Save the Oceans to Save the Planet: Part 1 Understanding the Issues
We give little thought to the oceans of the world and the importance they have in sustaining all life on
the planet. We treat the oceans as a bounty for providing fish into the human diet, and as a transport
medium for the world’s trade. Those who visit the coastlines or islands of the world treat the ocean as a
recreational opportunity. Heavy industries utilize the oceans as a source of oil and minerals through
deep sea drilling and - soon - mining. The vastness of the oceans makes it seem, to most of us, that their
bounty is endless and that anything we do to the oceans will not harm them. The facts, however, show
us that human actions, affecting the air, land and water systems on land have enormous adverse effects
on the oceans. And as a result, the oceans are dying.
By now, almost everyone has heard about the plastic garbage patches floating around in the oceans.
Waste plastic finds its way into the ocean and accumulates there . We do not realize that this visible
symbol of our failure to protect the oceans is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
We hear more and more of various species who are caught in the plastic, or consume the plastic only to
find that it will kill them as they cannot excrete it or convert it into anything nutritious and they then
starve to death. Turtles have been found killed by plastic in large numbers as also other larger sea
creatures. Seabirds have been observed to feed plastic to their young, after spending days or weeks at
sea collecting what they thought was fish for them.
Coral reefs are dying. We hear about this frequently. But we do not associate this with the larger harm
of the inter-dependent life of all beings on the planet. Coral reefs are the breeding and nurturing
ground for numerous living organisms and beings, from microscopic size, all along the food chain to
innumerable fish species, including sharks. Climate change effects are devastating the coral reefs of the
world, and as these die, the support they provide for the entire food chain and health of the oceans
disappears along with it.
Fish populations are collapsing. Salmon, for example, have declined some 80% from their peak runs.
Many causes, in addition to rampant over-fishing, are destroying the fish in the sea. Climate change
effects are harming the phytoplankton and zooplankton and other microscopic organisms which nourish
fish (and mammals such as whales) who rely on this food, and the smaller fish species that feed on
them. Warming and acidifying and de-oxygenating oceans reduce the ability of these foundational
levels of the food chain to survive. As a result, the rest of the food chain, including all the fish that
humans rely on for nourishment, is being wrecked. As fish and other ocean foods become more scarce,
commercial fishermen - generally heavily subsidized, so taxpayers are funding this destruction -
undertake more and more extreme methods to try to provide the fish and sustain their livelihood, which
leads to bottom trawling and huge nets which capture not only the sought-after fish, but turtles,
dolphins, sharks, albatross and other species. Humanity relies heavily on food from the sea. With an
expanding population needing ever more food, the collapse of the ocean fisheries is certain to bring
about enormous suffering. Protection of fish breeding areas, and control of fishing grounds practices
are like putting a band-aid on a massive wound. It may slow the bleeding, but does not ensure the
ability of the wounded person to survive. Similarly, measures undertaken to monitor and control fishing
rights are failing to solve the problem.
We are poisoning the oceans. Agricultural runoff, industrial waste, mining waste and raw sewage
(among many examples) enter our rivers and streams and eventually wind up in the ocean. What
happens on land affects the health of the oceans. Air pollution also winds up in the oceans: it is brought
down as rain and as airborne particles, such as carbon soot, as well as corrosive or poisonous chemicals
and elements such as sulfur dioxide, mercury, cadmium, lead, etc., in the oceans. We may think the
boundless sea can easily capture and assimilate all of this chemical pollution, because each output is
generally small. What we do not recognize is that there are tens of millions of these outputs constantly
putting chemicals that do not belong there into the seas. Radioactivity and the dumping of nuclear
waste is becoming increasingly prevalent as disasters such as Fukushima continue, even today, to put
toxic radioactive water into the sea. All of this is creating a toxic environment, particularly in some
extremely sensitive zones such as the reefs and continental shelf areas of the world where numerous
species are nurtured.
The sea is not solely a repository of bounty, however. It is also the driver of climate events. We have all
heard of El Niño and La Niña events, where an extremely warm ocean pattern, or an extremely cold
ocean pattern, respectively, affects the weather all over the world, including the monsoon, when they
are operative. Extreme climate events are directly connected to the temperature of the ocean.
