Urbanization of the Oceans – Blue Growth?

Dr Meriwether Wilson

Dr Meriwether Wilson

Dr Meriwether Wilson

Over 100 years ago, a fierce philosophical debate circled the salons, cafes, balls and bars of intellectuals and pioneers alike – often known as the ‘American wilderness’ debate. The legendary icons of this debate included: John Muir (originally from Dunbar, Scotland), founder of the Sierra Club and pivotal in establishing globally famous wilderness areas such as Yosemite National Park in western California; and Gilbert Pinchot, who took the view that these same vast areas of seemingly infinite forest and water resources, were ideal for logging, providing timber for America’s growing cities and towns.

Muir mused about humanity’s primal need for wild places to ponder, enjoy, protect, even if very little was known about these areas; while Pinchot extolled the virtues of potential for economic growth and civic prosperity. We debate these same concepts and positions today, but increasingly within a lexicon of ‘ecosystem services’, with economic growth still assumed to be potentially ‘sustainable’ and as well as catalytic to human well being and social equity. Perhaps when it comes to terrestrial reaches of our planet we have given up on the protection argument, as remotely sensed images fill our minds revealing the certainty of our degradation. We hope that innovative engineering and restoration will recover the green we once associated with the our planet, for future generations.


Yet, what imaginations mentally surface when we reflect on the 70% of our planet that is ocean – upwellings of blueness, deep, dark, mysterious…untapped resources? Are we in the middle of an intellectual confluence of values and technological prowess with regard to the oceans, as we once were with untouched realms of North America? Conversations about land-based environmental resources and strategies increasingly use the word security (e.g. water security, food security, energy security) rather than opportunity, suggesting a sense of urgency. Yet with the ocean, concepts about blue growth and blue economies abound, suggesting a new frontier.


A quick scan of recent position papers and international leadership reinforce this posture, and interestingly blur the line between blue and green, with ‘green’ being a metaphor for ‘sustainable’ while ‘blue’ still suggesting solutions and potential. For example, UNEP’s 2012 report Green Economy in a Blue World states that the ocean is a “cornucopia for humanity”, suggesting and endless bounty for our perusal. The report goes on to note that “creating a green economy in the blue world, can improve human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities; and create sustainable jobs with lasting economic value” (UNEP, 2012, p. 7). A recent 2014 EU communication is entitled Innovation in the Blue Economy: realizing the potential of our seas and oceans for jobs and growth (EU COM(2014) 254 final/2), proposes that with sufficient and open transfer of technically acquired marine knowledge (e.g. seabed mapping), coupled with marine spatial planning, goals such as those proposed by UNEP above are achievable. A vision of enlightened access and benefit sharing of marine resources for all sectors of humanity, with extraction conduced in some magical non-species/ecosystem harming way is compelling and seductive. Is this naïve?


Are there lessons learned from terrestrial development and resource sharing where knowledge and access are stunningly transparent and easy compared with marine environments? Do eminent oceanographers and marine scientists of recent generations offer prescient insights? Carlton Ray, in 1970 wrote a seminal paper entitled Ecology, Law and the Marine Revolution pondering the interactions of ecological dynamics and human dynamics, with the yet to be formalized Law of the Sea envisaged as a beacon to rationalize our goals within the limits and finiteness of the ocean. Nearly 30 years later, JBC Jackson writes in his 2008 paper Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean that the synergistic impact of our human footprint (largely from overexploitation, pollution and climate change) on marine ecosystems and species is similar to, perhaps greater than, impacts of previous mass extinctions. Only three months ago, in November 2014, the Global Oceans Commission launched a report with the prescient title From Decline to Recovery – A rescue package for the global ocean, focusing largely on the high seas where legal peculiarities and complexities have resulted in 64% of the ocean being unprotected, unstewarded in any real way. As nation states progress in paradoxically parallel races to both protect and exploit seas and within their EEZs (notionally out to 200 nautical miles), it is sobering that this report framed the ocean not as one of bountiful “cornucopia” but as one in need of rescue, requiring our human ingenuity to restore, rather than destroy, the ocean as we know it.


In the debates proposed for this upcoming “Global Environment Society Academy” MSc reading week, we encourage you to read, and reflect on the philosophical concept – the precautionary principle – and if can be better applied to address the inevitably intertwined goals of protection and exploitation for the ocean in this century, than we did for terrestrial realms in the past century.




EU 2014. Innovation in the Blue Economy: realising the potential of our seas and oceans for jobs and growth.



Global Oceans Commission, 2014. From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean




Jackson, JBC, 2008. Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), August 12, 2008, vol 105, suppl 1 (11458-11465)


Ray, C., 1970. Ecology, Law and the “Marine Revolution”. Biological Conservation, Vol 3, No. 1, October 1970 (7-17)


UNEP, 2012. Green economy in a Blue World – Synthesis Report.



Dr. Wilson is a Lecturer in Marine Science and Policy at the University of Edinburgh focusing on the science-policy-society intersections of transboundary marine ecosystems and services, in particular  international waters.  Her current research explores emerging challenges in coastal-marine governance and marine ecology regarding infrastructure establishments in nearshore and offshore marine areas.  This research builds upon two decades of experience with international organizations (World Bank, UNESCO, UNDP, IUCN, NOAA) on the establishing marine protected areas globally across diverse ecological scales, cultures and economies

This entry was posted in Blue growth, Climate Science, Environmental Ethics, Global Challenges, Interdiciplinary conversations, marine, MPA, Science Communication and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *