World Ocean Weekly

Ocean and the Senses

As humans migrate toward the coastal zone in the next 30 to 50 years, less seaside space will be available for us to enjoy, to entice our senses, and to rejuvenate our souls. What sensate experiences are at risk of being lost if and when we are deprived of our connections to the sea?

emanuel hahn | unsplash

The ocean is a place for the senses. Living in the city, amidst the frenzy and the noise, the operative function is contra-sensual, a mix of cacophony and nonsense. We are blinded by the lights, insensitized by the feel of the urban space, and deafened by the chaotic mix. We long for the ocean and move there and vacation there in pursuit of freedom.

There is a massive internal migration in the United States from the heartland to the coast. By mid-century, more than half the population will have moved to the edges, mostly into the density of large urban and suburban regions in search of work and social engagement. We will be running out of shoreline - assumed by wealthy estates, water-dependent and marine-related industries, vestigial public spaces like parks and beaches, and remnants of coastal wetlands that have been protected from the constant pressure of development. There is a terrible irony in the statement that the ocean is the last great wilderness when in fact its access is becoming more and more limited by human settlement, its value compromised by intensity of use. The wheel turns, as the American heartland, once wild, then civilized by the business of agriculture and fossil fuels, is now slowly abandoning to the wild as inhabitants move elsewhere.

boston, massachusetts | population at the water's edge

And then there is the ever-perplexing implication of climate change, extreme weather, and sea level rise that will impact coasts and coastal communities exponentially in ways already demonstrated by recent hurricanes, floods, resultant erosion and eutrophication of inshore waters.

What, senselessly, will be lost? Here are some things at risk:

Sight and insight, clarity and purity in a changing palette of colors, all spectral possibilities, from light to dark, from deepest blue, to purest white, to furious black as the front rolls through. Depth and dimension: the two-dimensional frame of the ocean view; the three-dimensional depth to beyond the horizon and into the sky and space where there is no limiting shore; the four-dimensional extension of time as history of human achievement connecting from the beginning across the open sea.

Hearing the sound of resonance, the rolling mellifluous rhythm of waves, relentless, changing, rising and falling, reverberating, mixed with the incomparable overlay of wind. Calls and cries of sea birds. Grating of pebbles and shells on the beach. Fine choral harmonies of blowing sand and sea grasses. The poetry of the wind reciting expressive lyrics of solace, lament, fury, and joy.

The tastes of water and salt, bits of grit and seaweed, of beach fare - chips and vinegar and sandy sandwiches, hot dogs grilled, sharp mustard, clams and mussels steamed, lobster with so much drawn butter, sweet corn, of shared plates at a family picnic, of maybe a kiss - each a stimulus for association and times passed, the tastes of youth and age, of memories.

The smell of wind, changing with direction, off-shore, in-shore, around the compass, riding in and away to places somewhere else beyond our knowledge, the smell of rain and fog, driftwood fire smoke, sweat and sunscreen, of the past mixed into the present and into intimations of the future.

The touch of your companion's hands, your children's embrace, the sun on your skin, the water when you first enter, the cold rising, the decision to slowly immerse or dive right in, the salt in your eyes, the swallowed sea unwelcome in your lungs, the feel of some strange marine creature crawling, swimming by.

Our voices. The shape of speech inherent in our thoughts as we ponder self, selfishness, selflessness, the confessions between us, the laughter of playing children, the shouts of exhilaration and defiance, the words of friendship and love, the words we don't have the courage to speak.

mitchell schwartz | unsplash

All these things aggregate into movement - a dynamic as temporal as swimming away or dancing on the beach, as psychological as personal inquiry, awareness, and analysis - a search for equilibrium and location in time and space. The ocean is the best therapy, the most powerful place for expression of the human spirit and connection, the source of who we are, thus what we do, thus meaning. We are grateful.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Every Day Must Be Earth Day

Last week was Earth Day, commemorating the beginning of the American environmental movement in the 1970s with a demonstration of demand for action to clean up the air, land, and water of the United States. Millions demonstrated and then supported the enactment of a revolutionary legislation: the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and myriad other initiatives that declared that the American public would no longer accept the degradation of land and sea by indiscriminate pollutants and polluters with no concern for anything but the cheapest, most irresponsible means to profit. Public concern and public health be damned.

We at the World Ocean Observatory did not address Earth Day last week, deliberately. We decided to wait to speak out about the substance and importance of what the day represents. Every day on earth is a miracle and a gift. If by singling out one day, do we diminish all the rest?

