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The oceans are the engine of Earth’s life-support system and they are in grave danger.


Picture by Kris Mikael Krister on Unsplash


The ocean is the cradle of life. It is where life originated. It is where life gets nurtured. All life. Especially life on land. The oceans regulate a healthy biosphere and a healthy atmosphere. They create the clouds that cool and shade lands, the rain that waters plants and the oxygen that gives life breath. They feed countless species, terrestrial and aquatic. Oceans detoxify, revitalise and re-energise. In short, the oceans boost life, health and vitality. They are so much more than a resource to exploit. The oceans are the engine of our planet’s life-support system. And they are in grave danger.



A study published in the scientific journal Nature, estimates that without radical transformation, ocean ecosystems will collapse this decade. The researchers estimate that abrupt food web collapse will begin before 2030 in the tropical oceans and spread to the tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050 (Trisos et al. 2020). The impact of such collapse will be all-encompassing, endangering the majority of life on Earth. And while most of us still believe such a scenario is inconceivable —primarily because we fail to understand the features of living systems, like interconnectedness and interdependency and because of a host of subconscious cognitive biases that taint our perspective— there is no shortage of scientific evidence underpinning the outlook that Earth’s life-supporting systems are collapsing (Steffen et al. 2015, Bologna & Aquino 2020, Heleno et al. 2020, Linn et al. 2022, Ripple et al. 2022, Penn & Deutsch 2022, IPCC 2022 report and many others).


Without radical transformation, ocean ecosystems will collapse this decade.

Heleno and colleagues (2020) write: “Altogether, evidence shows that apart from the challenge of tackling climate change and hampering the extinction of threatened species, we need urgent action to tackle large-scale biological change and specifically to protect food webs, as we are under the risk of pushing entire ecosystems outside their safe zones. […] The strong body of knowledge accumulated in recent decades has shown that endangered species lists are only the most visible side of a more insidious kind of threat cast over the natural food webs that support life on Earth. As scientists, we warn that in the face of what is likely to happen and the uncertainty in predicting when and how, the safest policy is to preserve every ‘cog and wheel’.”


In other words, human activity has altered the natural processes and systems of our planet to such a degree, that we need to broaden our focus from protecting threatened species to safeguarding food webs. And to do so, the best guarantee to success is to prevent more biodiversity loss or, in the words of the scientists above, to preserve every cog and wheel. That is because biodiversity is vital for building resilience into ecosystems. Unfortunately, we have already lost most of the riches of the oceans (Roberts 2007) which undermines marine resilience to bounce back. In fact, extensive modeling shows that our current discourse puts ocean life on track for a mass extinction rivaling the worst in Earth’s history according to a recent study in Science (Penn & Deutsch 2022).


Our current discourse puts ocean life on track for a mass extinction rivaling the worst in Earth’s history

Yet despite the critically fragile state of our oceans, business-as-usual still prevails. The continuous influx of toxic substances (e.g. microplastics, forever chemicals, agricultural and pharmaceutical toxins) and harmful activity (e.g. noise pollution, radiation, (over)fishing, mining and other forms of disruption) is still on the rise. This matters because the rapid decline of marine biodiversity and the inflow of toxic substances aggravate climate disruption, thereby making the scenario of ‘runaway climate change’ more likely (Dryden & Duncan 2021). What is more, rising human-driven carbon emissions into the atmosphere fuel acidification of the oceans. As oceans play a vital role in Earth’s carbon cycle, more carbon in the atmosphere means that oceans absorb more carbon which decreases their pH. Science shows that ocean pH dropped from pH8.17 in the 1940s to pH8.03 today. Already at a level of pH8.04, the structures and shells of marine species start to dissolve, and this process will be complete at a level of pH7.95.



Spatial distribution of global surface ocean pHT (total hydrogen scale, annually averaged) in past (1770), present (2000) and future (2100) under the IPCC RCP8.5 scenario. From Jiang et al. 2019. You can acces the paper here.



According to the IPCC business-as-usual scenario (RCP8.5) we will reach the level of pH7.95 ocean acidity by 2045. This means that the great unravelling —as in the collapse of marine food webs— has already begun and will have spilled over into every sea, estuary and river in about 20 years time. Without radical transformation, this will evoke trophic cascades of ecosystem breakdown on land and in the water before 2050. When the food webs of the oceans collapse, the food webs on land will unravel. While few people understand, the interdependency between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems is profound; oceanic phytoplankton produces at least 50% of all the worlds’ oxygen and plankton plays a vital role in regulating climate and weather conditions on land. But plankton has plummeted significantly according to a study by NASA (Rousseaux & Gregg 2015). Dryden & Duncan (2022) report a loss of about 50% since the 1950s. The scientific studies quoted here are just the tip of the iceberg.


The great unravelling —as in the collapse of marine food webs— has already begun and will have spilled over into every sea, estuary and river in about 20 years time. Without radical transformation, this will evoke trophic cascades of ecosystem breakdown on land and in the water before 2050.

It is thus clear that the time for incremental, symbolic and wishy-washy approaches is over. We simply have no time to waste. The gravity and urgency are of such magnitude that only deep transformative and regenerative projects make sense. We can change our mindsets. We can change our business models. We can change our practices. But we cannot revive a dead ocean. Species lost are lost forever. What is more, the life-support-capacity of the oceans have been degraded to such an extent, by hundreds of years of overexploitation (e.g. Roberts 2007) and the more recent massive influx of harmful toxic elements (e.g. Dryden & Duncan 2021, Persson et al. 2022), that conservation of the current state is not enough to halt the process of degeneration.


We can change our mindsets. We can change our business models. We can change our practices. But we cannot revive a dead ocean.

