not rely on the utilitarian - or self-interested - use of nature, even if it is a sustainable use. The emphasis should be on being part of nature rather than owning it.

The Sustainable Development Goals represent an opportunity for all mankind, without exception, to enjoy basic rights to social well-being, which is perfectly achievable with the resources available to the planet. But, above all, these goals should lead us to a new phase in our evolution as a species, towards inner growth - individual and collective - in harmony with nature.The Conversation

Josep Lluís Pelegrí Llopart, Oceanógrafo y profesor de investigación, actualmente director del centro, Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Featured Image: The ocean is the architect of life on Earth. It provides almost all of the falling rain and snow, and regulates the climate. The ocean is the architect of life on Earth. It provides almost all of the falling rain and snow, and regulates the climate. © credits: Adobe Stock

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