Monday, February 22, 2010

I Wonder Where the Sailors Are?

Recently came the news of the death of historian Howard Zinn, author of “The People’s History of the United States,” a contrarian view of American history that should be read by everyone regardless of political persuasion. Zinn provides a provocative alternative perspective on our nation’s story as institutionalized in the text books, a telling argument for taking a second look from a different point of view at something so complex and dynamic as human history.

I have always felt that Americans have no real understanding of our history as a maritime nation. The subject is mostly absent from the texts and the specific maritime histories have been most often enumerations of customs house documents, ship voyages, and the odd naval battle. Only recently has that begun to change as historians from other disciplines have discovered the broad impact and richness of maritime endeavor as a core theme in the American narrative.

Let’s take two points of view: internal and external. If you look at the topography of our nation, you see a system of watersheds – great lakes connected to rivers and the sea; streams descending from major mountain systems, east and west; and myriad rivers feeding the Mississippi, a central north south artery that splits the nation. Those waterways were the paths of early exploration and settlement. Many of our largest inland cities are located on the confluence of navigable rivers. The Erie Canal, an engineering marvel, linked the heartland to the east coast ports and Europe. Lewis and Clark followed the rivers and streams into the west, through the Rockies to the Pacific. Along these waterways passed the grain, cotton, tobacco, and other agricultural products, the iron and steel and coal and timber, and the manufactured goods, distributed internally, to the eastern ports like New York, Boston, Charleston, and Savannah and around Cape Horn to western ports of San Francisco and Seattle and beyond, as the essence of an emerging American world trade.

The external perspective is also instructive. It reveals that trade as more than export, rather the exchange of goods from Europe and further east, and, most importantly, the imported return, the arrival of immigrants, refugees from religious tyranny, entrepreneurs, and outlaws, who are our forbears by the thousands. We honor our few remaining indigenous people. But the rest of us came from away, from Ireland, Scotland and England, from Scandinavia, from Germany and Italy, from Africa (albeit an involuntary passage), and eventually from all the nations of the world, these diverse ethnicities combining to create the complex nation that we are. Most of these people came by ship across oceans, and, today, perhaps by different vessels, they are still coming.

What Zinn and other historians have recognized is that the principal value exchanged by this process was not just the trade goods and financial accounting, but also the ideas and beliefs, the art, the music, and the literature that are the cultural fabric of our moment. We listen to world music and appreciate world art. We are open to multiple religions and spiritual practice. We fuse food traditions, fashion, fads, medical treatments, exercise, sport, and language. We may have new and different portals now, but the process began long ago when the first sailors left shore in search of something beyond their own experience, beyond their limited horizon.

When I look at things now, I wonder where the sailors are. We have become fearful and oppositional and close-minded. We have become complacent within our horizon and hostile to new people and new ideas. We need historians like Howard Zinn, or new leaders to show us the way back to the sea, the sea that connects all things.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Live, from Copenhagen, Part Four

OCEANS DAY has dawned in Copenhagen where more than 300 ocean experts, climate summit delegates, government ministers, and friends of the ocean gathered together at the European Environment Agency to hear Prince Albert II of Monaco open an event designed to force attention upon the inextricable link between climate and ocean.

Prince Albert II called the oceans "reservoirs of life and hope...the arena of new fears and challenges." He enumerated the risks of ocean warming, sea level rise, threats to biodiversity, and acidification, as well as the larger risk of "neglecting to meet these challenges." he described his personal witness of the effect of these conditions in the polar regions, particularly the Arctic.

He cited Monaco's contribution to the conservation of the Mediterranean, as headquarters to several international ocean research and management organizations and to the Oceanographic Museum founded 100 years ago by his grandfather, Prince Albert I, himself an oceanographer and expedition leader.

In conclusion, he invoked the ocean as "a last utopia," that, while time was short, was still possible to save through a "worldwide social link" between citizens on behalf of the sustainable ocean.

The OCEANS DAY agenda will continue with presentations on Impacts on Small Island Developing States, Tropical Environment, Polar Changes, Fishers and Aquaculture, and Marine Biodiversity.

Additional panels in the afternoon will focus on Ocean Acidification, The Coral Triangle, Mitigation and Adaptation Responses, National and Regional Responses, Mobilizing the Public and Private Sectors, and Strategies for Moving Forward an Ocean Agenda after COP-15.

To find additional information and interviews with many of the presenters and to comment on issues and response to Ocean Climate interaction, visit

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Live, from Copenhagen, Part Three

The Climate Summit is half-way there, and, like Zeno's Paradox, you wonder how many half way's will get us anywhere. Bill McKibben asserts that 100,000 citizens marched through the streets of Copenhagen, with many more holding similar marches and vigils all around the world. Indeed, the number 350 is everywhere, as if "parts per million" is the new gold standard for morality against which we must all be measured. But, of course, we know morality is relative. In one of the side events at the Bella Center this week, serious scientists reported that data used to set such standards are also relative, with studies revealing that in many areas of the globe the actual situation is worse than what has been used for the baseline and that in those areas 350 may not be enough.

