When I start to talk about my job to a casual acquaintance, I usually get about as far as “oceans” before my listener’s face assumes one of two distinct expressions: glassy-eyed and prepared to nod along until an excuse can be made to jump ship on the conversation, or else deeply and positively stoked.
So while I personally fall on the ‘deeply stoked’ end of the ocean enthusiasm spectrum — as my friends and colleagues love to remind me — it’s still complicated. Being professionally into the ocean is like being the one kid in high school who is “a little too intense” for the anime club — it’s a niche within a niche.
Since this marks the end of a three-week oceans extravaganza here at Grist, it’s my last chance to engage with any of you wall-eyed ocean skeptics still with me. I mean, I get it: Oceans are cold and weird and not really relevant to you. You probably look forward to Shark Week, along with the rest of the internet, but how many of the other 51 weeks of the year do you spend thinking about elasmobranchs and their role in ocean health? And, let’s be real, you probably assume people who do are up there with Ayn Rand fans in the ‘taking themselves too seriously’ club.
But the fact is that the climate movement that brought more than 300,000 people to New York City last month didn’t get there by talking about parts per million and polar bears, and samesies for oceans. The actual compelling arguments to undo some of the havoc wreaked at sea all come back to people — you know, us. Let me count (some of) the ways:
1) Restoring ecosystems and limiting industrial fishing efforts isn’t just about saving tuna for tuna’s sake; it’s also about making sure people reliably have enough to eat. (The other side of that coin is making sure we don’t waste what fish we do have.)
2) Some of our best tools for protecting fishermen happen to be the especially good for fish — like marine reserves — but they don’t work unless communities can appreciate their value.
3) Aquaculture is a promising way to farm more food without using up farmland, but climate change may make some things like oysters too expensive to pull off.
4) Purging the oceans of plastic and other pollutants will be good for baby albatross chicks, but it’s also a question a human health — and, so far, the science on where all that plastic ends up and what it does is basically a giant shrug.
5) In the case of salt marshes and oyster reefs, we should be talking about protecting communities from monster storms and making cities more resilient to sea-level rise.
6) Coral reefs are beautiful, sure, in a bizzaro Gaudi-esque way; they also are one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth, and the one most imperiled by climate change. Making sure reefs can adapt to the times ahead is a weird mix of sci-fi engineering and old-fashioned pantry-stocking.
In short: Just because there aren’t people living underwater, doesn’t mean that something like ocean acidification isn’t really about dinner and climate resilience and making jokes about acid trips. You know, typical people stuff. And yet we’re in danger of relegating oceans to a specialist’s corner when, really, it should be front and center when we talk climate change: 94 percent of global warming has been absorbed by our oceans, compared to the 6 percent sopped up by our land masses, glaciers, and atmosphere. That’s a HUGE change to the major player in our climate and weather regulation; it pays to be prepared.
And to you true blue ocean fanatics, I counterpose: Why not think of this as an opportunity to use human self-interest for the greater good? Look, if we were committed to saving every baby seal we’ve screwed over with oil spills and plastic snacks and noisy boat traffic, we’d never get anything else done. It’s impossible to fix a problem as big as the ocean while we have plenty of problems of our own. But if the ocean is ONE of those problems, we are much more likely to face it sooner rather than never.
It’s just that it gets old trying to tell people all that when they’re beating a slow and steady retreat in the direction of the snack table (or its internet equivalent, Twitter). Ocean, you’ve gotta work on your elevator pitch — for your sake, and mine.