The situation is particularly dire this year. The American president and his minions are engaged in a subversive, accelerated deconstruction of the environmental achievements of the past 45 years. They are abrogating regulation with regard to clean air and water by executive order. They are opening pristine coastal waters to drilling for oil and gas. They are locating areas for license to political allies who wish to perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels regardless of spills, resultant emissions, and other negative contributions to national and international health. They are opening national parks and public lands to comparable exploitation. They are maintaining a system of perverse subsidies that supports all this private initiative with public funds, and they are transferring the wealth inherent in natural resources from the taxpayers to the shareholders, from the owners to the profiteers.

The irony of celebration on Earth Day under such circumstances is particularly painful.

Earth Day is not a single day of celebration; it is an everyday call to arms, a clarion signal to every responsible citizen, every parent, each and every one of us on earth who will not stand by, who will join together to stop this regressive conspiracy in its tracks. March for Climate. March for the Ocean. March for Human Rights. Call. Write. Petition your congressional and local representatives every day in a constant stream of vocal opposition and resistance to their participation, overtly or by silent acquiescence, in this sudden, unacceptable, insidious taking of our future. Speak up. Stand tall. Participate directly in campaigns to run against the enablers. Above all vote, at every level of government, for candidates that will stop this foolishness, this denial not just of climate, but of history. It is irrational and motivated by what? Greed? Vested interest? Fear of change?

There was urgency before this Earth Day: the accelerated increase in the experiences associated with climate change. Those who deny are only denying the assignment of responsibility. They too are otherwise experiencing the provocative consequence of changing climate in the forms of extreme weather, coastal inundation, drought, fire and so much more – that affect every place on earth. Deny if you will, but you are not immune.

Forgive me for this telling, but Earth Day is not a day for accomplishment and complacency. Earth Day is a day for anger and for collective resolve not to let the good Earth be taken from us. We must protect and preserve Nature from selfishness and ignorance for the benefit of us all, as natural capital, equity, and justice sustainable over time. If we fail in this necessary global engagement, then we will all be bereft together, a sad world of climate refugees with no prospect.

We must hold fast. We must lean forward. We must act now.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Bad Trash to Good Cash: Solutions for the Modern Day Waste Problem

How do we dispose of toxic waste, plastic packaging, electronics, and other discards of modern society? Where does it all go?

credit: andres stapff/reuters

Let’s talk about recycling. The idea is certainly not new, in that for millennia humans have maintained and re-used tools and resources as part of an essential economy based on what is available, what is the need, and what is the best way to meet that need without waste. The behavior was reality; there was no choice. But as we multiplied and responded with innovation and technology, we discovered that we could make more than ever before, into goods and necessary services; we could build and earn our way beyond scarcity to a new standard of making, consuming, and living that today is both system and expectation of surplus, even excess.

Waste and its management are the new challenges of this day. How do we dispose of toxic tailings and spoils, plastic containers and packaging, discarded automobiles, old refrigerators, outmoded televisions, superseded computers, or out-of-fashion smart phones? Where does it all go? Into dumps where we attempt to cover and contain its seepage and deterioration; into the groundwater and watershed and ocean where it does invisible damage to the land and sea and all that lives in it or depends upon it.

Take that to scale and you have poisoned aquifers with water unfit to drink, lakes and streams hostile to native species, an ocean surface pocked with vast clusters of floating debris, and a water column corrupted, a solution of poisons we cannot see, taste, or feel until we can through algal blooms, dead fish, and sick people.

credit: claire fackler, noaa national marine sanctuaries | marine photobank

We recycle what, and how much of this waste? We collect aluminum cans, some glass, paper, and cardboard and a small percentage of the plastic discard, and turn them into similar products for similar uses.  We feel good about this. Not everyone does it.

We also have some bright new ideas. For example, we recycle discarded ocean plastic into clothing and soap bottles and surfaces for parking lots; we recycle fishnet and line into carpet tiles, skateboards, and doormats; but when you really consider what percentage of everything we produce and then recycle to be produced again, it must add up to a pittance.

How do we turn bad trash into good cash?

Here are some thoughts:

First, what if we refrain from creating the trash at all, by conserving or using less of the things that enable its making? Use less plastic by not using plastic bags, rejecting plastic packaging, and substituting re-useable containers for just one example. These small individual protests, and many more such similar actions, are easily done now by any of us and our families at home.

