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Placing the forum
eographic studies of the ocean(s) are by no means new (in spite of oft-made and cited statements to the contrary). Although often cast to the margins under geography’s reputation as an earth writing discipline - one concerned primarily with more grounded, landed or terrestrial spaces - the subject has, over recent years, opened up to a broader remit of worldly elements. There are now increasing volumes of scholarship concerned with air, fire, water, and with spaces ranging from the subterranean to outer space, and within these remits, with the seas and oceans: their surfaces, depths, materialities, human and more-than-human worlds, politics, and more. These watery spaces are being “re-centered” with a recognition of their connecting, fluid attributes, as well as their dividing characters. Focusing on the oceans allows us to attend to geographical questions from different vantage points (Steinberg and Peters, 2015), and to upend (in the words of Lambert et al., 2006: 488) “grand master narratives.” At the same time, there is important recognition to made that such “re-centering” is only a result of the marginalization of the sea in dominating (often violent) Western imaginaries of seas and oceans. For many peoples, societies and spaces beyond the frame of the Global North, water worlds have always been central (see Hau‘ofa, 1998). Geography is, then, experiencing a highly diverse, multiple and varied “oceanic turn.” From socio-cultural to political, economic, environmental and historical geographies, the discipline is getting firmly “wet” (Steinberg and Peters, 2015). Yet such work is also replete with tensions, particularly in the interface between how we understand, know and grasp such spaces, and how they are enrolled in modes of management, governance and control.
This forum – situated amidst a “major” moment in oceanic attention (the so-called launch and progression of the UN Ocean Decade) – tackles such tensions, between a singular ocean that unites a planetary world through a common cause (i.e. climate change), to multiple oceans, acknowledging their differentiated material, geophysical, and socio-cultural qualities and the differential experiences people (and more-than-human life) have in relation with them. It addresses an ocean viewed as a holistic whole and undivided surface, to oceans of molecular constitution and “granular” form. It explores the relations between the macro and micro, surface and deep, stasis and mobility through seven varied and exploratory contributions. It aims to examine how these competing notions of what the ocean is, or what oceans are, play into discussions of how they are used, deployed, coordinated and managed within a context of oceanic and planetary crisis/es - and not just in a policy domain (which is where attention to the Ocean Decade has currently been most considered, see Franke et al., 2022) but also through wide-ranging social science and humanities perspectives and art-science collaborations. This forum does not seek to resolve such tensions but work through them via contributions which demonstrate, and tease apart, various ways of understanding the oceans, and the consequences such understandings have for engagements with them in this moment of (arguably) increased oceanic focus.
Positioning the Ocean Decade
As discussed above, this forum is located within a particularly salient moment of reflection: the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (the Ocean Decade). The Ocean Decade is a ten yearlong effort, 2021-2030, by the United Nations to focus attention on the seas and oceans for sustainable development, in response to unsustainable ecological harm. It aims to provide “the science we need, for the ocean we want” (UN Ocean Decade, 2021). It is a flagship scheme, out of which there is a desire - at the close of the decade - to witness “real change” (whatever this may mean, and however it may be measured) through various so-called “Actions” and “Missions” located throughout the duration of the project. It is our contention, however, that the Ocean Decade must interrogate its basis - the very politics of the “science we need,” and how it comes to be, as well as paying attention to whose ocean “we” want at the end of it. This forum pays attention to these dynamics through exploring the tensions in how data relates to modes of understanding the ocean; how related knowledges, as well as how “other” ways of knowing the ocean, shape the stories of its (ab)use. Furthermore, these contributions examine how justice might be realized in seeking out an “ocean we want” for the future, how art-science collaborations may generate creative forms of knowledge and understanding and the complex and entangled relations between commercial and capitalist modes of extraction and ocean futures. Oceanic geographies - with their special attention to the socio-cultural, political, economic and environmental relations spun with, from and across the seas - has a needed place in this discussion. All the while, even though this forum pays attention to ocean space, it draws in allied disciplines and perspectives often outside of the usual UN policy-focused fields (including, for instance, English Literature, Law, Anthropology, and the nascent Marine Social Sciences).
Perspectives, Core Themes and Approaches
The oceanic turn in the social sciences and humanities have provided myriad approaches from which to frame and unpack oceanic issues. The contributions in this forum span ocean issues including literacy, law, data and knowledge production, food and culture, public participation, and relations of care. However, across these pieces there are also common themes that emerge from a critical examination of “The Ocean” and its conjuring by the Ocean Decade. This includes theoretical and empirical inquiries that consider the inherent “we” of the Ocean Decade, who the decade is for, and unpacking the privilege and power contained within this problematic universalization.
Starting the collection is Irus Braverman, Katrina Brown and Katrina Rønningen who use video to argue that existing modes of law are a major contributor to ocean degradation. This challenges the oft-held assumption that law is the answer or response to oceanic “problems,” instead assessing how law might be part of those very problems. In their short film, Amphibious legal geographies: Toward land-sea regimes (with accompanying transcript), Braverman, Brown and Rønningen question the very basis of ocean law and its dependence on the land-water binary, arguing for unmaking rather than fixing existing modes of law. Braverman, Brown and Rønningen opens space for thinking differently of global ocean attention at this moment. They provoke a deeply profound question as to whether “our” fundamental regimes of ocean law are defunct because of the ontological assumptions on which they rest. This serves as a reminder that the law as it is, which governs the ocean, is not the only articulation of how the oceans may be related-with; rather, law is naturalized and becomes unquestioned.
