This month, I begin work on a British Academy / Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship. The topic – Ocean Justice – could hardly be more timely. The world is increasingly coming to understand the many hugely important roles the ocean plays in sustaining life on earth. The ocean is, in many ways, the crucible of life in our world. Without an ocean, human life on our planet quite simply could not exist. Our world would be wholly inhospitable, for instance, were it not for the ocean’s role in cycling freshwater and oxygen, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, and regulating global temperature. Billions rely on protein from the ocean’s fish, and fully 12% of the world’s population rely on fishing and aquaculture for their subsistence. And the signs suggest that as time goes by, we will rely more on the oceans, rather than less.
But we are also coming to understand the myriad challenges the ocean faces, which could impair its ability to support life on our planet. Key examples include plastic pollution, the acidification caused by a warming planet, overfishing, pollution arising from shipping, and the environmental damage caused by accelerating extraction of minerals and petrochemicals from the seabed.
Improved understanding of these threats has encouraged a sense of urgency at the international level. The United Nations has made the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans one of its Sustainable Development Goals. It has also commissioned the first ever World Ocean Assessment – drawing on the example of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and in 2017 it organised the world’s first global Ocean Conference.
Though this increased attention is to be warmly welcomed, there is a good deal of work to do. The oceans are protected by a patchwork legal framework which regulates some activities but not others, and gives different levels of protection to different ocean zones. The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea is justly called a ‘Constitution for the Oceans.’ But it is also clear that it is at best a work in progress, in need of urgent revision if it is to meet key challenges of the future. Key issues – such as fishing on the High Seas, the establishment of vital marine reserves outside of any state’s jurisdiction, and the fair use of ocean biodiversity – will be the topic of heated debate in the coming years.
The contribution of political theorists to debates on the future of the oceans have, to date, been rather modest. During the seventeenth century, notable political theorists – including Hugo Grotius and
John Locke – engaged with questions about the governance of the world’s oceans. But they assumed a paradigm of plenty rather than precarity, and could not foresee many of the challenges the ocean has come to face. It remains to be demonstrated what political theory can contribute to conceptualising, and hopefully resolving, some of these major global challenges. What would just and legitimate governance of the world’s ocean look like? During the next twelve months I will attempt to make my own contribution to addressing these vital debates. But it is clear that the political theory community more broadly must also shift its attention oceanwards.