World Ocean Weekly

The Cultural Edge: Part Seven of a Seven-Part Series on the Ocean Edge

Claude Piché on Unsplash


Part seven of a seven-part series on what happens at the ocean edge: from the real to the symbolic

Walking the beach, you can see the parallel ridges of sand, shaped by the wind and waves - edges - critical lines of meaning that we have been addressing during the last seven weeks. Hard Edge. Soft Edge. Working Edge. Leisure Edge. Security Edge. Political Edge. We come finally to the edge wherein all these themes come together - the Cultural Edge: that length of significance that extends coastwise worldwide and unites all things human and oceanic for all time.

In culture, we aggregate every aspect of interaction with Nature and each other - through music, art, religion, psychology, and celebration. We acculturate through the exchange of goods, peoples, and ideas, and every nation, every coast has its multiple examples of how this unfolds as discovery and practice through history. Today, there are myriad modern festivals by the sea - rendezvous of tall ships and heritage vessels, festivals of nautical dance, music, and craft. There are vibrant religious events associated with the sea.

The most astonishing religious event I ever witnessed was a celebration of Mazu, a young girl from the south coast of China, who became an icon of fishing, survival, and renewal that is worshiped to this day. In central Taiwan, I was immersed in a pilgrimage of Mazu followers who converged by the thousands at a Confucian Temple to parade replicas of Mazu in palanquins, burn sacrificial money in a fire that roared from the donation furnace, flagellate themselves in atonement for past sins, and explode so many rounds of fireworks that the streets were without light and the post-explosion paper remnants were knee deep throughout the town. This is just one example of many: water temples on the beaches in India, relief carvings of ocean monsters in Australia, the abandoned wrecks of ships, bones suddenly revealed by some extreme weather event, freeing the history there to new awareness and understanding.

Mazu, Chinese sea goddess, a tutelary deity of seafarers including fishermen and sailors. Worship of Mazu has spread throughout coastal Chinese regions and throughout Southeast Asia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We read poetry of the sea; we build sand castles that are the evocation of our dreams, young and not so young; we tell of adventures aboard ships and in foreign places wherein we frame questions of survival and good versus evil. There is no question that the dynamism of the sea resonates with the water we are composed of - those waves and oscillations finding some harmonic coincidence in our bodies and, yes, our souls.

There is a physics there, and a chemistry, that augments the biology and physiology to make a whole persona, a psyche, that has the fluidity and resilience and openness to change that is the essence of water. We treat water with water. We hydrate and irrigate our bodies, just as we do the most complex plants we know. We are water gardens, like coral reefs, assemblages of living things, bizarre and wonderful, microscopic and invisible, that taken together comprise who we are as individuals, families, communities, and nations. Rank after rank of ocean people, cleaving to the water's edge. We are peaceful lakes, running streams, angry storms that are circulating like weather highs and lows, generation to generation, parent to child, lover to lover, longing to be cleansed and to be free.

It's all one great mixing. We should no longer accept the edge between land and sea as a line exclusive, but rather as a line inclusive, bringing us all together in one wondrous seven billion-plus global population of Citizens of the Ocean who won't allow the autocrats, hoarders, manic consumers, and agents of fear to degrade our marine world, our fresh water, our watersheds, or our water selves, to pollute the collective essence of our humanity and civilization. Come over the cultural edge; become an ocean person who knows that one drop augments another, that solution protects from dissolution, and that commitment to solve and dissolve our problems into healthy, harmonious waves of reaction and action will accrue to the benefit of all kinds. The sea connects all things.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Political Edge: Part Six of a Seven-Part Series on the Ocean Edge

This week we continue our 7-part thematic overview of the ocean edge with a conversation centered around coastal and offshore zones and the politics that define them. The Political Edge is part 6 of a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there, from the real to the symbolic.

As we continue our thematic overview of the edge between land and sea, let’s examine that defining line as a running continuum of political interests, defined by national borders, 12 mile offshore limits, and exclusive economic zones. We have seen that prior focus on the edge — prismatic views of this exclusive place as soft and hard, working, leisure, and security manifestations of our global relations with the ocean — have expanded our understanding of what that place means.

What about the political edge? The CIA World Fact Book estimates the total length of the world’s coasts combined equals 1,162,306 kilometers (or 722,223 miles). The World Resource Institute suggest a longer total — 1,634,701 kilometers — primarily as a result of a calculation based on a smaller scale that reveals and measures the coastal variations not included in the estimate at a larger scale. The closer we look at the myriad inroads, inundations, and openings that comprise the coast, the more extended and convoluted and complicated it becomes.