In parallel with that disconcerting concept is an interview from our Ocean=Climate website ( another serious scientist strayed from his principled objectivity to muse on his feeling that the situation may not advance without direct action! His concern was that scientists have made the case for the people to judge and that, as citizens, only overt demands for change, public awareness millions strong, will reach the politicians effectively enough to make the difference.

It is easy enough to characterize political indifference to such demands as cynical response to the need to be re-elected or the influence of "vested interests," but it is nonetheless dismaying that representatives can ignore so stubbornly the needs of their constituents, whether for health care or strategies against global warming.

The nay-sayers argue that the science is not definitive and the crisis is not real. They worry about the "damage" done to our way of life if the scientists are wrong. Fair question. But they never look to the converse to ask what if the scientists are right, and we have done nothing? What does that imply for the perpetuation of our way of life? The only other concept I can remember from my philosophical education is Pascal's Wager, and I for one believe it's probably best to hedge your bets about the existence of God or whatever plague of locusts or emissions that in Her wisdom He has inflicted upon us.

Obfuscation and obstruction are indirect action, passive strategies that play upon fear and uncertainty. What is evident here is active engagement, in the plenary sessions and on the streets, one hundred thousand one hundred thousands with the courage to face the future.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Live, from Copenhagen, Part Two

Neptune as Advocate. I spent the afternoon with over 60,000 friends in a parade for climate action -- walking from the Danish Parliament to the Bella Center where something called negotiation is taking place, deliberations earlier suspended by a desperate cry for help by Tuvalu, an island in danger of inundation by sea level rise, a nation facing an imminent annihilation of culture. Speaking yesterday with a member of the delegation from India, it became apparent that he was not aware, or certainly not telling, what his government's ultimate position might be. All the pressure seems to be on China; the news feeds show a pervasive campaign across the international press spectrum based on the premise that China and the United States are the key to any possible agreement and it's China's turn. Europe and Brazil are in; Russia dances around the edges; India remains, as always, a mystery that even its own people cannot explain.

Meanwhile the parade of protest continues, with floats and chanting anarchists, decorated baby carriages and any number of sweating volunteers in polar bear suits. Greenpeace continues to get the best "float" award, although in counterpoint, one group of artists, dressed in cream silk carried trays of grapes in favor of green capitalism, succeeded in offending the most fervid who had left their sense of humor back at camp with the bedroll. Our most poignant and effective interview was with a Somali woman with two children who understood exactly why the ocean was important -- "water," she said.

The World Ocean Observatory continues to record our series of interviews on the inextricable connection between ocean and climate, with a heavy emphasis on future solutions. The site is live at and the interviews will be posted as they are completed, surely by December 14 when the site will be launched at an Ocean Day event hosted by the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts, and Islands at the European Environment Agency headquarters here in Copenhagen.

As the parade moved on, I was amazed at how little detritus was left behind -- the odd placard and drifting hand-outs, the police wagons with their men in riot gear untested, the less committed opting for complacency over exercise. Copenhagen looked absolutely beautiful, sun glinting on its marvelous twisting towers and colored brick facades, with the echo of spirited commitment lingering in the brisk winter air. Everything seemed possible. Neptune had it right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Live, from Copenhagen

Walking Copenhagen during the two weeks of the Climate Summit suggests what it would be like if everyone understood the critical challenge of climate change and was prepared to meet it. All the obvious signs are in place: the looming windmills, the myriad bicycles, the low emission public transportation, the hundreds of exhibits and signs and manifestations of people accepting climate change as a given and demanding solutions.

No ideological harangue. No t-bagging nonsense. No fear that change will somehow compromise the world economy and "our way of life," but determination rather that it will transform and revitalize the world economy and how we live. There is a palpable sense of possibility that is a very refreshing experience for an optimist somewhat beaten down by his country's suspicion and negativity and fearful stasis.

At the Bella Center, the huge meeting facility where the event is taking place, all the world is on parade, more than 190 nations represented. There are the delegates and negotiators; there are the observers from hundreds of organizations around the world with commitment enough to the issue to use their limited financial resources to come and be heard in Copenhagen. And then there are the bright orange t-shirts of what seems an infinity of young people, students who rightly claim the future as theirs to live and want to make certain that those of us responsible for the situation will take the steps to make it right. Finally, outside, there the estimated 50,000 protesters with their banners, slogans, costumes, and righteous pranks who are demanding that those inside do MORE, not less, do SOMETHING not nothing, do RIGHT not wrong by denying an opportunity to make the world a better place at least for forever.

Bill McKibben's movement is also here with 350 observers representing the millions all over the world mobilized in the name of that achievable emissions goal -- a project, according to CNN, that is the largest manifestation of public expression in the name of the environment ever. Coming from a culture of denial, this sense of awareness and political will is an exhilarating and motivating context in which to pledge to take some meaningful part.

I am here for the ocean, a global system locked in a constant dance with climate. Neither can survive without the other. Specifically, the World Ocean Observatory is working with the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts, and Islands to build a new Ocean=Climate website to examine the full range of impact of climate change on ocean systems and to stimulate a global conversation about these issues. Please go to, have a look around, and speak your mind. The site will be supported and linked to ocean and climate-related organizations around the world, to science centers and museums, universities and schools, and to individuals who wish to be informed about what is, what is being done, and what others have to say about it.

