All at sea
Let us talk about oceans. About resilience. About the sailor.
During the past week, I have had the joy of spending three days with a large group of oceanographers and other scientists and artists interested in the state of our seas. The theme of this year’s NAKFI conference, intended to foster interdisciplinary research, was ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Beginning on the evening of the US presidential election result announcement, there was a sense of despair among the participants – from the prospects for climate change mitigation with a denier as president-elect to a deep fear about the future of academic research and science. However, by the end of our three days together, we had generated an array of new ideas, both for new research into the mesopelagic zone of the ocean (the specific focus of the conference) and for how to engage more people with ocean science and conservation, as well as a powerful sense of community and of direction around a shared matter of concern.
Part of the magic was that we all stayed in a hotel on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the sound of endless rolling waves during our evenings together giving a powerful sense of place. It was unsurprising perhaps that there were so many sailors at this conference (as well as surfers, swimmers and divers). It seems that lovers of the sea like to encounter it in embodied as well as intellectual ways. This is my understanding of the sea: the smell of salt, the sting of spray, the power of the waves, the shifting winds and cloud shadows.
Philip Steinberg suggests that, if we wish to appreciate the ocean fully, we need to engage with its material, dynamic and aqueous nature, with its creatures and flora, as well as its political and economic role and connections and its poetic and metaphorical role in human culture. We need to think about it in ways that incorporate its endless flux of diverse elements: non-human and human, biological and geophysical, historic and contemporary. How better to do that than in the company of ocean scientists who study its ecosystems, flows and inhabitants?
Michel Foucault writes of the ship as an “other” space, one that operates socially and culturally in a very different way from most spaces: “… the boat has been for our civilisation, not only the greatest instrument of economic development, but also the greatest reservoir of imagination …. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage replaces adventure, and the police the pirates”. This conference was our small boat. More ‘sandpit’ than conference, it took a broadly open space structure this year, with people forming and reforming their own groups around ideas, thematically focused on the changing conditions of the mesopelagic zone. Extending from around 200 to 1000 metres below the ocean surface, where light is dim, the mesopelagic is home to many creatures: microorganisms, many species of fish, and other semi-deep sea animals. With so much life, the mesopelagic plays a significant role in global carbon cycling and so is critical in our changing climate.
My small group gathered around the topic of resilience: what does it mean and how is it measured? Resilience in ecology is the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb or withstand disturbances or other stressors, enabling it to resist damage and recover quickly. As people depend on ecosystems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live, resilience is also a property of these interlinked social-ecological systems. And it seems that cooperation and diversity (a mix of expertise) are key to resilient systems. It was impossible not to relate – if only metaphorically – our discussions of the resilience of organisms in the mesopelagic zone to our own resilience in the face of the enormous pressures and disruptions facing human society.
Being so close to the sea made me think about the sailor, and of a sailing friend of mine whom we lost recently, the artist Nathalie Magnan.
In 2005, Nathalie and I conceived a project with some other sailing colleagues to follow the migration route across the Mediterranean by sailing boat. Sailing for Geeks 2: Ship to Shore linked Tarifa (Spain) and Tanger (Morocco). In high winds, we sailed across the Straits of Gibralter, entering each country from the sea, cooperating with the processes of immigration control. Even in a strong and well-crewed boat, with a radio, crossing the straits under sail is still dangerous, with its high winds, strong currents and busy shipping channel. As we sailed over the large waves and changed course suddenly at night to avoid a large ship, we felt some sense of what it might be like to cross this zone in one of the “pateras”, the fragile boats of fortune of the illegal migrants. In Tanger, we met two men from an organisation which works with immigrants, trying to give them “a boat for life”: a craft to succeed in Africa, rather than trying to seek happiness over the sea.
The sea means many things to me at this moment: a deeply threatened global commons, a transport arena for our consumer and fossil fuelled society, a mysterious and barely explored territory, a deep world inhabited by other species and intelligences, a contested zone of border crossings, a space of stories, and a place of death and of hope and of resilience.
This is a memory of a friend who taught me much and a small remembrance of two hundred people who recently died in the Mediterranean. This is also a thanks to the scientists who try to understand and protect our oceans and to the people who help migrants making dangerous crossings.