The overlay of national political interests that line become even more truncated and conflicted by goals and objectives that may have nothing specifically to do with ocean interests albeit influencing those interests in often confrontational ways. Let’s take for example the Benguela Current that runs along the southwest coast of Africa off shore from Angola, Namibia, and South Africa — a large marine ecosystem (or LGE) encompassing coastal river basins and estuaries with offshore ocean, over 200,000 square kilometers in area, defined by undersea topography, the productivity of their fisheries, and the make-up of their natural food chain. Across the globe, 80 percent of the global marine fisheries catch comes from such ecosystems.

Each of the three nations has very clear political boundaries and territorial claims that overlap within the natural area. Political relations between the three have been troubled and collaborative interests not necessarily shared. How then do you manage such coherent natural phenomenon within the context of political uncertainty? In 1994, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an international funding agency, supported a series of research and planning studies to explore and understand the deteriorating situation for fisheries and the need for coordinated management. In 2007, the three nations created a new, ecosystem-based, Benguela Current Commission, the first of 64 Large Marine Ecosystems designated around the world, that has put in place managers, scientists, and administrators, to oversee the study protection, and renewal of the integrated ocean space independent of politics, blurring the political edge for the benefit of the contiguous natural resource.

Another example of political lines drawn in the ocean are the conflicts in the South China Sea. These involve disputes over territorial claims between China and Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan over the right of free navigational passage for more than $5 trillion in global annual trade, as well as blatant extension of national control into traditional international waters. What once were simply geographical hazards to be avoided are filled with imported sand and rock to become a makeshift harbor for security vessels or a runway for military craft. The United States objects to these claims in that it upsets and narrows the corridors of power; suddenly ships presumably operating in the open ocean find themselves caught in a mesh of changing boundaries along a shifting political edge and there are geopolitical declarations that call for strategic response against constriction of influence.

It must be remembered that these lines are not just drawn on the surface of the sea, but descend down to become delimitation also on the ocean floor. Submerged areas have vast and unknown value for fish, oil, gas, minerals, and other submarine resources that are now to be recovered by improved technology and market demand. The political edge defines what can be newly exploited, one major calculation in the definition of power and a challenge to any program of international protection.

And finally there is the application and enforcement of international agreements and treaties such as the Law of the Sea that pertain to areas beyond national jurisdiction. What is inside an arbitrary political line is one thing, what is outside is another, and, if we are to protect and conserve the ocean into the future, we must focus even more on that area on the other side of these invisible boundaries, by far the vast majority of the vast area of the ocean over which we have no specific control, that dynamic inter-soluble, ever-circulating volume of water that in fact, in its harsh reality, cares not a wit for our marks of possession and national pride, not a bit for what we call a political edge. The ocean knows no line it cannot cross; no edge it cannot challenge by its natural power and indifference to the land, and to the petty aspirations who those who live there.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Security Edge: Part Five of a Seven-Part Series on the Ocean Edge

This week we continue our 7-part series with a discussion about the natural security provided by the ocean edge: the barrier effect of mangroves, beaches, cliffs, bluffs, atolls and more, and the ways that these places became and remain military and defense installations for protection of national interests. The Security Edge is part 5 of a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there, from the real to the symbolic.

For the last four weeks we have been discussing the edge, where the land meets the sea — the hard edge, the soft edge, the working edge, the leisure edge — various perspectives brought to bear on this most dynamic place. But what about the security edge? What does the specific configuration of the coast provide to protect us from natural and human interventions?

The most obvious response is of course the barrier effect: the curvature, inclination, geology, and natural configuration provided. Simply by the shape of the land we are protected from strong wind and angry wave. The points of land and sheltered coves, the beach and barrier dunes, the mangrove swamps, the rocky cliffs and bluffs — all these contribute to the security of human settlements there. In many cases, we have exploited those features to site our cities and settlements. We have, for example, extended protections through breakwaters and engineered port facilities or developed certain beaches as resorts and recreational opportunity.

We have also destroyed many of those features — blasted artificial ports, removed and filled the mangroves, dredged the natural river outlets, and created coastal features and constructions that modify and erode rather than sustain the coastal zone. As extreme weather events increase and as the sea level rises, these man-made artificial features are challenged and proven short-sighted with now resultant serious social and economical disruption.

