Without a doubt the ocean is the most important part of the Earth, covering as it does 71% of its surface. Important because, along with the atmosphere, it is an essential component of the climate system which conditions all life. Important also for the resources it contains. Important, more indirectly, because it is in the ocean’s depths that resides the motor of the Earth crust’s dynamics, the ocean depths being the main characteristics of our planet. Important, finally, as it is the probable origin of life itself. Thus it is evident that the Ocean is a “necessary partner” of globalisations. In fact, one can say it "is" the centre of the world.
Though it was first used by peoples adjacent to it, for their necessary resources of survival, the immensity and geometry of the world’s oceans soon took on the essential role of communication and exchanges between all the peoples of the planet. It was in this role, the first signs of globalisation, which pushed man to explore the oceans. The first explorers were encouraged most often by governments, who saw in their endeavour the strategic means by which to assure their military and commercial presence. The seas were considered as spaces completely free; they were thought of only as an means of access to islands, other countries and faraway colonies whose riches were the stuff of dreams. It had to wait three centuries after the discovery of the new world by Columbus before man began to become interested in the ocean for its own sake, as an object of science. We are still a long way from understanding the ocean’s full importance in sustaining our planet.
It was not until the 1950s’ that the ocean’s lower depths began to be studied in a systematic fashion. The results were spectacular, leading within a dozen years to the elaboration of revolutionary theories, such as that of “tectonic plates”. Since then, the ocean, which for a long time was considered a subject dead, without interest, often even thought of as an enormous garbage dump, has taken centre stage of our global concerns. We now understand how the ocean is having a central role in the equilibrium of the earth’s external part, our living environment.
It is by studying the ocean that we have obtained a global vision of the dynamics of the earth’s crust, along with an understanding of the different spheres composing our planet. These recent discoveries and subsequent evolution of ideas, all made within ten years, were breathtaking. Nowadays, the “systemic” approach of the study of the earth shows us that all the spheres of which it is composed, from the centre of the earth’s core to the highest atmosphere, are in constant and permanent interaction; making the ocean world, at both earth’s crust and the mass of water levels, the heart of the "Earth system". Situated between solid earth and the infinity of space, the ocean and atmosphere are two spheres that directly control the biosphere, its evolution, and its survival. It is also the reserve of the earth’s almost limitless water supply. And, for the moment, it still belongs to all of us… "Global" by definition, the ocean ignores all human boundaries. National frontiers, economic blocs and political blockades make for a stark contrast with the universal openness that the ocean offers us. Perhaps it is this contrast that reminds us of the futility in the long term of many of our artificial divisions, which are being condemned to change. The natural evolution of the oceans knows nothing of our boundaries, or of our differences. It treats all life, for better and for worst, the same. We know now that it is from the bottom of the ocean that the dynamics of the earth’s crust governs all of earth’s surface, causing the natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. Although these catastrophes ignore man-made frontiers, economic disparities engender fundamental inequalities towards those natural risks, that compel us to universal awareness and a sense of solidarity.
The evolution of the climate, which is regulated by the exchanges between the ocean and atmosphere, affects all of the earth. The fact that the activities of some of us influence the climatic evolution of the entire world, is clearly one of the most fundamental problems of “globalisation”. Here again, all the populations are not equally touched in the same way and because of these disparities between people, new alliances need to be created. One spectacular example is that of the Arctic. While it will open new economic perspectives to some, for example: as maritime shipping, fishing, and mineral resources, the disappearance of the Arctic ice fields will, at the same time, penalize the rest of the world. Desertification, dry spells, migration of the agricultural zones, floods, the increase of tropical storms, forest fires, rising of the oceans, the disappearance of fragile eco-systems, all are already signs of global warming. These changes could very well become the source of unprecedented conflicts because it will cause the displacement of millions of people (1). Climate change will disrupt humane boundaries and forcibly oblige us to create new solidarities beyond the present political and economics institutional realities.
The exploitation of maritime resources, such as industrial fishing, does not recognize frontiers. And yet the over-exploitation of a number of the most lucrative species, exacerbates the disequilibrium already felt to the point where it has become threatening. The diminution of fish stocks in certain regions risk provoking generalised economic crises which can only be stabilised by rigorous and unpopular decisions taken by international bodies in a world where human settlements tend to develop on littoral zones more and more. Some environments, such as the Mediterranean, are already stretched to the breaking point, and others have likely already past it. Other ocean resources, such as coastal tourism, are both simultaneously the means toward economic development, and the cause of further environmental degradation. Once again, here only global measures can create an equitable and rational distribution of resources that will be lasting.
It is essential that everything must be done to protect and care for the ocean: indeed, by its very nature both “global” and “global-ising”, the ocean is not only the last free space on our planet but also what has given us life. This can only be done by the creation of new solidarities, which are still to be invented. They are the heart of those other globalisations that we need also to think and make possible.
Yves lancelot has published "la Vie des océans de leur naissance à leur disparition" (Editions Vuibert, Paris, January 2011).
(1) Known as “ecological” or “environmental” migrations
Translation by Stuart Krusee