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On a spaceship circling the Earth every hour and a half, astronauts see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes.
It is also the rare opportunity to look down and realize just how vulnerable the planet is.
On Sunday at an all-star panel at the World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, described the Earth’s atmosphere as a “thin veneer” and an “ocean of air” that looks as slim as the peel of a tangerine.
“There is a fragility to it,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, now administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also said the large rivers of the world are visible from “up there.” They are “fine filigrees” to marvel at, she said, but it’s also important to question why the color of the waters change as they enter the oceans carrying man-made contaminants.
“We belong to the planet. The planet does not belong to us,” said Sullivan. “So take proper care of it.”
Sullivan was part of perhaps the most distinguished panel at the congress, which is put on by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The congress opened Thursday and runs through Saturday.
Sunday’s panel was titled “Actions for a Sustainable Ocean” and it was billed as finding ways to improve ocean conservation and sustainable management.
The challenge to implementing a “blue economy” — one that balances the environment and feeds people — is that for much of human history it’s mostly been about putting people first.
In short, for much of human history, humankind has taken oceans for granted. Somewhere over the last 100 years or so the consequences of abuse started becoming apparent: overfishing, declining marine resources, bleached coral and rising sea levels.
Only in more recent times have humans come to realize what they are doing and what will happen if they keep doing it.
As Inger Andersen, the IUCN’s director general put it, 90 percent of the planet’s biomass lives not on territorial places but in the oceans. But the oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess heat humans have produced “so carelessly” since 1970, while still feeding hundreds of millions of people daily.
Why, she wondered, does man treat the oceans as such a “throwaway place”? How can we survive and sustain together, such as by implementing “blue economies” that conserve but also allow economic activity?
Famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who founded the Mission Blue coalition and is a member of the OceanElders conservation group, said it starts with humans needing to understand the connection between all of nature and human existence.
“We have to make peace with the natural world,” she said.
Yes, humans will still want to devour seafood (“it’s delicious,” she said), but humans have to change their attitude about the worth of such wildlife — to accept that they are not just commodities.
“They are not free goods there for the taking,” said Earle. “We are trying to protect them from us.”
Fortunately, she added, the younger generations understand how everything is connected, far more than the smartest people of 50 or 100 years ago.
“We belong to the planet. The planet does not belong to us.” — Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA administrator
Braulio Ferreira da Souza, executive secretary of of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said that such knowledge has led to real results in recent years.
“We have never made so much progress as in the last decade,” he said, referring to setting aside parts of the ocean for protection. He pointed to President Obama’s move last week to expand the national marine monument northwest of Hawaii as such an example.
(Da Souza referred to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as “Papa reserve,” getting laughs from the standing-room only auditorium audience, most of whom could probably not pronounce the full Hawaiian name properly, either.)
To get to greater preservation of the oceans, such as 10 percent by the year 2020 or even 50 percent at some point down the road, is doable, said da Souza. But it will require conservationists like himself to look at policy changes and recognize that jobs are at stake.
Catherine Novelli, the U.S. under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, agreed.
“Economic activity and environmental sustainability have to go hand in hand,” she said, adding later, “You can’t tell people that their alternative is to starve to death.”
Novelli warned that the world could be heading toward having more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050, in part because the residents of some nations do not understand that plastic should not just be disposed of into the water.
Moving toward blue economies will require partnerships, said Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati. His island nation is a mere 6 feet above sea level and sinking.
To survive, Kiribati is now looking at “innovative but crazy” ways to survive, namely by building their islands higher. Unfortunately, such a plan will not save reefs that are unprotected.
There were so many luminaries in the auditorium that is was a bit of a mutual admiration society. Humberto Delgado Rosa, director of Natural Capital and director general for the environment of the European Commission, was moved to indicate those who were sitting in the front row.
“To have E.O. Wilson listen to my comments is beyond my imagination,” he said, referring to the famed biologist.
The oceans panel was sandwiched between remarks from two Hawaiian leaders and moderated by a third, Island Water founder Aulani Wilhelm.
Kamana‘o Crabbe, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, delivered a powerful mele or chant in Hawaiian, one extolling the power of Kanaloa, the deity with domain over the oceans.
“The giver or life to the sea, the source, the genesis,” said Crabbe, wearing shorts and slippers.
Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson closed the panel by sharing the lessons of Mau Piailug, the late Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal. His indigenous knowledge was key to revival of traditional navigation methods, the ones learned by the crew of the historic Hawaiian canoe Hokulea.
If Piailug were at the panel Saturday, said Thompson, he was sure that Piailug would be pleased to see the room was full of new navigators, ones ready to sail again with new maps of exploration.