Another important aspect of the security edge is defense against military attack. Ports become targets; beaches become likely places for attack; bluffs and outcroppings become sites for observation and artillery; coastal features become logical places for bunkers, lookout towers, radar placements, and other structures for invasion defense. Historically, one can see the ruins of these installations — old forts overlooking coastal cities with rusting cannons as physical memorials to transformational battles and events. The narrow entrances to the Baltic Sea at Oresund and Mediterranean Sea at Gibraltar are such important historical places, where access was limited, tolls collected, and passage surveyed, even prohibited, as an expression of political and economic power and potential.

It is no different today, really. The coast is still the only place for naval construction, bases and fleet stations, submarine pens, missile launch sites, and global communications towers and links to orbiting satellites. Key topographical places are often in the news, passages through which concentrated shipping must pass; a global network of narrow ocean places where movement is confined between two coasts and vulnerable to adjacent military surveillance and attack.

We must remember that for all time — from Odysseus to today’s tension in the China Sea — the ocean has been a vast earthscape for naval operations, imperial expansion, offensive and defensive conflicts, and the exercise of national interests. Almost all developed nations have some level of a naval fleet to patrol and police their territorial water against smuggling, piracy, and illegal fishing practice. The larger geopolitical players — the United States and Russian Federation, for example– have massive investments in surface and submarine vessels that are constantly at sea as part as a tactical game of influence. Growing economies like China and India are engaged in an expensive expansion of technology and capacity to compete on the world ocean for strategic advantage; another version of the arms race with certain implications for future control of the sea.

All this may seem invisible and disconnected from how we understand and view the edge. But it is real and significant; security is very much part of what is a multi-layered interpretation of what it means to live alongshore where the land meets the sea, a sharp edge that is both useful and dangerous.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Leisure Edge: Part Four of a Seven Part Series on the Ocean Edge

This week we continue to discuss the ocean edge in thematic ways with The Leisure Edge, arguing that we must reclaim the spaces near the ocean edge for recreation, for coastal protection and for authentic connection to the sea. The Leisure Edge is part 4 of a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there from the real to the symbolic.

This week we continue our 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge by arguing that we must reclaim the spaces near the ocean edge for recreation, for coastal protection and for authentic connection to the sea. The Leisure Edge is part 4 of a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there, from the real to the symbolic.

The edge where land and sea intersect can be depicted as a place for leisure. We go there for a solitary walk, a romantic walk, the gathering of family, a place for children to play and remember, a rendezvous of friends where we eat and drink and sing songs before an open fire, waves crashing just beyond our line of sight, where we can relax in freedom from our worldly concerns.

The beach has been portrayed culturally in art and literature: seascapes of curving sand, enveloping dunes, waves benign, and men and women in out-of-fashion bathing suits. The primary and secondary dunes that typically separate the beach from land are like protective curtains of privacy, natural grassy barriers that keep the implication of return to work and daily life apart. Long stairs descend, the sting of sand is felt, the smell and sound of the ocean displaces cares and concerns left behind, even for an afternoon.

While beaches were at one time a place for work - harvesting fish and shellfish from alongshore - they have now become a space for leisure, even when they pass before some mighty row of private residences, condominiums, and hotels that in modern times have encroached forward to diminish the border of the regenerative sea.

There is erosion there - not just the inundation by storm waves to undermine the foundations of those intrusive structures - but also by the dissolution of other protections there that have always sheltered land from sea. Beaches are privatized; resorts and clubs claim exclusive lengths of the endless sand; entertainment piers are built as artificial land on which the culture of rides and cotton candy can extend. Suddenly, there is manufacture for the compulsively active: gas-powered vehicles, small boats and kayaks to rent, surf and paddle boards, wind surfers and sail kites, vendors, even hustlers and beggars who prey on the distraction of fun. Suddenly there is landside music everywhere, the shells and driftwood are collected and burnt; the birds' nesting grounds trampled; the sand and beach grasses clogged with plastic detritus, broken glass, and garbage. Suddenly, what has happened? Suddenly, the openness and tranquility and value of that edge is gone.
Coastal development at Vari beach near Athens, Greece July 21, 2013.  REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

This seems all wrong to me. I say the beaches belong to everyone, the coast around. Every beach is a reserve, a protected area for natural systems, marine creatures, sea birds, coastal flora and fauna and people. Yes, all the people who will use it sustainably, leave their destructive habits and unrecyclable junk on land already despoiled, and value the edge for all its natural capacity for recreation, renewal, and regeneration. Some states have done so, declaring the coast from top to bottom a public amenity. Some cities have done so, building public access and pathways the whole way round in place of exclusive commerce and industrialization that can be better placed somewhere else.

