For more than four decades, going green has been a battle cry for politicians, environmentalists and business leaders. The focus on preserving the land makes things more costly, less efficient and costs people jobs more often than it creates them. Seemingly lost in the shuffle in the focus on pushing back against landfills, carbon footprints and greenhouse gases has been the opportunity to utilize the greatest natural resource that the Earth provides its residents — the one that comprises 70 percent of the planet’s surface: The ocean.
In 2014, Belgian entrepreneur and economist Gunter Pauli released the book “The Blue Economy,” which focused on a business model of his design that he proposed would take society around the world from a state of scarcity to one of abundance by utilizing what was locally available and marrying together the concepts of innovation, competition, job creation and protecting the environment, all done with an ethical frame of mind.
Deriving new industries, jobs and projects from the ocean is hardly a new concept. Entire societies have sustained themselves for centuries in this way, and modern industries, including shipping, oil and gas exploration, fishing, renewable energy, marine biotechnology, tourism and coastal manufacturing are all entirely reliant on the ocean’s presence. But creating projects that are both profitable and environmentally sustainable is more of a developing industry.
The UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 launched the 2021-2030 time frame as the “Decade of Ocean Science,” and Hydrous, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, branded the same period the “Decade of Ocean Empathy,” dedicated to “generating ocean connections and stewardship through science, design, storytelling and scalable technologies.”
In Asia, the implementation of Blue Economy projects in coastal communities has encouraged local needs and local solutions while advocating for environmental responsibility. In China, the traditional fishing village of Chudao, located along the coast of the Yellow Sea, has seen its coastal habitat degraded significantly due to construction, land-based pollution and destructive fishing practices. The Pacific Society of China gathered and educated village residents on supporting fishermen in restoring the seagrass bed largely eradicated in the area. This, in turn, allowed sea cucumbers to begin breeding there again without having to be transplanted from another site artificially. Their role in the area’s ecosystem is vital and has helped to facilitate the restoration of the seabed grass, which provides living space for numerous marine species. The results have not only been environmentally refreshing, but the cultivation of the sea cucumbers brings in an additional 500,000 RMB ($70,000) per year to the community, along with additional revenues from tourism.
In its natural state, the ocean is a fantastic teacher. It provides life to the widest variety of life on the planet, from single-celled organisms to the blue whale, the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth. Wherever whales are found, we can also find phytoplankton, which produces about 50 percent of the oxygen found in our atmosphere, meaning that one out of every two breaths we take comes straight from them. The phytoplankton suck in about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year — the equivalent of four times the amount consumed by all the plant life in the Amazon rainforest.
The ocean houses a considerable amount of our energy reserves, about 41 billion tons — some 26 percent — of all conventional oil reserves. The sea constantly replenishes and sustains itself, generating energy and life in a hauntingly beautiful and endless cycle.
In the past decade, the terminology “Nature-Based Solutions” has gained considerable attention, defined by the European Commission as a solution that “is inspired and supported by nature, which is cost-effective, simultaneously providing environmental, social and economic benefits, and helping build resilience.” These solutions range from the simple, like planting trees along a busy interchange to dampen sound pollution and put carbon dioxide given off by automobiles to good use, to the very complex, such as China’s so-called “sponge city” — an urban construction model designed to reduce damage due to floods while improving drainage systems and strengthening ecological infrastructure.
Taking this proposition a step forward introduces us to the idea of Ocean-Based Solutions, which take on classic problems with solutions derived from the natural order of the ocean.
Starting small, covering the basics and providing people at the local level the skills to improve their lives and protect their native waters is the ideal theme of the Decade of Ocean Empathy.