We're in the Decade of Ocean Science, but you wouldn't know it
Nowadays you could forgive the average person for regarding the ocean as a playground for the elite. There are endless stories about the seizure of Russian oligarchs’ super-yachts…
…and the New York Times wrote extensively about rich people’s efforts to buy private islands during the height of the pandemic.
Even those who use science in their everyday lives must admit the world’s waters are gaining a reputation as exclusive & expensive. Last week I concluded my IPCC series with an explanation for why regular people ignore the ocean (read it in full here). The paper I referenced about nonhuman charisma is amazingly applicable. Although Dr. Lorimer was analyzing why land-based conservation efforts fail or succeed, the idea that humans don’t care about what they don’t see, like, or vibe with is universal. This motivated me to do some reading on ocean literacy, or the idea that a person is well-informed & cares about our world’s waters. Although some non-profits and international organizations have created plans and developed informational resources, major news outlets and magazines have (surprise surprise) not even tried to distribute these into society. Furthermore, scientists and humanists alike have done little research about the importance of ocean literacy or the success of current efforts.
On December 5th, 2017 the UN declared the 2020s to be the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Now is supposed to be a time of international focus and accord, a time when we finally pay attention to the other 71% of our planet. Why haven’t you heard of this, you may wonder? We are only in the decade’s second year, but a simple Google search reveals only a handful of articles, none of which are by Western media outlets. For better or worse (mostly worse), the UN’s declaration has been ignored by the countries with the most global influence — no references were even made to the Decade during mainstream discussions of the IPCC report. What is the point of initiating a movement if no one follows you? Admittedly, I did not know about any of this until recently. Although it is not totally our fault that we are uninformed, it is our collective responsibility to invite new knowledge into our lives. But even the most globally-respected institution cannot inspire humans to care about marine science. Why are ocean literacy efforts failing so miserably? Luckily, I happened upon a recent study of our current communication problems; it provides scaffolding for my analysis below.
Educators, scientists, and policymakers created a formal definition for ocean literacy in 2004. They stated that it’s not just a measure of what people know, but how they feel about their knowledge and how they act on it. Three years later, a group of scientists divined ocean literacy’s seven basic principles:
The goal is to change people’s behavior and demonstrate that their lives are inextricably connected to the sea. ‘Sustainability’ is a hot topic, but the environment most people imagine needs saving is farmland, rainforests, or local watersheds. The UN’s Decade of Ocean Science (2021-2030) aims to increase awareness by non-scientists of marine environments and encourages conserving ocean resources. It recognizes the importance of enhancing community connections to the ocean & deepening social awareness of its issues. This initiative was publicized four years before it began, giving policymakers and communicators the chance (in theory) to prepare.
So what went wrong?
Hot on the heels of the UN’s declaration, a group of philosophers, educators, oceanographers, biologists, sociologists, and other academics met in Tasmania to create a three-phase plan for connecting ocean literacy to a sustainable future. The group (hereafter referred to as Kelly et. al.) published their findings last year; their paper “Connecting to the Oceans” explains how education, culture, technology, and “science-policy interconnections” influence our social connection to the ocean. Recent research shows that people can make positive associations with places they have never been, and media attention to specific issues catalyzes engagement by both people and businesses. So why are we still ocean-illiterate? The paper offers five main areas of limitations; the three most important ones are detailed below:
Youth-centric ocean learning: While formal learning projects are helpful, there must be opportunities to deepen understanding outside of school grounds. Furthermore, young people are often ignored by decision-makers yet aren’t old enough to be decision-makers themselves, so they should not be the main target of educational programming. Science education and informational programming (TV shows, museums, aquariums, community science projects, etc.) can inspire people of all ages to learn.
Western-centric programming: Most ocean literacy resources are in English and revolve around the Atlantic Ocean’s mechanisms. Furthermore, there is lack of access to technologies/people that could translate the information and relate it to indigenous and traditional communities across the globe. In short, inclusivity is key: cultural values and region-specific strategies should be incorporated into marine management. In the Arctic, for example, governments and organizations rely on native people to provide them with real-time information on subjects from sea level rise to pollution to monthly fishery catch. This knowledge is as important and readily available as ‘scientific’ data.
