Today is World Oceans Day. I am generally not a big fan of these day-long observations. It is good to focus attention, but it is brief and risks oversimplifying a complex challenge. Earth Day comes to mind. Nonetheless, I have a good reason to make an exception in this case.
I am fortunate to have lived near the ocean most of my life. Every afternoon I walk along the Monterey Bay in central California to clear my head, breathe the ocean air, and meditate on waves washing along the rocky shore. Do not feel sorry for me. Living near the ocean is a daily lesson in gratitude.
With privilege comes responsibility.
An Ocean Planet
We dwell on an ocean planet, huddling on less than a third of its surface above water. It is our hubris that suggests the notion we have mapped the world. Most of the ocean, covering over two-thirds of the planet, remains uncharted. We see little of the whole.
Yet we know that the oceans drive the climate. They are the source of life and give our home the blue and white hue we see from space.
But whether from space or standing along its shore, we only see its surface, easily missing the depths of complexity, interconnections, and change churning beneath the waves.
A Shifting Baseline Mentality
We suffer from a shifting baseline mentality. As I sit along the shore watching the surface ebb and flow, the changes happening underneath are unnoticed—changes that impact ocean health and, subsequently, the planet’s health.
The oceans absorb our waste in all forms: carbon, heat, chemical effluent, sewage, and plastic (so much plastic!). Carbon uptake leads to acidification. As with the atmosphere, we have hijacked the oceans’ natural carbon cycle, disrupting its chemical balance. This imbalance further impacts habitats and organisms.
It is too easy to take for granted all the oceans provide. They cycle nutrients and regulate climate and weather patterns. Ocean communities depend on the seas for food. They provide physical and spiritual nourishment for billions of people. Simply put, the oceans are a defining element of our Earthly reality. But the tides are changing, and we risk upsetting this essential relationship.
The oceans give so much. They need our help. We must not fall into the trap of shifting baseline perception. We must look deeper than the swells that wash across its surface and understand all that is at risk. As the Hawaiian proverb says, never turn your back on the ocean.
Graphic courtesy of ClimateCentral.org