I urge you to join the conversation, even if you can't do so live, from Copenhagen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ocean, Africa...and Football

Recently, I noticed a small press story announcing an underwater fiber optic cable linking Europe, India, and east Africa -- a few inches of type indicative of an astonishing advance in global communications.

Most of us are unaware of the number of such cables that snake across the ocean floor to link us via telephone, fax, television, data transfer, email, and Internet connection. We call Europe as if it was just down the road; we email Japan as if it was just across the bay. We take it all for granted and exploit the astonishing value of connection for our businesses and our personal endeavors.

But Africa! We envision an endless desert, poverty, an image of backwardness and isolation antithetical to the technology and obsessive communication in our own lives. Visiting Africa, of course, both denies and confirms this vision by the stunning juxtaposition of affluence with poverty, of entrepreneurial optimism with desperation and hopelessness.

In July, via a 17,000 kilometer submarine fiber optic cable, SEACOM, a company 77% owned by African investors, completed a global network between France, India, south and east Africa was completed and commissioned, linking London, Marseilles and Europe, Delhi and south Asia, with Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, and Addis Ababa. The cable has an enormous capacity for data transfer -- 1.2 terabytes per second -- to enable high definition TV, peer-to-peer networks, IPTV, and surging Internet demand at prices realistic for the African market.

The ownership structure varies for each segment of the cable, ensuring local ownership of the cable segments connecting individual countries and to comply with regulations in those countries. The cable backbone along the east coast of Africa and to India and Europe is owned by SEACOM. The segments connecting to individual countries are either 100% (South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, India, France) or 35% (Tanzania, Kenya) locally owned by local investors. A small group of international investors with no other telecommunication involvement in the individual countries constitute a minority share.

Initial investment was also provided by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, an international development agency dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and building economically sound enterprises in the developing world. The Fund is active in 16 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Mali, Mozambique, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania and Uganda.

Suddenly, for better or for worse, Africa is connected. The World Ocean Observatory, for example, can now link to teachers and students in African universities, schools, and environmental groups, heretofore almost impossible. We can now provide ocean curriculum, interact with classrooms in real time, and transfer distance-learning modules with ease to African ocean nations. The sea connects all things!

As importantly, there is now also bandwidth to meet the needs of the Confederations Cup and the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa, as well as the growing requirements of the economies in the countries served. I suppose it is fair to say that football and finance are international forces comparable to the connective power and community engagement of the ocean itself.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ocean, Climate, and Copenhagen

As part of a global coalition of ocean organizations, the World Ocean Observatory is preparing a new independent website on Ocean and Climate to be launched at the climate summit in Copenhagen in December. The purpose is to demonstrate the absolute connection between two dynamic natural systems with pervasive impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

The problem lies in a disconnect in our thinking. It is amazing to see how indifferent climate policy has been to ocean issues; indeed, even Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth" almost belittles the ocean as a secondary function of climate when in fact it is very much the other way around. The specific language being developed for Copenhagen has largely ignored the ocean, and only through the intervention by many NGO’s, in the United States and Europe, has that oversight begun to be remedied. It may still not be enough.

But of course that is the fear for the proposed new treaty in general – not enough, not soon enough, not effective enough. The situation is plagued by two political divides -- between the developed nations and between the developed nations and the rest of developing world. The first is a function of commitment and degree. In the United States, for example, many individuals and political figures are unwilling to accept the research on global warming and its predictable impacts and oppose legislative actions, treaties, and behavioral change on ideological grounds. In addition, there is a divide between the nations over the type and degree of action necessary – cap and trade versus carbon tax for example.

The second divide has the developing nations objecting to change required by conditions not of their making and insisting on enormous financial aid to subsidize the cost of imposed new strategies for adaptation and mitigation. The developed countries want to invest in very specific actions with measurable outcomes, while the developing countries want to receive unrestricted compensation.
But the dichotomy is false. In fact, the developing world has as much to lose as the developed nations, should the research models prove to be true. But there is no need to await the future when radical change in weather events is already disrupting traditional patterns of settlement, agriculture, and health. The reports of unexpected, extreme weather phenomena are pervasive – hurricanes and cyclones, droughts and wild fires, mudslides and floods, affecting thousands of people around the world. Consequent social disruption, pollution of water supplies, physical and economic collapse, and the outbreak of previously controlled diseases are just some of the outcomes already tragically prevalent in coastal and other communities around the world.

Fifteen of the world’s largest cities are located in the coastal zone, including New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Cairo. We know the devastation of Katrina in New Orleans, an event from which we in the US seem to have learned very little. Sea level rise and coastal surge are two of the most obvious indicators of the chain of connection between CO2 emissions, global warming, and polar and glacial melt. And yet we dither and dispute, day in day out, protecting our narrowest interest and denying both cause and effect, ignoring the research, debating the policy, and doing little in a collective global catharsis of ignorance and selfishness that will do harm to us all and to our children.