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September 29, 2016

Responding To: Climate Change and the Oceans: Challenges Ahead

Saving Our Oceans, Saving Ourselves

Randall Amster

The current mobilization to address critical concerns over ocean health, among other pressing environmental matters, is well encapsulated by Secretary Kerry’s incisive remarks. The sense of urgency reflected in his observation that deep interventions are not merely a good idea but are “an absolute necessity” is rhetorically impactful, even as the tangible steps cited may not reach that high bar of requisite urgent action. If the space between rhetoric and policy—and between policy and change—is more about willpower than knowledge (as the Secretary’s remarks suggest), then it behooves us to push further ahead in order to “correct the course of history.”

In this spirit, we might consider Secretary Kerry’s exhortation to simultaneously “think big” and “think small” as something akin to a mantra in many environmental circles that is reflected in the injunction to “think globally and act locally.” For most of us on the planet, this is simply a statement of the reality of our experience, since the locus of our lives is primarily circumscribed within local geographies in terms of the domain in which we can take effective action. The emergence of a wired world embedded within a globalized economic system may have served to foster more holistic thinking, yet perhaps it has also obscured the primacy of localized action.

This is the inherent conundrum in confronting global crises like climate change and ocean health. Unlike issues such as deforestation or resource extraction, which have a land-based impact in myriad locales and regions, climates and oceans seem to transcend particular geographies and thus convey an appearance of being beyond the directive to “act locally.” As such, issues at this scale often possess an abstractness that places them in the remote terrains of impacted “others” in faraway places and, likewise, in the hands of global leaders and their ilk. Still, as “millions of advocates and activists” have worked to remind, it is incumbent upon us to resist abdicating our power to address these issues as individuals grounded in communities.

In the specific context of the ocean, this perspective suggests that action at the level of international treaties is necessary but insufficient to fully address the problem. Mutual inclinations (or even obligations) among state actors can serve to establish norms and standards that reflect the incontrovertible assessments of environmental scientists, yet they can also foster a misplaced sense of security that (a) something is being done and (b) our own contributions to the problems and potential solutions is negligible. By decontextualizing ocean health (and climate change) from our everyday lives, we have diminished power to redress it.

As an alternative, we might consider rescaling our actions and aspirations alike, focusing on the concrete measures we can take everywhere (and all the time) to promote positive ecological outcomes in domains including food, water, energy, waste, and transportation. The net result of such actions might be to rediscover a more ‘convenient truth’ that saving our oceans is inseparable from the pragmatic and visionary directive to take urgent steps to save ourselves.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. He is the editor-in-chief of the Contemporary Justice Review, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015).

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