The Shadow
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The Shadow

Paradox and the Blue Economy

The new Blue Economy is falling prey to the “business as usual” operations of The Ocean 100 — the largest trans-national companies that account for the most profits from the ocean while also generating the most emissions, waste and other pollutants to the ocean. Current economic activity is not meeting the requirements for economic growth and improved livelihoods while simultaneously preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem, though the Ocean 100 companies could be a force for change of the Blue Economy with help from public awareness and consumer pressure.

Definition One: The Blue Economy, according to the World Bank, is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem.” The European Commission defines it as “All economic activities related to oceans, seas and coasts.” There is much hope implied in the term by policy-makers and environmental economists who see in the idea a change that abandons the old economy, land-based and destructive, in favor of a new set of values and behaviors embodied in the ocean. It is a hopeful term that encompasses new ventures, new attitudes, and new outcomes, all of which will benefit the global economy in redemptive and responsible ways.

Definition Two: Paradox may be defined as “a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.” There may be an element of paradox in claims about the blue economy as its logic may be grounded in a misunderstanding of the realities of ocean commerce, the durability and self-interest built into the status quo, and the viability of outcomes as measured even in the most sustainable calculus of profit and loss.

In a recent paper on The Blue Economy, researchers from Duke and Stockholm Universities described the status quo, the baseline against which new measurement must be compared, by listing the assets controlled by what they label The Ocean 100, the largest companies generating the most revenues today from using the ocean. The statistics are intimidating: “The volume of goods transported by container shipping has quadrupled since 2000, and almost one million kilometers of submarine cables have been laid on the seafloor in that time, which now carry almost all international communications. The energy generated by offshore wind farms has increase 400-fold in the past two decades, and the volume of farmed seafood has grown by 5% on average each year. Most major discoveries of oil and gas deposits have been made offshore and around 1.4 million square kilometers have been leased for exploratory mining. There was practically no marine biotechnology sector at the turn of the millennium, but since then, more that 13,000 marine genetic sequences have been patented.” This phenomenon has been called the blue acceleration, descriptive of the sudden, pervasive industrialization of the ocean that is well underway.

“In 2018, the 100 largest companies took an estimated 60% of all revenues in eight industries: offshore oil and gas, container shipping, seafood production and processing, offshore wind energy producers, cruise tourism operators, and a number of industries that support the wider ocean economy, including marine parts and equipment makers, shipbuilders and repairers, and port maintenance businesses.” The companies generated US$1.1 trillion in 2018, equivalent to the GDP of Mexico. The ten largest companies generated 45% of all revenues…”

It is reasonable to conclude that the blue economy is full established and controlled by the same forces that have controlled the old one. And it might be added that the operations and side effects of these endeavors are among the biggest generators of emissions, waste, and other polluting outcomes to the critical detriment of the resource — the ocean — on which they depend.

Does this economic activity derive from “oceans, seas and coasts?”

Yes, it does.

Does it meet the official required “for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem?”

No, it does not.

And it is surely not equitable in its concentration of control and financial return, social exclusion, and affirmation of sustainable best practice. It seems, in my opinion, “senseless, logically unacceptable, and self-contradictory,” in short paradoxical at best, a repetition of bad practice at worst. So, despite all our hopes and aspirations for change, what we have, in truth, in the ocean economy is a less visible, just as destructive system of capital investment, exploitation of limited natural resources, and profit-sharing that have created the situation that this blue enterprise is meant to supplant.

These same 100 companies could be a powerful force for change, but not on their own, not without public awareness and pressure against their endeavor, not without accepting the terms and specifications of a “new economy,” not without understanding the reality of the ocean as a global “commons:”

Definition 3: “cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth.” Sensible, logical, acceptable, responsible, equitable — without paradox — therein lies the true meaning of the true blue economy.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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