Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—UNCED), Canada proposed that June 8th be celebrated around the world, in perpetuity, as World Oceans Day, so that humanity could honor and celebrate the ocean and become more aware of the need to conserve ocean life.
World Oceans Day has been celebrated every year since the Rio Earth Summit, and Starting in 2003 the worldwide events have been coordinated by the World Ocean Network, which late in 2008 persuaded the UN to officially recognize World Oceans Day. Ever since, June 8th has featured ever greater numbers of celebrants, celebrations and events.
Each year World Oceans Day has had a different theme. This year it is: “Healthy oceans healthy planet.” That’s a good theme, given that if the oceans die we won’t survive, because the ocean and the life within it perform so many crucial services that keep the planet livable for us. So even if you live in central Kansas, don’t like seafood, have never seen the ocean, and think that it has no relevance to your life, you should know that it is the ocean that keeps Kansas and the rest of the US livable. As the Secretary General of the UN said on that first World Oceans Day after the UN had recognized it: “Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.”
An easier way to make the same point is to say: If the oceans die, we die.
The reason for such a drastic claim is that ocean plants provide half to two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. You may think you could get along fine with half to one third of the oxygen you’re used to; after all, you once climbed that mountain and it was almost 10,000 feet high, and you did OK. You didn’t need oxygen. So how bad could it be to have to get used to breathing air with a third as much oxygen as we’re used to? You and I could get used to it. But oops, it’s the equivalent of being on top of a mountain 100 meters higher than Mt. Everest.
“But,” I hear you say, “People have summited Everest without oxygen.”
Yes, they have, but they didn’t stay on the summit very long.
Given the suite of major problems with which we humans have burdened the ocean:
- Acidification that kills shellfish and corals,
- The aquarium trade threatening coral reef species,
- The collapse of albatross populations from longline fishing,
- Noise pollution from ships’ traffic and seismic profiling for petroleum,
- Oil spills,
- Offshore drilling in ever-deeper waters,
- Marine pollution,
- Gyres of microplastics,
- Macroplastic trash and tar balls on beaches,
- Mariculture and its many associated problems,
- Global and seawater warming that reshapes ecosystems (particularly in polar seas),
- Unregulated fishing,
- Unreported fishing,
- Over-exploitation and extinction of species,
- Destructive fishing practices like driftnets, trawling, dynamiting for fish on coral reefs,
- Invasive alien species,
- Sea-level canals,
Could we not afford to give our attention to such problems for more than one day a year? Or do we think these problems are not serious enough to warrant more of our attention, and that in one day each year we will become interested enough to solve them before it’s too late?
Or is it just that we like grandstanding, with efforts that cannot possibly solve a problem but that make us feel as though we are making a difference, even when the difference we are making is insignificant?
I think that events like Earth Day and World Oceans Day do make a significant difference but only if we open our calendars or our wallets and contribute enough time or money to make us confident that what we are doing has a chance of making a difference. That is my challenge: that you judge the effectiveness of your efforts today and if you find that you could have done more… do it.