The oceans have largely been left out of agreements that concern the protection of the environment and yet, if we want to save humankind, we must save our seas.
We call our planet the Earth, but this is rather a misnomer since oceans make up 73% of its surface. When talking about globalization, they should be considered as a sixth continent, and one that is crucial for our survival. 70% of the world’s population lives near a coastline and most of the World Cities that harbor global capitalism are ports such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bombay, London, Rio, Lagos, Istanbul, Dubai and Singapore. The sea is therefore an essential infrastructure of the 21st century. It makes a vital contribution to the feeding of 3 billion people, out of a total of 7.6 billion. It holds within it 90% of our hydrocarbon reserves and 84% of deposits of mineral ore, metals and rare earth compounds. It is an inexhaustible source of renewable energy, and is the means by which we transport 80% of the volume of our merchandise.
Above all – and this is a little-known fact – the oceans are one of the most important regulatory mechanisms of the planet – even more important than the forests. They produce half the oxygen, absorb 90% of the heat and a third of carbon emissions produced by human activity. They also account for the highest biodiversity, with between 1 and 3 million species living in its depths.
At the same time, the marine environment is becoming ever more fragile and dangerous, as shown in the increasing number and gravity of natural disasters, like the Fukushima tsunami in Japan. The main cause of deterioration in our oceans’ ecosystems lies in disturbances that come from the land. Firstly, global warming, which has caused sea temperatures to rise by 1°C since the 19th century – meaning that our coral reefs will have disappeared by 2050 – and is destroying biodiversity. Then there is pollution, notably from waste materials and from the 150 million tons or so of plastic that is floating on the oceans. There is also acidification, especially from agricultural effluents, over-fishing which affects 90% of fish stocks and, finally, the development of industrial operations at sea – offshore oil exploitation, the undersea mining of diamonds and metals, and aquaculture (which goes hand in hand with the sedentarization of people working in these facilities).
If we want to save humankind, we must save our seas. And yet, they are poor relations when it comes to protecting the environment, as evidenced by the Paris climate agreement in which they hardly get a mention. There are numerous difficulties involved in protecting them. We cannot easily see what is happening on the high seas or down in the great depths, so it is impossible to know the extent of the damage and makes it difficult to mobilize public opinion. The principles and the institutions that govern the oceans are not only complex and diverse but control over them is a subject of fierce competition between nations who know that he who has mastery over the sea has mastery over the land. Large companies and criminal organizations also compete for mastery of the oceans, for the sea is at the core of all sorts of trafficking (drugs, arms, human beings…).
The sea is a determining factor in the destiny of the 21st century. The world’s center of gravity is shifting from the Atlantic towards the Pacific and will decide the outcome of the leadership battle between the USA and China. The sea is also at the heart of expansionist strategies of the démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship], whether it be the annexation by China of the China Sea and the sea routes for their silk roads, Russia’s annexation of the Baltic and the Arctic, Turkey’s annexation of the Mediterranean and the Bosphorus, or Iran’s annexation of the Persian Gulf. Hence each of the major emerging nations is engaged in a race to build its own powerful blue-water navy.
This is why we have to remember that the oceans are common property – they belong to all of humanity. We can still bring a halt to their deterioration and yet continue to exploit their resources in a reasoned manner. But, in order to do this, we have to break with the indifference and the undeclared appropriation that have crept in under the banner of ‘freedom of the seas’. It is not the tools that are lacking but the will to use them: public information and support for oceanographic research; radar and satellite surveillance to prevent pollution and trafficking; international control to stop over-fishing; controlled development of aquaculture; regulation and strengthening of security measures for the extraction of hydrocarbons, mineral ores and rare earth compounds; technological innovation, especially for developing self-navigating hybrid ships and getting rid of waste materials; more protected reserves; establishment of a world governance of the seas.
France has a particular responsibility because, after the USA, it has the largest maritime space at its disposal. It covers 11 square kilometers and includes 18,000 kilometers of coastline, 20% of the world’s atolls and 10% of the world’s biodiversity. It is therefore ideally placed to make protection of the oceans a priority and to make good the lost opportunity of COP21. But, in order to do this, it must look beyond its hexagon and embrace a culture of the open sea.
The warning issued by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques [A World on the Wane] is still relevant today: “Like an aging animal whose carapace has grown so thick with age that it is now an impenetrable encasement preventing the skin from breathing and accelerating the aging process, most European countries are letting their coastlines be clogged up with towns, hotels and casinos. Whereas, in the past, the coast gave us an inkling of what it would be like to be alone on the sea, it is now becoming a sort of front line where men periodically mobilize all their forces to mount an attack on a freedom whose attraction they refuse to admit by the way in which they let themselves have it taken from them.” If our oceans are to remain a free space, then they must relinquish their status as a res nullius, as laid down by Grotius in 1609, and become a res communis, a heritage of humanity in the era of universal history.
(Column published in Le Point, 9th August 2018)