The ocean is our global commons, our birthright, our collective heritage, and our heirloom. This concept is enshrined under international law – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
However, laws and concepts resonate much less with us than the things that pull at our heartstrings. With any precious gift entrusted to us from generation to generation, we know to protect it from harm. We must enshrine it in an ambient environment that offers it holistic protection, proactively prevent degradation, and carefully preserve it for future generations. Why don’t we do that with our most precious heirloom – the ocean? As a planet, we need to embrace ocean protection, and as a philanthropic field, we need to fund and support it accordingly.
Protecting our ocean from adverse impact is a moral imperative. Deep-sea mining (DSM) is a high-risk, experimental industrial activity being proposed in one of the most fragile and unexplored areas of our planet. Far too little is known about the potential impacts of deep-sea mining on our oceans, marine life, and fisheries. Many of these marine organisms have not even been discovered, let alone studied. Despite this, companies from a number of countries – including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and China – are seeking to extract metals from cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, polymetallic nodules, and hydrothermal vents in the deep seabed. There are signs that consumers and large buyers are taking note; in March 2021, BMW, Volvo, Samsung, and Google supported a moratorium on deep-sea mining. However, several deep-sea extractive projects are still actively being explored. Imagine – Would you sit dispassionately as your grandfathers’ moccasins, passed down three generations, are poked and prodded by sharp objects almost certain to deface them? No. It would be emotionally painful and would just feel morally wrong.
Protecting our ocean means paying attention to the actions that might threaten the integrity of its ambient environment and ecosystem.
While deep-sea mining might arguably be one of the most unregulated and viscerally dubious extractive endeavours regarding our ocean, the ocean is an ecosystem unto itself. Therefore, the challenges to its integrity are numerous and systemic. The ocean makes our world habitable, yet we treat it like the world’s trash dump. It is warming and acidifying at alarming rates due to the current climate catastrophe which is threatening its biodiversity and livelihoods. It is critically being overfished and is subject to other forms of unsustainable resource extraction. Any work to protect it must be multifaceted and holistic. Would you store the hand-made wooden earrings gifted to you by your beloved adoptive mother in a slightly wet box, in the mould-filled basement of a house that you know is at risk of collapsing at any moment? No, because it is short-sighted and just plain absurd.
Protecting our oceans for future generations takes foresight and clear-headed interrogation. Decisions about parcelling out our global commons are being made largely behind closed doors by a little-known U.N. body called the International Seabed Authority (ISA), headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. The ISA has thus far handed exploration licenses to 22 different mining contractors, including some linked to dubious track records that have failed to disclose potentially catastrophic environmental risks. Although there is currently no agreed-upon regulation for DSM, there is new pressure to open up the deep seabed for commercial mining within two years. Would you hand over your great aunt’s priceless sari to a complete stranger hoping and praying that they would take good enough care of it so that in 20 years it will have retained its value and be in good enough condition to pass on to our progeny? Absolutely not.
Preventing degradation of our oceans means committing to truly ‘clean energy:’ Many of the minerals found in the deep seabed are those used in battery and clean energy technologies. Truly ‘clean’ energy solutions cannot include fragile marine ecosystems, nor generate new harms to Indigenous, Global South, and other communities living near mining sites. The Making Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable Initiative highlights that transitioning to a sustainable energy future must minimize new extraction and centre the voices of those most affected. You would never let your tech-crazed cousin near your late father’s chitenge with the newest fad in stain removal technology without a clear understanding of exactly what the technology is, and how its’ so-called ‘clean technology’ might affect the integrity of your heirloom, would you?
What does this mean for funders? In light of the most recent IPCC report, we funders -like the rest of the planet- do not have the luxury of sitting in resignation at the enormity of this crisis and ruminating solely on what the world has failed to do to stymie this crisis to date. Instead, we need to fund ocean preservation, protection, rehabilitation and ecological and cultural sustainability as if we were protecting an heirloom. Despite making up more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, less than 1 per cent of philanthropic funding since 2009 has gone to protecting this precious resource. We are funding this resource like it is a cheap and replaceable thrift store find, not the precious heirloom that it is. To protect our ocean, it is imperative that we:
Fund the protection of our oceans as if it is a moral imperative, not a ‘nice to do’ item. The alarming warming of the ocean, the increasing frequency of marine heatwaves, and the effect that reduced ocean oxygen levels have had on ecosystems and the people who rely on them is directly due to human activity. This will continue throughout the rest of this century at the very least. Climate change is undeniably our fault. Acceptance of that moral responsibility must push us as funders to do better and fund better, whether we are traditional ‘ocean funders’ or not.
Fund this global heirloom from an intersectional perspective. If we are going to protect our oceans, our funding, our thought engagement, and our partnership with advocates cannot be limited to our comfortable and tightly curated program areas. We must end funding that looks like conservation, but no advocacy campaigns; preservation, but no legal and scientific capacity building of ocean protecting institutions; ocean clean-up projects, but no corporate accountability; protection of local fishing industries, but no support to those holding institutions and governments accountable for deregulating volatile extractive industries. If we refuse to reassess and readjust, our funding will be shallow and ineffective.
Fund scientific and other types of expertise which will help protect our ocean. The IPCC report made it clear that at this point, it is our children’s future – and by extension, their ocean inheritance – that we are protecting, not ours. This means that if we are going to protect the ocean’s future for our children and for their children, we need to invest in the next generation of ocean advocates and thought leaders. This includes scientists and local-knowledge holders who know the stakes, and frontline communities who will live with the consequences and who have been sounding the alarm about the global organizations and institutions possessing too much power and control over the future of our ocean.
Fund groups and processes that interrogate and hold ‘clean energy’ accountable. This means we need to be thoughtful and intentional about our funding to ensure that we do not direct support only (or primarily) to groups that are focused solely on the technology of cleaning up our ocean. There are frontline advocates, women-led and Indigenous People-led organizations whose solutions are people-centred, focus on accountability and have their own ocean protection ethos and system level change solutions. We must ensure they are not overlooked and under-resourced. It also means making sure that funding to protect our ocean is not primarily going to traditional NGOs with homogenous staff and few people of colour in leadership roles. We will not achieve the most effective and sustained ocean advocacy that way.
All funders cannot be ocean-focused or ocean experts, but we know the dire straits our ocean is in and continuing a status-quo approach is no longer morally defensible.
At True Costs Initiative, we have assumed a posture of learning and pushing the boundaries of our comfortable program areas and strict areas of expertise. We still have much to learn, but we have started by: supporting groups that work collaboratively with and at the direction of affected Global South communities and advocates to explore, share and align legal strategies for marine conservation around the world; supporting telling the story of the hidden costs of plastic and its effect on the oceans capacity to sequester CO2; and supporting groups led by Latin American and Caribbean women of colour. We also support Indigenous women making critical interventions on the Convention on Biological Diversity Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, of which ocean protection is a specific target. Finally, when supporting groups working on ocean-related issues, we ensure our grant support is designated as general operating funds. We invest heavily in relationship-first and trust-based relationships with our partners and we allow them the space to advance their ocean advocacy with the flexibility that this intersectional, ecosystem work demands.
Our ocean makes the world habitable. To be entrusted with its preservation, protection and sustainability is an honour, but it is also a mandate. It is time to protect our collective heritage as we would any precious heirloom and as if the family and ancestors who handed it to us are watching.
Conniel Malek is Executive Director of True Costs Initiative.