Between the constant global warming that has been occurring since the start of the industrial age, and
the consequent changes to the oceans caused by massive ice melt which releases cold, fresh water into
the sea, we find the overall salinity of the oceans declining, changing the environment for the species
that have adapted to the sea at a certain salinity level; at the same time, the temperature of the ocean is
increasing through the action of higher concentrations of greenhouse gases that produce higher
temperatures in some areas, particularly in the polar regions.
Why is this important? The oceans provide the circulatory system to move warm water and cool water
around the planet systematically. The Gulf Stream, for instance, moves surface warm water from the
tropics along the eastern coast of the USA, and then across to Northern Europe. Deep cold waters from
the northern climes move down to the tropics, thereby working to balance the temperatures. This
immense conveyor belt creates a temperate climate for the eastern USA and norther Europe! Vast
changes to the balance of the ocean temperatures can eventually break these world-spanning currents
and lead to enormous changes in weather, and livability, in areas that support large populations due to
the formerly temperate weather conditions.
The oceans affect the air we breathe. We take oxygen for granted. We breathe in and live. But oxygen
comes from plants which consume the carbon dioxide we exhale and release oxygen. We think of the
trees and plants on land as the sources of oxygen, but fail to recognize the enormous, over-arching
significance of the oxygen-generating activity of the phytoplankton of the sea. Without these, there is
simply not enough oxygen generation to support life on the planet. And we are in the process of killing
off the phytoplankton. At least half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea’s plants. This means
every other breath we take is a gift from the sea. We are destroying the givers of life in the sea.
The earth is experiencing a mass extinction event today. We don’t think about it much, because we
don’t hear much about it; nor do we connect this mass extinction event with our lives or the lives of our
children and grandchildren. Yet it is all connected. The entire earth is inter-connected. The pollution,
the climate-changing events, the over-fishing, the careless and wanton destruction of segments of the
food chain in the oceans, the adverse effects of human activities on the balance of the environment of
the world are all harming the oceans and jeopardizing the future survival of all living beings on the
We do not always recognize that over 8 billion people are on the planet, a very few of whom have
control of over half of the world’s resources converted into monetary wealth, while the vast majority
live in utter want and destitution. This causes domestic violence and other forms of aggression,
including wars, as well as migration spurts, ravaging of increasingly scarce natural resources for survival,
and proliferating distribution of disease vectors. These responses in turn undermine the health of the
planet, and the oceans, making up 70% of the planet’s surface, share these effects. All people want to
have a life of relative comfort and sustainability. If we do not take the issues raised here seriously, we
will face some terrible choices and consequences as people become more desperate, the climate
becomes more extreme, and the oceans, once bountiful providers we have relied on for ages, are no
longer able to give what they no longer have. Should these more dire consequences come to bear,
more extreme weather events will occur, more people will be adversely affected, and more desperation
will surface, culminating in ever greater dislocations, on land, in the air and in the oceans.
When we understand the essential inter-dependence of all life on the planet, and the critical importance
of the oceans to sustaining this life, we have made the first step towards solving the problem. People of
good will, including many scientists (especially oceanographers), as well as negotiators hosted by the
United Nations, have raised these issues and developed a comprehensive treaty for the Law of the Sea,
which is so far adopted by 168 countries. We therefore have a sophisticated, internationally legally
binding framework for action that reflects a fundamental understanding of what needs to - and must -
be done. If ignorance or lack of a legal system were ever an excuse for inaction, it is no longer.
It is now essential that this work be continued, enhanced and fully brought to bear on the decisions and
actions of governments all over the world, who have in most cases failed to transform the principles and
requirements of the Law of the Sea Convention into concrete, integrated and scientifically sound
actions. What has occurred is an attempt to identify biodiversity “hotspots” and find a way to protect
them. But this approach is doomed to failure. There are no “walls” in the ocean to protect a sensitive
area from everything that can affect it. The climate, the air, the actions we undertake on land, the
runoffs into the ocean, the destruction of the links in the chain of survival for all the creatures that
reside in and depend on the ocean, are all inter-connected and not bound by borders and walls.
The solution must come from an approach that recognizes first and foremost the existential crisis with
which we are faced, and the need to act in a comprehensive, global manner to tackle the root issues at
their sources.
In the next articles in this series we shall explore the directions that appear most fruitful for solving this
existential crisis and returning balance to the eco-system of the world, upon which we and all the living
beings that share it with us, depend for our survival.

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been a student of Sri Aurobindo's integral yoga since 1971. He is a published author with 13 books, and is the founder of Lotus Light, a wholesale distributor of natural health and wellness products.