Call me a revolutionary, but I say free the ocean edge, give it back in pure form so we can all enjoy the plentitude it gives us. Let the kids play and swim without equipment; let them search the tide pools for the critters that live there; let them feel things, like wet and hot, dry and cold. Let them come to the edge in all seasons so they can experience change, feel anger and solace in the sound of the sea, be by themselves if they want to be, and be together in a place where they can connect authentically, to each other, siblings, parents, even strangers, in a community of pure value, natural structure, and rewarding behavior.

Let's take back the edge.


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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Working Edge: Part Three of a Seven Part Series on the Ocean Edge

This week we begin to present the ocean edge in thematic ways with The Working Edge, outlining the various social structures, industries, exchange, trade and more that were shaped by early settlement near the sea. The Working Edge is part 3 of a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there, from the real to the symbolic.

When we speak about the ocean edge, we are discussing that circumferential line that delineates the terrestrial coasts, forming the invisible linear of confrontation and connection between land and sea. We have characterized the identity of those boundaries as “hard” and “soft,” engineered responses and social responses that are at once examples of mitigation of or adaptation to the dynamic circumstance of proximate earth and water.

We can also present the edge thematically, the amalgam of coherent activities that reflect both the reality and symbolic implication of what takes place there. We can talk about the working edge, the leisure edge, the security edge, the political edge, or the cultural edge. Each of these contextualize social behavior, organizational structure, and an expression of value as both personal and communal in any given alongshore place or time.

Let’s begin with the working edge. Historically, the distribution of settlement was drawn to natural harbors and shores where fishing and trade could be practiced in support of the people who lived there. This holds true for inland waters as well – the distribution of interior cities in similar location connected up or down stream to the ocean outlets and exchange beyond. The working coast was at first a secure place where a small boat could be dragged a shore, built and repaired, and re-launched as a source of food comparable to the harvest of the land. I once visited Lan Yu, an island off the south coast of Taiwan. I watch those fishers launch their wooden vessels from the shore, paddle through the waves engine-less to sail for several days toward Mindanao and the Philippines, lighting a fire on the bow deck at night to attract the fish toward the light and into the boat. I was there when they returned and was astonished by the minimal catch resulting from such hard work and danger.

As vessels got larger, bigger facilities were required to dock, load, maintain, construct, voyage, and trade – the seemingly simple elements of maritime exchange that linked together eventually all parts of the world as stages of what we now call “globalization.” Those piers and shipyards were alive with work and financial vitality. This enterprise built institutions, organizations, associations, and personal fortunes, and contributed to every aspect of social and political life everywhere on earth where and when people chose to settle by the sea. Breakwaters and cargo handling technology, financial exchanges, banks and trading companies, manufacturing firms, unions, connecting roads and canals, trains, city architecture, churches and cemeteries, civic and social institutions—all these functions and their physical and economic consequences were a direct, progressive reflection of the energy and accomplishment of the working coast. Indeed, the world was parsed and defined by energy generated by the connective power of the ocean.

History brought scale, further exploration, science and invention, confrontation, and imperial expansion to the world, again enabled as response to the value perceived and desired. Expeditions opened the last places; technology enabled us to explore beneath the surface of the sea; iron, steel, and steam transformed ships in size, speed, range, and power. Work, work, work – every aspect of this growth of centuries was powered by the human mind and hand applied to the opportunities offered by the sea and serviced from the land. One can look at the entirety of world history to now and reduce it to one word: maritime – defined as living or found in or near the ocean.

Here at the World Ocean Observatory we state as our primary assertion that the sea connects all things. But don’t understand that connection as purely geographical, but rather as the unity of effort that is the nature of work and which when applied well to purpose can build a world for the benefit of all mankind. That has not changed. It is applicable and necessary to the future even as work changes and technology creates new vocations. Today, people are migrating from inland to the coast; coasts are challenged by sea level rise and extreme weather; ports can become teleports and cyberports seemingly indifferent to traditional structures. But here is a fact not well known: today, almost all data, financial transactions, internet informational transfer, communications, and more move at light speed as a function of modern work through cables deep on the ocean floor where, invisible, they connect us still through coast to coast, underwater.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.