That is why the High Seas Treaty alone, the historic deal to create protected areas in the high seas, while important, is not sufficient. It is the nature of water, where pollutants can easily permeate everywhere, even protected marine and terrestrial areas because they travel with water vapour into the atmosphere, which shows us that much more is needed to shift the oceans back to health. We need a radically different approach to the way we make and govern things. We need approaches that account for direct and indirect impacts. We need another kind of leadership, one that builds self-determined accountability and commitment for leaving the planet better off than we found her. One of the implications of having left the safe operating space on Earth (Steffen et al. 2015, Persson et al. 2022) is that every erroneous intervention now, can set into motion irrevocable tipping points that tip Earth over into a new state that is no longer friendly to life.


We need a radically different approach to the way we make and govern things. We need another kind of leadership, one that builds self-determined accountability and commitment for leaving the planet better off than we found her.

While these insights are hard to digest, there is still a chance to turn things around. From system science we know that every living system will do everything it can to maintain itself. So instead of putting our heads in the sand or being paralysed into inaction, we can address and transform the root causes of massive marine extinction and food web collapse. According to Penn & Deutsch (2022) drastically reducing global emissions would diminish extinction risks by more than 70%, preserving marine biodiversity accumulated over the past ~50 million years of evolutionary history.


One of the implications of having left the safe operating space on Earth is that every erroneous intervention now, can set into motion irrevocable tipping points that tip Earth over into a new state that is no longer friendly to life.

Professor of Marine Conservation and author of the book ‘The unnatural history of the sea’ Callum Roberts already wrote in 2007 that we need to restore the abundance of sea life and give marine ecosystems a chance to repair themselves if the planet is to remain healthy. The ocean is the source and lifeline of all life on Earth. In the words of Dryden and Duncan (2022): “Planktonic marine life is the lungs and life-support system for the planet; they can double in mass in just 3 days as soon as we take the toxic brakes off and transition to a nontoxic, carbon net zero world by 2030. The take-away from this is that if we regenerate marine life, there is the potential to stop climate disruption and make the world a better place.”


To turn the tide, we have to take the toxic brakes off and transition to nontoxic agriculture, chemistry, energy and pharmacy. Not in 10 years time but now.

The next 10 years are therefore extremely determinant for the future of life on Earth. Only deep transformative and genuine regenerative approaches can turn the tide. This means that to move forward, we will have to confront the biggest barrier that stands in the way of proper action and that is our deeply ingrained worldview and its associated paradigms. Science has been ringing the alarm for a long time already, but our Western cultural conditioning has prevented us from responding appropriately. Status quo thinking and acting have dominated our strategies and policies for too long.


Only deep transformative and genuine regenerative approaches can turn the tide.

Only focussing on ‘what is’ will lead to breakdown. We will have to learn to focus on ‘what can be’ in order to create breakthrough. Like mentioned before, we have degraded Earth to such an extent that reducing harm or sustaining the present state, is not sufficient to stop the downward spiral of degeneration (Mang & Haggard, 2016). In other words, current sustainability approaches do not create the efficacy and effectiveness that we need to prevent worst case scenario outcomes.







Adapted from Mang & Reed (2012) whose diagram is a powerful means to distinguish between technical system and living system design. For the purpose of this paper, we reworked the original diagram to include two different worldviews and how these affect our thinking.




To move forward, we will have to work from potential. To move forward, we will have to work from living systems design. And it all starts from the way we think. Technical systems design (left) sprouts forth from an anthropocentric worldview where humans are viewed as separate from and better than nature. This worldview allowed us to develop a degenerative economic model in which the logic of value creation is based on the ‘for-profit’ imperative, capital accumulation, and the relentless expanding process of commodification and financialization. Such a model is unsustainable in the long run as it fuels processes of decline and deterioration.


To move forward, we will have to work from 'potential' and from 'living systems design'. And it all starts from the worldview that inspires our thinking.

Living systems design (right) is based on a worldview of biocentrism that sees humans as part of nature and acknowledges the intricate existential interdependencies and relationships that underpin all living systems. This worldview helps us to develop a regenerative economic model in which the logic of value creation is based on the ‘for-life’ imperative, the accumulation of health, balance and integrity and an ever-expanding developmental process of increasing the systemic wealth-generating-capacity of living systems. If done right, such a model can be sustainable in the long term as it fuels processes of evolution, renewal, and revitalization which increase the systems ableness to survive and thrive despite change and disruption.


If we succeed to reprogram our thinking and overcome the outdated paradigms that influence our thinking, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. What seemed impossible no longer is. There is an infinite amount of untapped potential ready to be set free.

To get there, we will need to transcend the paradigms that have been influencing our thinking. We will have to confront our cognitive biases that prevent deep transformation. We will need to overcome our deeply ingrained opinions, tendencies, behaviours and activities that reinforce business-as-usual. This is hard work. It is uncomfortable and arduous. It is about leaving the beaten track. But if we succeed, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. What seemed impossible no longer is. There is an infinite amount of untapped potential ready to be set free.







Acknowledgements


Most of the thinking about regeneration has been inspired by the teachings of the Regenesis Institute for Regenerative Practice and the work of Carol Sanford.


Citation


Gorissen L. 2023. The oceans are the engine of Earth’s life-support system and they are in grave danger. Perspective publication. Centre4NI.


About the author


Leen Gorissen is the founder of Centre4NI and a student of Regenerative Development and Design. As a trained ecologist, she is currently researching how we can deepen and apply living systems thinking for businesses and organisations. She is an independent scientist: the work presented here is not funded by an academic institute. When citing or replicating (parts of) this work, please give due credit.


Sources


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