Who can stop the ‘blue acceleration’? The utopia of ‘ocean commons’

Recently I have been engaging in a collaboration with scholars in the field of geoethics and ocean sciences. We discuss the question whether and how the ocean can become an inspiration for developing entirely new ways of thinking about the future design of human societies and economies in the Anthropocene. One of them, Martin Bohle, suggested a fascinating paper on the ‘blue acceleration’. Fascinating, but also shocking. The authors describe the rapid expansion of the technosphere (my wording) into the oceans. Their data and diagrams reflect the same dynamics as of the ‘Great Acceleration’, such as the steep increase of deep-sea mining and of seawater desalination, the exploding number of offshore windfarms, or the expansion of cruise tourism. Such developments are even leveraged by climate change, because previously inaccessible areas at the poles become available for economic exploitation. The oceans are also seen as part of the solution, as in plans to use them as carbon sinks. All this happens while our knowledge about how the incredibly complex systems of the oceans work is very limited, so that risks of unintended consequences are very high.

How can we contain this dangerous development? The lofty idea, also maintained by many scientists, is to protect the oceans as shared heritage of humankind. But the paper has another frightening diagram: A map showing the expansion of sovereign claims on the extended continental shelf beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones of countries: The shared heritage has been shrinking in what should be diagnosed as colonization of the oceans by humans, akin to the scramble for terra nullius in the age of colonialism and imperialism. The legal fiction at that time was that the terra nullius, such as the Australian continent, was open to be claimed by civilized European states, which, as it happened in the US, could then allow for private appropriation and exploitation. The fact that there was no terra nullius was legally neutralized in regarding the Indigenous people as incapable to have legal rights, given their ‘barbarian’ ways of life.

The same happens with the ‘blue acceleration’, sovereign states and private business interests collude in encroaching the oceans. As in the similar case of tropical forests, such as in Indonesia, there is even a direct legal continuity between the laws of colonialism and the postcolonial laws. This allows bypassing the potential ownership claims of local communities, ‘Indigenous’ or not. This is most salient in the survival struggle of small-scale artisanal fishing communities facing the commercial fishing fleets operating in their traditional waters, both legally and illegally, and again, often endorsed by powerful states, such as China.

Following Elinor Ostrom’s seminal work, today it is scientifically established that traditional fishing communities which manage their waters as commons are effective in the sustainable management of ocean resources. But these commons do not have a legal status as owners. This observation ties back to my previous post on ‘more-than-human property’. To stop the ‘blue acceleration’, we need an entirely new institutional framework which empowers local communities on the international level. I suggest two steps.

The facts show that legally treating the oceans as shared legacy of humankind is not enough. This is even the root of the problem: The oceans are explicitly appropriated by humans, thus ignoring the claims of all other living beings with whom we share the oceans. Although we love the lofty idea of ‘humankind’, the facts about us humans speak a different language. Assigning the oceans to humankind means in practice that sovereign states pursue their interests, weakly constrained by international law and agreements. Therefore, the key to solving the ocean quandary is to contain the sovereign claims of states. In our current institutional setting, one of the most powerful means is property. Of course, governments can always overrule property assignments. Yet, in ordinary times property is widely recognized as a means to safeguard people’s livelihood against encroachment of others, including government.

Commons that would include both humans and non-humans as shared owners would drastically change the legal basis of claims on the oceans. Instead of marking extended continental shelf according to sovereign claims, the areas contingent to human settlements would be divided into a large number of ‘ocean commons’ which represent the respective ecosystems and include humans and non-humans as owners. These ocean commons would enjoy full private property rights in their external relations to all other parties, governments or private bodies, and can hence activate the full range of property law, criminal law etc. in case of violations of their rights.

Hence, the map would be redrawn radically, as shown in the sketch. Oceans would no longer be claimed by sovereign states, but by local communities of humans and non-humans with the full status and rights of legal persons, as defined by national and international law. Now, these commons can form a joint organization that represents their interests independent from sovereign states: I call this the ‘United Oceans’, with chapters in all sovereign states that implement the first transition to the ocean commons. The United Oceans would play a leading role in monitoring and safeguarding the ecological well-being of those parts of the oceans which are not claimed by single commons. Via the United Oceans, existing practices, values and belief systems undergirding sustainable local fishing-communities would be upscaled to the global level.

Well, utopia, for sure. But we need to step out of the boxes of our conventional thinking, otherwise we will just fall prey to the voracious expansion of the technosphere into the oceans.

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