The digital divide: There are now more telephones & smartphones than people on this planet! And yet, ‘technological literacy’ (not having access OR choosing to minimize reliance on the internet) logically presents a significant barrier to ocean literacy. Universal internet access is a huge problem across the globe, and people over the age of 65 are six times more likely than other age groups to share “incorrect and misleading information on internet sites.” Additionally, while young people can get at accurate information easier than their elders, they do not form a deep connection to the sea because “virtual experiences of nature do not elicit the same sensory stimulations and responses as real experiences.” But tech isn’t all bad: it is easier in our current world for digestible summaries of recent studies & policy briefs to make their way onto our Facebook feeds (and into our newsletters!). Science communicators must harness these new technologies to connect with people AND advocate for increased access to the internet.
Putting it to the test
While it is important to address the divide between technological Haves & Have Nots, I’d like to focus on the reliability of information that is accessible by we members of the English-speaking world. The organizations peddling ocean literacy knowledge can roughly be divided into three categories: international, governmental, and private. My first step was to search up “ocean literacy,” and what do you know — Google summoned an entire website devoted to just that! OceanLiteracy.org was founded one year after the concept was formally defined, likely in hopes that people would develop an interest in what scientists were saying. Their home page encourages visitors to click on a little link titled “what to teach at each grade level.” This, however, leads to a spider web of “concept flow diagrams” that are nearly impossible to read or synthesize. Their informational videos & educational resources are all in English (and grossly out-of-date), and the country-specific links they provide are only for Western nations. Furthermore, any links to sites that are not in English no longer work. I tried to sign up for their mailing list but received an Error 404 message; only after clicking on the Current Events tab and finding it blank did I realize that this site had not been updated since 2015! It appears the blog spent ten years peddling the same information without realizing their outreach strategy was broken. They did not attempt to form real connections with real people, and their ‘international focus’ was hindered by more than language barriers.
The websites of international organizations like the UN & UNESCO are similarly lacking. At some point in the last ten years the UN created a platform for countries to upload annual reports about their efforts to educate their citizenry about the ocean. Not only are there no updates available, but at the top of the screen sits an old pop-up regarding “technical issues” that they are “working tirelessly to fix.” An apt metaphor if you ask me. UNESCO at least posts up-to-date videos, presentations, & articles, but because of the website’s confusing layout it is hard to tell where one topic stops and another begins. While their design may be dynamic enough to engage the youth, older generations who are less familiar with technology will no doubt take one look at UNESCO’s mosaic of resources and click their browser’s X button.
A major problem is not the quality of information but the framing of it. Even major government organizations like NOAA place the responsibility of fixing our oceans solely at the feet of future generations. Their ocean literacy webpage contains a series of “practical resource[s] for educators” and is found under the Education tab of their website, making it difficult for the average person to find. Perhaps they believe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can certainly help one become familiar with a new environment! At least they provide a Spanish language copy of their materials. The EU has their own ocean literacy organization called EU4Ocean; it runs public events and “fun activities in many European cities.” One of their blog posts, which again is aimed at the younger generations of Europeans, contains a video about their efforts. The first half is an exploration of one of their outreach festivals in Malta, and the second is a deep dive into another organization that trains thousands of “unemployed young people for a job in the maritime sector.” Another great effort at universality.
The communication model of Ocean Conservation Trust seems to exemplify that of other privately-run organizations. The British charity believes in crafting “a fundamental means to enhance Ocean knowledge” by building connections between the sea & our everyday lives. After providing a brief history of the ocean literacy movement, OCT directs visitors to a page listing a number of groups & panels the charity is a part of — despite calling themself “global,” all of these based in the UK and Europe. Their stated purpose is to create “an ocean literate generation,” implying that (once again) their education efforts center on young people. And how, you might ask, do they say the average person can help with their mission? By clicking the large colorful “Donate Now” button, of course! This does absolutely nothing to help the average, well-intentioned adult learn about the ocean; it is always easier to pay others to work for you. Furthermore, the OCT bizarrely insists on capitalizing the world “Ocean” every time it appears on their site. This may be a way to develop corporeal proximity, aka tricking our minds into thinking the seas are a Person with Feelings — and wouldn’t it be awful if we ignored their plea for (monetary) assistance?
Revolting marketing strategies aside, their #ThinkOcean tab has useful (and correct) information about climate change, acidification, sea level rise, and why prioritizing healthy seas is a matter of great urgency. They also have a fun #thinkocean quiz that tells you what type of “pro-Ocean” person you are AND provides some personalized, purposeful actions that will enhance your ocean knowledge. I am a Hand Shoal, meaning I enjoy experiencing the water and view it as a muse for my creativity. Give it a try, and please comment your results below – I’d love to see what other kinds of ocean lovers there are!