Second, what if we recycle more, by insisting that all plastics be recycled, that all engine oil and frying fat be recycled, that all manufactured items be made of recyclable products or, if not, carry a penalty deposit for the true cost of their safe disposal?  What if we held corporations responsible for their industrial waste, enforced, not diluted or contradicted regulations justified by the right of the public to be protected from such pre-meditated impacts on human health? Some of these have been tried and successful, until they are subverted by the narrowest interest that asserts mean shareholder return over basic human rights. These, too, are achievable through political will.

credit: creative commons

Finally, what if we built a new economy on a recycling ethic, a price or tax structure built on the inherent value of re-use, the concept that an item is more valuable if it can be used longer or it can be re-used for a process and production that exploits and affirms its economic basis again and again in a cycle of maximum utility and return? What if it costs more, not less, to purchase a non-recyclable item built from a waste-based process?  This would not be a new principle on Earth; it too is achievable as the revival of a principled behavior that attacks waste at its irresponsible, anti-social core.

Without substantive recycling, in these ways or others, we perpetuate waste. Waste is excess. Excess is pollution. Pollution dirties our air, corrupts our land, fouls our water, poisons our ocean, and diminishes our future.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.


Nature and the Rule of Law

A two-part series on environmental law


We live in a time when the vast majority of the world’s wealth is derived from the exploitation of natural resources, a time when laws and legal responses must demand that all resources be protected from corruption and indifference, and must be sustained for the benefit of future generations.


There are laws of Nature — immutable forces and systems such as gravity, the water cycle, and the workings of the atom — which represent the greatest discoveries of human science and which underlie all aspects of human endeavor. And yet that same science is resolved beyond understanding to intercede, manipulate, even contradict those laws in the name of what? Progress? Hubris? Profit?

Society devises comparable laws — accepted concepts to maintain and advance collective needs and aspirations. In the narrowest application, they react to deliberate, defiant, anti-social indifference to the norms; in the largest application, they define honesty, morality, and the highest forms of human achievement and governance.

For some, nonetheless, laws are for the breaking. And history shows us individuals, organizations, and events where such indifference becomes criminal, the social contract is broken, a crisis ensues and those forces must be confronted and denied for community benefit and survival.
charlie riedel | associated pressAre we in such a time today? When there seems to be a calculated, alarmingly successful effort to subvert the laws of Nature, undermine harmonious societal behavior, and concentrate natural value away from the many into the hands of the few?

To fight back against such subversion, we turn to the rule of law. And we see today again and again that in order to oppose such appropriation of value, we must turn to precedents, courts, wise judges, and dedicated proponents to finance, argue, and prevail in the name of the greater good.

We expose and challenge government bureaucrats who advance vested interest over public interest. We confront lobbyists and lawyers with transparency and legal skills adequate to the defense. We affirm larger definitions of what is right and true as principles by which to protect society from the self-serving machinations of certain nation-states, corporations, and individuals who see the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others as acceptable behavior in civil society. As that wealth is mostly derived from the exploitation of natural resources, we must turn to the laws of Nature to demonstrate the folly of such corrupt practice.

A first law: Indiscriminate use of a limited resource will exhaust that resource and bankrupt its value. The insistence of the fossil fuel, mineral, plastic, and industrial agricultural companies on unlimited consumption of oil and gas for energy, production, and growth is the most destructive example we now face. It is a strategy, by definition, doomed.

A second law: Failure to nurture and sustain a resource, organism, or institution over time will result in its sudden demise with catastrophic consequence. Failure to maintain adequate supply of food, air, and water for a growing population will cause a civilization to collapse. Failure to protect plants, animals, or persons from an avoidable infection, viral or moral, will destroy that organism without mercy. Indifference to corrupt values and behaviors within a community or nation will corrode and weaken societal bonds toward chaos and extinction.

A third law: Nature has rights that, in the context of the first two laws discussed, must be affirmed to avoid their consequence. Thus, the Public Trust Doctrine that affirms the public ownership and benefit of all natural resources that can be licensed and exploited but must be sustained for the continuing benefit of ensuing generations. If corporations are legally deemed to have citizen’s rights, then so too do mountains, forests, rivers, and seas have comparable rights that must be defended and upheld by law. If nations can conclude international contracts and treaties for trade or political compromise, then so too can Nature have similar protections by collective, trans-national agreements and agencies for enforcement to extend its value for the benefit of all mankind.

A fourth law: For every abuser, there is a victim; and for every victim there is a defense that must assert, compensate, and controvert that abuse. If Nature, and by extension ourselves, is abused, we must join together to defend, defeat, and displace the abuser by rule of law.

