Personal Choices that Help Drive Change
Actions we can take towards keeping oceans healthy
by Deborah Rowan Wright for the World Ocean Forum
Part Three of a Three-Part Series
High levels of carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels accelerate ocean acidification and bring warmer seas, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, coral bleaching, and life-threatening consequences for people in coastal communities. And as the world’s population swells, global demand for fish, oil, and minerals grows, while increasing amounts of shipping and pollution take their toll on the sea. With these factors in mind, although they may seem unrelated, the most useful steps people can take toward keeping oceans healthy are to cut down on energy consumption, while turning to renewable sources such as wind and solar; to eat little or no meat and dairy products; and to have fewer babies, because the more of us there are, the more demands we place on already overstretched ocean resources.
All the world’s energy needs can be met entirely with renewable energies, which is very good news, but it won’t happen while governments continue to greenlight coal, oil and gas projects and prop them up with tax breaks and subsidies. Many banks, pension funds and insurance companies still invest enormous sums into fossil fuel industries. In 2021, the world’s 60 largest banks provided US $742 billion fossil fuel finance, with the American bank JP Morgan Chase being the biggest contributor to climate crisis causing industries, with an eye-watering US $61.7 billion. Therefore, for personal banking, be sure to use an ethical bank, to prevent your savings exacerbating the climate crisis.
eat more plants
The meat and dairy industries put massive stresses on the environment. They exhaust natural resources, drive deforestation, and send great quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A growing number of specialists agree that if we all moved to a plant-based diet the planet’s health would be transformed — as well as our own.
slow us down
The third societal shift to ease pressure on the oceans would be to slow down, or stop human population growth and the best way is by achieving equal status for women. Birthrates are high in places where women’s status is low, where girls are unlikely to attend school and child marriage is common, and where women have far fewer rights than men. Greater gender equality enables women to take control of their lives and make choices about their education, their careers, their fertility — and specifically about how many children to have. It is possible that much wider access to the contraceptive pill could do as much for environmental protection as a whole bundle of international treaties.
As well as lasting lifestyle choices, there are many specific actions a person can take towards keeping oceans healthy. Here are some suggestions;
1. Support a marine conservation organization by giving a regular donation or volunteering — perhaps by answering emails and phone calls; updating the website; planning fund-raising events; joining a beach cleaning event or a scientific expedition. NGOs play an important role in pressing legislators to do more for oceans. They act as a communications bridge between the public and the government, and help shape policies at both a national and an international level. Besides the international ones like Greenpeace, I recommend supporting smaller, grassroots organizations. One might be active in your neighborhood, otherwise an Internet search will turn up plenty of options.
2. In local and national elections vote for the candidate committed to addressing the causes of climate change and biodiversity loss. If you want to be more pro-active, join a peaceful protest group such as Extinction Rebellion, which raises the issue of environmental decline so loudly and clearly that it’s impossible for those in power not to take notice.
3. If you’re a fish eater, inform yourself before buying — whether eating out or cooking at home. The sustainable option depends on where you live and the latest stock data for each species. Seafood advisory sites like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide make recommendations on which fish to buy and which to steer clear of. For people living near the coast, locally-caught inshore fish can be a good option. Shifting tastes away from the bigger carnivorous species like cod and salmon and learning to enjoy smaller, more abundant ones such as herring, mackerel, and anchovies is also helpful. Species to avoid, due to the environmental damage the industries cause, include farmed salmon, farmed bass, and farmed shrimp and prawns. And when I’m asked which tuna to buy with a clear conscience, I say it’s simpler just to eat something else.
4. Being aware of the impacts our choices as individuals have on the ocean is important. The curse of plastic debris clogging waters and killing wildlife is well-known. Until benign alternatives are widely available, we can cut right back our use of plastic — particularly single-use plastic.
Buying souvenirs like coral jewellery and dried seahorses, or face creams derived from shark cartilage and shark liver oil is obviously not the thing to do, but there are many other products on the market that are less obviously harmful to the sea. What we buy the kids is an example. Besides the tiny plastic toys, pens, straws, neon paints etc., all sorts of party paraphernalia is dipped in glitter, which is another form of plastic litter, generously sprinkled on greeting cards, balloons, makeup, face paints, and more — its allure being inversely proportionate to the harm inflicted on marine life if the glitter ends up in the ocean — as much of it does.
think about how we shop
When you do the household shop, take your specs and be ready to read labels’ small print. Certain substances in everyday household products, when washed down drains, into rivers, and eventually into the sea, harm or kill marine life. They’re common in detergents, fabric softeners, stain removers, toilet cleaners, air fresheners, and more. In my local supermarket many list at least one ingredient harmful to marine life.