Ironically, the ocean literacy movement’s laser focus on Western audiences has resulted in exactly 0 meaningful policy actions and 0 attention from our media — indeed, the most recent articles about it were published by two African newspapers. Most educational materials are, as Kelly et. al. observed, designed for school-aged children; in their paper they discuss how “unrealistic and unfair [it is] to assign responsibility of the oceans solely to future generations.” Perhaps this is why climate anxiety is so prevalent in our youth — and why climate apathy is so deep-rooted in our elders. I believe the biggest mistake is that ocean literacy promoters use methods which appeal to mature adults (articles, documentary-like videos, lectures) to try to engage children. It is one thing to neglect adult education; it is quite another to fail to design a communication strategy that fits your target audience.
Yikes. What can we do now?
We are clearly not achieving the UN’s marine education goals because not enough people are being involved in the conversation. In order to communicate effectively, writers & speakers must meet people where they are, or at the very least go halfway. Most science communication focuses on the ‘cold hard facts’ and does not connect recent studies to the people who are impacted. On the flip side, experiments may not be designed with their specific relevance to the public in mind (i.e. scientists may not research ocean acidification solely to determine its effect on fisheries – or if they do, this connection is not emphasized in their final report). As Kelly et. al. describe, there is a major disconnect between society, marine science, and policy. Until now, the ocean literacy movement has been spearheaded by scientists and teachers, to the detriment of citizen science projects, free learning opportunities, and people outside the Ivory Tower with extensive platforms (i.e. celebrities). Ocean science issues are, as the paper says, “multi-faceted, complex, and uncertain.” So far, failed efforts to bridge the communication gap between scientists and laypeople have prevented any meaningful collaboration. Thus it is important to have an interdisciplinary approach to ocean literacy, especially when trying to engage with large, diverse communities. Or as Kelly et. al. puts it,
“Overlooking human and social dimensions of the ocean is one of the most common factors behind conservation failure, highlighting the urgent need for actions that enhance peoples’ understanding of, connection to, and resulting pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors towards the ocean.”
Thankfully, this intellectually diverse group of, well, intellectuals created an accessible toolkit for the public and interest groups alike. The document is a collection of strategies for distributing information into everyone’s daily lives so that people can “foster partnerships and sustain networks of ocean learning and literacy.” It also contains examples of methods and initiatives that have proven successful in recent years. They encourage educators to build on people’s basic knowledge and make new knowledge relatable; appeal to their emotions & encourage them to take positive action; and highlight the ocean’s relevance to society. This toolkit was created in partnership with Future Seas 2030, a collaborative that involves researchers, Indigenous peoples, and environmental managers. Its goal is to develop scenarios for specific challenges facing our oceans in order to shape the direction of “marine socio-ecological systems” over the next decade. They rightly believe that when ocean literacy initiatives are “tailored to relevant issues and communities, [they] engender attitudes of concern that can promote personal action.” Future Seas was founded about a year ago, yet they have made no efforts to break into the mainstream conversation. Having excellent ideas is unfortunately not enough; I fear it will share the same fate as OceanLiteracy.org unless its members, say, start trolling climate skeptics on Twitter or lip-sync Jack Harlow on TikTok.
The toolkit also describes how to identify an audience and create content that is accessible and pertinent to said group. Media campaigns, TV series, and documentaries, such as BBC’s Blue Planet, help to deepen our connectivity to the seaside and encourage ocean-conscious decision-making. But until we members of the public can regularly access educational material that is both recent and relatable, we will continue to live in the oceanographic Stone Age. And those who have the knowledge & thus the power to bring us all into the next era will continue to debate how best to do so — to the detriment of the very communities they aim to save.
Sources & websites referenced above:
Kelly, R., Evans, K., Alexander, K. et al. Connecting to the oceans: supporting ocean literacy and public engagement. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries 32, 123–143 (2022).
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/ocean-literacy-climate-change/ & https://www.weforum.org/events/virtual-ocean-dialogues-2021 & https://www.weforum.org/friends-of-ocean-action/stories-of-impact-friends-of-ocean-action-publishes-new-report
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