Governments talk of green jobs, green industrial revolutions and creating green new deals. The aim of these efforts is to tackle runaway climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality by remoulding our political and economic systems. But where is the blue in all of this? As Chris Armstrong writes, there can be no green transformation without a blue one alongside it.
For most of us, ocean ecosystems are out of sight, out of mind. We refer to tropical rainforests as the “lungs of the Earth” but tiny organisms called phytoplankton release 70% of the planet’s oxygen – much more than trees. In total, the oceans store 50 times more carbon than our atmosphere. The Gulf Stream alone transports 550tn calories of heat across the North Atlantic every second. Without this, the tropics would be unbearably hot and more temperate regions extremely cold. It helps make Earth the Goldilocks planet, perfect for life to thrive.
Unfortunately, the way our ocean economies work at the moment is driving widespread environmental destruction. The familiar problem of floating plastic pollution is just a tiny part of the story. Under the surface, the ocean is being emptied of wild marine life and filled with a few species of farmed fish. Marine dead zones are growing as ocean acidification and warming gets worse. People don’t know the extent of it because we can’t see it.
Armstrong takes us through humanity’s changing relationship with the ocean, starting with how it enriched sailors, whalers and early explorers. “Exploitation and abuse at sea are probably as old as sailing itself,” he writes.
During the 17th century, people believed that the sea was inexhaustible, but this changed as whalers had to move to more dangerous hunting waters in polar regions as catches became more scarce. By the mid 20th century, many whale species were on the verge of extinction.
For every 100 blue whales that swam in our oceans before the advent of commercial whaling, just one exists now. “An ocean that once resounded with their calls has become a place of ghostly silence,” Armstrong writes.
The exciting thing about ocean restoration is that marine ecosystems recover much faster than terrestrial ones, so marine life could rebound significantly in a single human generation. Whale populations are starting to increase following catastrophic declines from commercial whaling, and this small success needs to be repeated across the board.
To do this, Armstrong suggests putting 80% of the ocean under protection as marine reserves, which would lead to surprisingly rapid regeneration. Other priorities for a successful blue new deal include promoting seaweed farming, shellfish aquaculture, greening ports and planting mangroves. We must also outlaw harmful fishing subsidies and destructive fishing practices such as using cyanide and dynamite, and create better legal protections for whales and dolphins.
The book provides a persuasive guide to recovery, and is an inspiring and invigorating read. There needs to be more blue amid all this talk of green recoveries, because if the oceans fail – and with the slowing of the Gulf Stream there are early indications tipping points might not be far off – then the whole planet will.
A Blue New Deal: Why We Need a New Politics for the Ocean by Chris Armstrong is published by Yale (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.