For example, multinational Procter and Gamble’s laundry detergent Ariel (see EthicalConsumer.org), contains benzyl salicylate, benzisothiazolinone and methylundecanal, all of which are known to be very toxic to aquatic life. To compound the immorality and duplicity of the company’s marketing, alongside the poisons listed on the bottle, I see a logo; a blue planet with a bird, a tree and a fish. It’s the Cleanright.EU logo, described — absurdly — as “the industry sustainability mark.”
Several products even have a macabre symbol on the label; this time, a dead tree and a dead fish set in a bold red box, with DANGER written in capital letters below — which naturally are best avoided.
Many personal hygiene products are also washed down drains to do bad things in the sea: many toothpastes, soaps and gels contain the antibacterial agent triclosan; shampoos and bubble bath with parabens and sodium lauryl sulfate; hair dyes with p-phenylenediamine; deodorants with aluminium; and an array of sunscreens containing at least one of the ‘awful eight’ chemicals; Octinoxate, Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, PABA (4-Aminobenzoic Acid), Enzacamene, Octisalate, Homosalate, and Avobenzone — all of which impair many marine species to a greater or lesser degree. ‘Rinse-off’ personal hygiene products containing thousands of plastic microbeads are very damaging and fortunately they’ve been banned in a few countries, although not in enough.
There are plenty of menacing liquids, poisonous powders, and noxious paints to use around the house and in the garden too; to wash brushes, preserve wood, strip paint, unclog drains, fertilize grass, and kill weeds. These liquids, often unintentionally, are likely to end up in the sewer or leached into the soil, from there to run into watercourses, rivers, and finally the sea. The message is, know your chemicals and read the small print. And if it isn’t possible to avoid the nasties altogether, we shouldn’t let them be washed down the drain. (Local authorities can usually advise on where to dispose of potentially toxic substances safely.)
5. Recreational sea fishing is hugely popular. It’s best to fish only for species that are abundant, and to be sure not to leave behind any tackle that will endanger wildlife or people (lines, hooks, weights, sinkers, etc.). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an excellent page of catch and release best practices on its website. As for big-game fishing (marlin, sailfish, swordfish, sharks, and large tuna species), with 90 percent of the ocean’s top predators fished out, it would be best to suspend the sport until their numbers are able to rebound significantly.
6. Tropical fish are beautiful and fascinating, but a great number of aquarium fish are captured in their wild habitats, mostly on the reefs of Indonesia and the Philippines and in locations such as Hawaii, Fiji, and Kenya. Often they are caught using cyanide, which is sprayed on the reef to stun the fish and frequently kills non-targeted species and corals. It is estimated that half the target fish die when they are captured, or in transit after being bagged and boxed. So, if you’re an enthusiastic, it’s important to buy only captive-raised fish sold by a reputable aquarium supplier.
8. The textile dyeing and printing industry uses more than eight thousand chemicals, many of them toxic. The World Bank estimates that 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution running into rivers and then into the sea is caused by dyeing and finishing processes. Also, a large proportion of garments are made with synthetic polymers containing life-unfriendly substances. Being worn or washed, these fabrics shed thousands of tiny plastic fibers, volumes of which end up in the sea. It is better to buy good-quality clothes made with sustainably produced natural fabrics in natural colors and wear them for the duration or, even better, buy second-hand.
9. Read, watch, educate yourself, get inspired about oceans and sea life. Talk to friends, family and colleagues, and encourage them to make wiser consumer and lifestyle choices towards keeping oceans healthy and full of life.
As informed and discerning individuals we have some leverage to make positive changes and it’s important to bypass all that contributes to the oceans’ decline. But consumer choice can only do so much to kick out ruinous systems, practices and products. Ultimately, real power to make the shift to an economy based on clean energy, to outlaw destructive industrial practices, stem the tide of poisons and waste entering the sea, and manage our use of natural resources wisely, lies with government: with civil servants, policy advisers, ministers, members of parliament, members of Congress, the judiciary, and with political leaders.
If I were granted one wish for the sea it would be to have political leaders who work together in a meaningful way to find solutions to today’s social and environmental problems; men and women with a balanced understanding of the issues they are dealing with, willing to take sound scientific advice, and prepared to compromise to reach agreements for the common good.
Dream on, you say. How do we get leaders like that? Figuring that out is probably the toughest nut to crack of all.
Deborah Rowan Wright is an independent researcher who writes about marine conservation. She has worked with the UK NGOs Whale & Dolphin Conservation, Friends of the Earth, and Marinet. Her work on marine renewable energy, ocean governance reform, and public-trust law has been published by the International Whaling Commission and the Ecologist, among others. In 2020, her book Future Sea: How to Rescue and Protect the World’s Oceans was published by the University of Chicago Press and it is receiving many excellent editorial reviews.
Reprinted with permission from Future Sea: How to Rescue and Protect the World’s Oceans by Deborah Rowan Wright, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by Deborah Rowan Wright. All rights reserved.
To learn more, find Future Sea: How to rescue and protect the world’s oceans wherever you purchase books.
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