A fifth law: The governors are only as good as the governed. If we do not believe that the present interpretation and application of the law is adequate to its purpose, we have the right and power by law and through law to replace, recapture, and reapply the principles we hold dear and necessary to affirm the laws of Nature for the protection of the environment and our future.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

What Are We Going To Do About The Plastic Pollution Problem?

An Epic Flow of Plastic Pollution  

Recently on YouTube I saw a video of a river, purported to be in the rural Chimaltenango region of Guatemala, that was a constant flow of plastic: waste clogging the stream in a relentless deluge of discarded plastic in what seemed like a never-ending decent to the ocean. It was so awful it could not be real. Indeed, some questioned its authenticity as some kind of Photoshop fraud. But a volunteer working for an NGO alongside the riverbed quickly attested to its reality — not just as a one-time phenomenon, but as a constant, epic flow of plastic. Guatemala is not alone: the vast majority of plastic finding its way into the ocean flows from river systems, coursing through inland agricultural to coast-wise urban centers, accumulating and concentrating all along the way.

Unlike other reports of the pervasive polluting impacts of plastic waste worldwide, this one hit me emotionally, viscerally, combining disbelief with anger with outrage that such a condition could be created, tolerated, and left unsolved. It was as if the watershed, the life’s blood of Nature, has been infected by rampant disease that signaled only death, of that river, that place, indeed of the whole world, possessed, inundated, and poisoned by plastic.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

That same week a new report was published that revised the estimate of what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive accumulation of plastic cohered by ocean winds and currents into a huge floating island of junk, first estimated to be some 700,000 square kilometers, roughly the area of Texas, now measured at almost twice that size and growing, converted to the astonishing number of 5,800,000 square miles. The GPGP is not the only example: lesser gyres are gathering similar concentration in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Arctic and Antarctic waters are no longer immune.

What is this stuff? The inventory is made up of every form of plastic waste — from throwaway bottles and containers, manufacturing by-products, illegal dumping and other detritus discarded by activities on land from harbors and storm drains, from stationary platforms and shoreline industries, and from ship garbage to enormous abandoned fishing nets and other gear. Plastic straws, cigarette filters, packaging materials, toys and car parts, abrasives in toothpaste and cosmetics — just about everything made of plastic discarded and forgotten in the sea. This mass moves and turns, biodegrades in the sun, and into micro-pellets that descend into the water column as tiny beads to become part of the food chain, mistaken as food, ingested by fish, and ultimately, via harvest and market, into our bodies whether we know it or not. It is insidious and invisible. The negative impact on marine plants and animals is one thing, but suddenly the assault on ourselves is another.

Remember plastic is an oil-based product; it contains all the properties of oil, to include chemicals and other additives that are part of a very much larger problem that affects our way of life additionally as CO2 emissions, persistent organic pollutants, and all the other poisons incorporated in the deleterious cycle of oil. Not to mention climate change, the most serious global challenge we face in the 21st century. The oil companies depend on our dependence on plastic.

The crisis has been exacerbated by the announcement, that same week, that China was no longer going to accept the world’s trash, all the waste from the developed world, particularly the United States, that had been conveniently trans-shipped out of sight, out of mind, across the ocean where it would conveniently disappear. No longer.


All these factors, taken together, must bring this global problem into compelling focus. To be frank, effective response thus far has been pathetic. There have been constant scientific studies; organizations such as Project Kaisei, 5Gyres, Plastic Pollution Coalition, the World Ocean Observatory, Surfrider Foundation, Oceana, Take 3 and many others have addressed the need for political and public awareness; local activists have made certain progress with deposits on plastic bottles; cities and states have been successful in placing bans on single use plastic bags and polystyrene containers; a young Boyan Slat made headlines unveiling The Ocean Cleanup concept to harvest debris using booms and ships, to bring plastic to recycling, re-entering the raw material into the industrial chain of being, possibly for a profit. This is all good and we celebrate every success. But progress is slow and much is still to come.

We can recover planes, sunken ships, and bombs from the sea. We are mapping the entirety of the ocean floor. We can transport goods worldwide thousands of containers at a time. We can build oil rigs and wind towers. We can dig for sand, uranium and gold beneath the sea. We have the ingenuity and the capacity for all of this. Why don’t we have the technology, the motivation, the financial incentive, the political will, and the moral commitment to clean up our mess before in it we drown?


World Ocean Observatory
April 4, 2018