Finding Optimism in News About the Ocean

May 15, 2017

What if saving the oceans is a matter of changing our mindset?

That’s the question nagging at Jeff Wescott, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole.

“One thing that really interests me is how the ocean compels us to think about the future,” Wescott told Living Lab Radio. “It’s sort of a medium for thinking about where we are going as a species.”

The ocean was the frontier of human exploration before outer space took that role, he said. It has inspired generations of people to push the boundaries and expand human capabilities. “There is something about that future aspect of the ocean that compels us to think about our future and about possibility.”

But the future of the ocean itself looks dismal by most accounts. Between over fishing, acidification, warming, and plastic pollution, there’s not much to cheer about.

Wescott says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Doom and gloom is not going to motivate people,” he said. “We need to find ways to get them inspired. And there are true success stories.”

A group called Ocean Optimism formed in 2014 to collect success stories about ocean conservation and promote them around the world.

One of those stories is the 2008 founding of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the Republic of Kiribati. The area represents more than 11 percent of the country’s exclusive economic zone and protects seabird nesting grounds and rare plants and fish.

According to some, the reefs are so pristine that they hearken back to how a reef might have looked a thousand years ago.

A similar protected zone was declared in Hawaii in 2006 and was expanded in August 2016, making it the world’s second-largest marine protected zone.  

As an anthropologist, Wescott said he used to be a “card-carrying” member of the doom-and-gloom club when it came to the future of the oceans. His perspective changed while doing field work in Vanuatu, a Pacific Island republic. 

 

The population on one island had lost 90 percent of its people to tuberculosis in just a few decades. Still, the remaining elders told him that life work in cycles, and the person who is in despair is experiencing the bottom of that cycle.

Wescott came away with a new understanding.

“There will be failures," he said. "But there will be successes, and it’s about perseverance."