The oceans provide priceless ecosystem and spiritual services. They also provide
many materials, livelihood and esthetical services like biological resources such as fish
As a protein, plants, energy, material resources, recreation, tourism and so on. But all these services are under threat now. Rising population and consumerism, resource
scarcities on land and sea, adverse climate change and pollution of various sorts in
This era of the Anthropocene is a reality. Humans have appropriated for themselves
Most of the planet. Due this past action or karma, we all now have to face new risks,
and challenges. At present, it seems that no state-centric sovereign attitudes can even hope to resolve the problem. It is one massive tragedy of the commons. The biggest
Self-Created economic, cultural and societal failure. This commentary will suggest
some ideas as to how we can save the oceans.
Demand from the Ocean
If the entire humanity was to consume according to the standards of developed
Industrial economies, it is unlikely that the available resources will be sufficient to even satisfy minimal basic demands of all. The earth’s shrinking biosphere which includes the oceans will not be able to satisfy the human needs. For sea-food alone, by 2030,
the oceans will need to supply 152 to 188 million metric tons of seafood to nourish a growing population’. Mankind’s ecological footprint due to rising population and
expectations may need resources of more than one earth to support itself.
In this extractive scenario, the fragile oceans assume the highest importance. Why this
is so is that unlike land, oceans are both out of sight and thus out of mind. Although a discourse and concept of blue economy and sustainable development is now in policy circles but it has missed the point from the perspective of the ocean itself. In 2017, the National Maritime Foundation in its annual maritime power conference had the topic of Blue Economy. Although noble ideas such as sustainable development were
deliberates with sincerity, the reality was that the ocean was seen more as an object
than a subject.
The reason for this is not far to seek. In the present mindset, ecology is considered
as a break, while economics is an accelerator. Ecology has no political boundaries,
it is long-term and ‘strategic’; while economics is short-sighted and is motivated by
pure national cum commercial interests. Thus economics may ignore or be blind to a process of habitat destruction, overfishing and resource collapse even if adds the rhetoric of sustainable development. Ecology on the other hand, to many, appears to
be abstract (vague notions of unmeasurable ecosystem services) while economics as
concrete (methods such as gross domestic product and commodification of nature).
But one thing is certain. There seems to be a dialogue between the two and thus
SAGAR Discourse 2017 is a commendable and imaginative step by India in the wake
of the UN Ocean Conference which was held in June 2017.
Waste and the Ocean: A Tragedy of the Commons
Biologist Garrett Harding had conceptualised the ‘tragedy of commons’ to say that
‘freedom in common brings ruin to all.’ United Nations Environmental Programme
(UNEP) of 2014 in its report had warned that ‘plastic waste costs marine ecosystem $13 billion in damages. The estimated 10-20 million tonnes of plastic waste that finds
its ways into the oceans, smothers coral reefs, routinely entangle marine wildlife, and
more insidiously, degrades into ‘microplastics’ that transfer toxins into food chain’.
However, like a cyber attack, plastic waste landing at the coast and no-more pristine
beaches cannot be attributed to anyone sovereign country alone, as waste knows
no political boundaries. Both developing and developed economies are part of the
problem. Surely we can not live with business as usual. In 2017, UNEP reports
that ‘the overall natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods sector each
the year is $75 billion.’ Awareness and education may be the first step in preserving the
shrinking space of global commons and common heritage of humanity like the oceans
At the domestic level, most mistakenly or mythologically believe or presume the
oceans to be a large sink or a bottomless waste-basket having some magical propert to devour waste. Coastal regions undoubtedly provide the best empirical indications. 80
percent of coast pollution is due to agricultural run-off from land, sewage and untreated effluents from cities and industries. The waste-stream dumped on the
once pristine beaches by high tide and the garbage-waste that remains on the beach
with surreal pockmarks, when the tide recedes (low-tide), is a good indicator of the
problem as noticed in Mumbai every day. Further south, a visit to the coast off Daksin
Kannada it is easy to spot ‘sprouting’ waste such as plastic piling up on the once
pristine beaches. This trend is increasing exponentially and is out of control. Such
common sense observations of environmental neglect, even if anecdotal, clearly
shows that we are all now part of the problem. The challenge is to be part of the
solution. Five trillion bits of plastic are in the oceans with 8 million tons added each
year. Researchers have estimated: ‘By the middle of the century the sea could contain more plastic than fish by weight.’
Climate Change and the Ocean
The emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is changing marine environment
like ocean acidification. ‘The Paris agreement is the single best hope for protecting the
ocean and its resources the limits agreed in Paris will not prevent sea levels from rising and coral from bleaching. Indeed, unless they are drastically strengthened, both problems risk getting much worse. Mankind is increasingly able to see the damage it
is doing to the oceans. Whether it can stop, it is another question.’ Geoengineering
technologies such as carbon capture and storage and solar radiation management
are yet to be tested and may have very serious unintended consequences on the ecosystem. While research on the technological options must be pursued what is also
important is simultaneous demand-side management and want limitations under
the term lifestyle changes. The worrying aspect is that Indian wisdom may also be
now taken for granted. It is an appropriate time now to draw upon and revisit Indian
wisdom to address contemporary problems of environmental degradation.
Recent scholarship is highlighting what probably our ancestors knew as traditional
ecological knowledge: ‘ Natural ecological systems on Earth succeed – often where human do not – because they adhere to the following guidelines : They do not consume resources faster than they are regenerated by the environment; do not produce wastes, especially those that disrupt the environment and the climate system, faster than they are assimilated or removed by the environment ; are highly diverse, making them more robust in the face of changing conditions; and power nearly everything they do with the Sun’.
Indian philosophy has the triple concept known as Trivarga – the notion of Dharma
(moral ethics), Artha (material wellbeing) and Kama (desires). Today Artha, which
is basically about growth and development or fulfilment of material and economic
needs are met. The Kama is desire and expectation of a good life. But there seems to be
no end to desires. Frugality and simplicity are losing value. It is here that in the triad of
Trivarga, the concept of Dharma has to be understood and invoked as a new moral
an ethic for creating awareness and some form of regulatory mechanisms that could
balance both Kama and Artha. If we control our desires to manageable levels, the
resources can support mankind in a sustainable manner. This is also understood as
pragmatic want limitation.
The Rudolphs point to what Mahatma Gandhi in his book Hind Swaraj had argued:
The main fault of modern civilisation is that it pursues world mastery rather than
self-mastery. It sets no limits on desire and on growth. One hundred years after the
publication of Hind Swaraj, it is becoming increasingly apparent that limiting growth
has become a condition for global survival. More production of goods and services
means more pollution, more global warming, more climate change and the exhaustion
of resources, not least land and water.
But the question is how does the balance of Kama, Artha and Dharma play out? In
modern civilisation artha and kama, according to Gandhi, assert their autonomy
from dharma. Gandhi clearly urges that Dharma must reassert itself and not be
overpowered by Artha and Kama. It is to the credit of Gandhi that he explained the
whole issue in such simple terms using the ancient Indian vocabulary derived from the
concept of Trivarga.
In a deeper framework, the time may be thus ripe is to recall the mantra of Mohandas
K. Gandhi , ‘For my material needs, the village is my world, for my spiritual needs, the
world is my village’. With this understanding in public domain via education , leadership
by action and example ,and appropriate institutional mechanism , it is certain that
people will get conscious of their ecological footprint, connect with ecosystem such
as the oceans and will also focus on zero waste and revisit the difference between
need and greed. This is not idealism but a real challenge of realism.