Following this broad-level provocation, Elizabeth Havice and Lisa Campbell’s contribution likewise takes on an essential question linked to how oceans are governed, focusing on new data technologies and platforms for knowing and in turn regulating the seas. Rather than seeing these technologies as an automatic “good”, they critically unpack how such data technologies work (in the context of bluefin tuna and sea turtle tracking) to reveal the politics of data in shaping subsequent management decisions. This shines light on the contested nature of data that feeds into contemporary governance and the claims over contested spaces and resources. Continuing the drive of the forum, they pitch that the Ocean Decade must attend to how institutions will engage and navigate proliferations of new marine (biodiversity) data.
Similarly attending to modes of knowing and data, Stefan Helmreich’s rich anthropological work is centered on “the wave” to confront anxieties about future seaborne crises through detailed ethnographic observations of oceanic wave science. The Oceanic Churn examines waves as diagnostic, communicating packets of information about the material, physical, and organic processes of the ocean, as well as expressing the cyclical patterns of oceanic flows and such formalized and international scientific engagements with the sea, such as the Ocean Decade. This provocative piece both questions the cyclical logics of campaigns like the Ocean Decade (and their inherent usefulness) and the cyclical nature of waves in understanding a changing planet.
Thinking of the Ocean Decade as campaign, Emma McKinley’s project examines the relationships between coastal communities and the ocean, asking “whose voice is heard within ocean discourse. How are ocean, or coastal, communities being defined and are these definitions appropriate for contemporary relationships with blue spaces?” McKinley’s contribution considers how ocean literacy can be harnessed to foster connection and stewardship for a sustainable ocean future in the Ocean Decade “mission.” Situated firmly in the emerging “field” of marine social science, McKinley shifts away from historical definitions of ocean science, natural and physical sciences, to recognize the breadth, diverse knowledges, and values shaping oceanic interactions.
Remaining with the topic of ocean engagements, Geraint Whittaker offers a necessary intervention to thinking of the relationships of art and science in modes of knowing (connecting to previous contributions) and ways to engaging different publics with contemporary planetary predicaments. He asks whether art has a democratizing potential in the context of an Ocean Decade seemingly centered on “expert” science. Drawing from his own artistic engagements with the sea through the exhibition “We came, we fished, we conquered,” his contribution enlivens an artistic approach to thinking with the ocean as well as a critical reflection on the more policy-centric priorities of the Ocean Decade and what art could usefully offer, and for whom.
Also drawing on rich imagery, Amelia Hine and Charity Edwards probe deeper, exploring how the contentious new “frontier” (see Havice and Zalik 2018 for a critical take) of the ocean seabed is constructed by extractive, capitalist interests. They demonstrate how imaginaries of the seabed as devoid of life, producing benthic worlds of only polymetallic nodules and a collage of mining riches, make it ripe for exploration, extraction and exploitation. They draw directly from varied visuals of the seabed, deconstructing their political work (in a similar vein to Havice and Campbell’s call) to better contextualize the work of new data technologies.
Rounding up the forum, Melody Jue zooms into a seemingly niche topic, showing rather how seaweed has an expanding profile as a solution to climate woes, asking how seaweed may permit a useful frame for thinking about the Ocean Decade. Jue shows that where aquaculture seaweed has many potential benefits to greener foodways, living well with seaweeds means considering attachment in place, intergenerational relations and memory, remediation and forgiveness - all necessary themes in making sense of oceanic relations. As the forum closes, Jue’s focus on deep time raises an essential reflection: that this contemporary moment of oceanic concern should always be situated in longer time frames.
Prioritizing Next Steps
This forum offers an arguably alternative engagement with the Ocean Decade that moves the reader beyond the more frequent policy-centred analysis. Here, attentions focus on a multiplicitous set of provocations and perspectives, reflecting differently on the normative underscorings of power that shape UN agendas such as this, and the ways such schemes are traditionally encountered academically. There is dire need for more projects that think critically about the ontological assumptions upon which such extensive programs like UN Science decades sit, and which, as this forum has done, engage with approaches beyond the typical text format to include video, photos and audio elements. The purported universal “we” (challenged throughout these forum contributions), and ostensibly objective science claimed in the decade, feign the “for all mankind” orientation of previous sweeping projects from decades past.
Franke, A, Peters, K, Hinkel, J, Schlüter, Zielinksi, O, Wiltshire, KH, Jacob, U, Krause, G and Hillebrand, H (2022) Making the UN Ocean Decade work? The potential for, and challenges of, transdisciplinary research and real-world laboratories for building towards ocean solutions People and Nature 5(1): 21–33.
Havice, E and Zalik, A (2019) Ocean frontiers: epistemologies, jurisdictions, commodifications. International Social Science Journal 68(229-230): 219–235
Hau‘ofa, E (1998) The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific 10(2): 392–410.
Lambert, D, Martins, L, and Ogborn, M (2006) Currents, visions and voyages: historical geographies of the sea. Journal of Historical Geography 32: 479–493.
Steinberg, PE and Peters, K (2015) Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33: 247–264.
UN Ocean Decade (2021) Available here.
Katherine Sammler leads the Marine Political Ecology group also at the HIFMB a collaboration between the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and University of Oldenburg in Germany. They conduct research at the intersection of science and politics in the realm of oceans, atmospheres, and outer space considering the role of knowledge, law, and power in defining global commons, access, and environmental justice.
Kimberley Peters leads the Marine Governance research group at the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity (HIFMB) in Oldenburg, Germany. Her research focuses on how the ocean might be a framework for thinking geographically, alongside critical work on the spatial dimensions of marine governance techniques.