Our complex relationship to the world's oceans
Storm season. In Texas, the tiled roofs of houses rise eerily from grey plains of water. Whole Caribbean islands have been evacuated, towns lie hurricane-flattened, as if bombed. Across Bangladesh, India and Nepal, monsoon torrents have caused the deaths of more than 1,200 people and affected 41 million. So many lives and livelihoods swept away; one-third of Bangladesh is submerged. The news is awash with images of watery horror: people wading, chest-deep, carrying possessions, children, livestock; snaking lines for food handouts; stranded souls waiting for rescue.
‘What the sea wants,’ writes Philip Hoare in his storm-darkened new book, RisingTideFallingStar, ‘the sea will have.’ Which also applies to the weather systems that gather over it and the waterways that flow into it. The third in a loose trilogy about our fascination with the open water, Hoare’s book is both the chronicle of a personal obsession as well as a selective cultural history of the oceans of art and of myth. In its closing pages, we find the author hunkered down in a ramshackle beach hut on Cape Cod while ‘another storm rages […] It cannot be defeated. It is brutal and beautiful […] It will not cease. It does not care.’
If RisingTideFallingStar captures the vast and magnificent indifference of weather and water to human existence – the sea’s beguiling otherness – it touches only lightly upon the impact that our activity is having upon them. Three days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told the press that it was not the moment to talk about climate change. Pruitt – a longtime denier of man-made global warming and formerly one of the EPA’s most vociferous critics – considered such discussions to be ‘very, very insensitive to the people of Florida’ who were fleeing their homes and communities.
It’s hard to understand how refusing to acknowledge that warmer water feeds tropical storms will provide any succour to the people of Florida in the long or even medium term. And we might consider somewhat less sensitive the fact that, in pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord earlier this year, the US – the world’s richest country and second-largest producer of greenhouse gases – has also pulled out of the Green Climate Fund. This initiative has pledged US$100 billion by 2020 to assist developing countries – including Bangladesh, India and Nepal – to adapt to climate change, which is already here.
In the middle of September, with storms still wracking the Caribbean, I am under the glowering skies of the Isle of Skye, praying that the rain will hold off. On the tidal flats of Portree harbour, at a communal dining table fashioned from rebar, a huddled group eats seaweed-flecked granola with carrageen milk. We are listening to a man in a dry suit with a small knife around his neck explain the manifold nutritious properties of dulse, amongst other aqueous greens, which he harvests along the Scottish coast. The conversation ends as the tide rises: we abandon our seats to scramble back to dry land.
‘Climavore: On Tidal Zones’ is part of a long-term, ongoing research project by the London-based artist duo Cooking Sections, begun in 2013. It looks at how we might modify our diets to adapt to and mitigate against the various impacts of human activity on the natural environment. Previous dining experiences have involved crops that are resistant to drought and can grow in salinated waters, to cope with the drier summers and rising sea levels brought on by global warming. Here, one pressing question is whether there are sustainable alternatives – economically and environmentally – to the commercially successful, ecologically ruinous salmon farms that currently proliferate in Scottish waters. Harvesting or growing seaweed, an abundant source of protein and micronutrients could be one option. (There is historical precedent: Skye had a significant seaweed industry in the 19th century, when saltpeter from kelp was used as an explosive in the cannons of the Napoleonic Wars). Likewise bivalves – oysters, mussels, clams, cockles – which, as sedentary filter-feeders, can be farmed with minimal disruption to both coast and creature. Both seaweed and bivalves naturally purify the water. At high tide, Cooking Section’s dining table becomes a cage for cultivating common oysters.
There is a question here, of course, about the scalability of the one-man-and-his-knife model. It’s a merciless truth that most forms of industrial production bring high profit margins but at equally high environmental cost. Yet, I like that there’s a streak of pragmatic optimism underpinning Cooking Sections’ proposal: things can be done; things are being done.
At its core, their message is simple and oft-repeated: think before you buy. It’s also one that, in our world of advanced global capitalism, is easy to ignore. It is to counter this out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that the British media group LADbible and The Plastic Oceans Foundation recently designed a passport and currency for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Their campaign, Trash Isles, is petitioning the United Nations to recognize the floating mound of plastic debris, which collectively covers an area the size of France, as a country. Designed by London-based Mario Kerkstra and the illustrator Jürgen Willbarth, Trash Isles’ passport reads: ‘The Ocean Needs Us.’ Al Gore was named its first honorary citizen.
Is the sea where hope begins or where it runs out? It’s comforting to wax poetic – as Hoare does, deliciously – about the eternity of the oceans and our smallness in relation to them. It’s less romantic to measure timelessness by the millennial polymers that we are gradually filling them with. ‘Always changing, always the same,’ Hoare writes of the sea at one point. But for how much longer?
First published in Issue 191