One Picture at a Time: Why Youth Involvement in the Blue Economy is so Important

By Barkha Mossae, advocate for the sustainable development of small island states

Where our sushi comes from

If oceans could be caricatured as an anthropomorphic entity, their first sentiment might be one of begrudging us humans of being vastly unappreciative and ignorant of the benefits which they confer upon us.

As far as life-support systems go, to use renowned oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle’s terminology, the contribution of oceans to maintaining life and livelihood on earth is unparalleled. The photosynthesis activity of the humble phytoplanktons generates over half of the oxygen we breathe, whilst the ocean’s capacity as the world’s largest carbon sink helps regulate the climate. In addition to such ecosystem services (which are in themselves estimated at an astounding $21 trillion), the ocean is fast becoming a key source of protein, particularly in developing countries. It is also estimated that of the 350 million jobs generated by the ocean, a substantial number is in developing countries.

The Blue Economy: A SIDS-grown concept

For some, the oceans represent a cornucopia of edible things; for others, it is a treasure trove of resources; for still others, it is a workplace, where they make their living whilst some relegate it to the realm of holiday spot or mystical far-away non-environment to the safety of solid land. And throughout history, the oceans have captured imaginations as the ultimate symbol of the unknown, of dangerous environments, uncertainty and adventure. For Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and small coastal states, the ocean is etched in our identity.  With 25 SIDS and multiple coastal countries in its membership, the Commonwealth can also be said to be imprinted with an oceanic identity.

SIDS have always had an awareness of their geopolitical vulnerabilities: a small land size coupled with a paucity of resources, capped with geographical remoteness from major markets as miles of ocean space stretch out all around them. However, a shift is occurring: the very oceans which were hitherto a barrier to the rest of the world are now becoming SIDS’s biggest assets. Endowed with vast Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and stretches of territorial seas, SIDS can now be known as the world’s ocean states. It is therefore little surprise that the concept of the blue economy, or ocean economy, has its roots in SIDS’ desire to adapt the concept of the Green Economy to their oceanic reality.

We are now at an exciting conjecture, perhaps comparable to the discovery of oil by the hitherto-poor Bedouins. As SIDS start to assert themselves as the guardians of their ocean spaces, pioneering the development of the ocean in ways which capture the ecological and spiritual sensitivities of our ocean connection, we may potentially witness the transformation of hitherto small international players into important champions for sustainable development, repositories for some of the world’s most exciting oceanic knowledge, and pioneers in marine energy, biotech, and value-added fisheries. Simultaneously, the benefits of harnessing the ocean’s wealth in a sustainable manner will be conferred to the whole planet.

Silent tragedy

However, the above is a vision for the future – hopefully the near one.

It is undeniable that most SIDS are currently far from possessing the capacity, resources and clout to deliver on the ambitions for the Blue Economy.

The most alarming factor, however, is that the state of the ocean is under threat. While we are looking away, a silent catastrophe is taking place, masked under the seeming unconquerable resilience and bountifulness of the ocean. Human activities have heavily impacted the marine environment. Pollution, over-fishing and over-extraction, destructive practices and climate change are jeopardising the oceans’ health and productivity. More and more areas of the ocean are becoming “dead zones”, hypoxic areas with no oxygen (it goes without saying that this implies no life). Even as our appetite for sushi grows (amid other ocean-based food), fish stocks are collapsing, with the FAO reporting that over 80% of known stocks have been overfished or depleted (“collapsed”). In the meantime, plastic pollution –built up by everything ranging from barely visible microbeads in our cosmetic products to plastic bottle and packaging – is turning the ocean into a veritable plastic soup. A far cry from the promise-laden images espoused by the concept of the Blue Economy. Of particular relevance to SIDS, coral reefs – vital to our economies, survival, and ecological make-up – are being assaulted by the effects of ocean acidification and sea temperature rise associated with climate change.

Too big to handle? Youth as connectors, stewards, innovators

This is where youth, the Millennial Generation, come in. The above issues appear too big to be tackled, or are seen as the responsibility of either governments or the private sector, with both working in silos – or engaging in a tug-of-war whilst the decline of the oceans steadily continues. However, the change which Millennials can bring to this present situation is significant. Armed with higher levels of information, and disruptive tools brought by social media and networks, Millennials can achieve one crucial thing: demystify the ocean, and by making knowledge about oceans more accessible to people, catalyse innovations and collaborations around the ocean. By experimenting with social entrepreneurship and citizen science, or by opting for circular or sharing economic models, Millennials are ideally placed to define our relationship with the ocean, and transform it from an extractive one, to a sustainable one.

Some efforts are being made to remedy the situation. One particularly crucial initiative is at UN level. As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire this year, a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be agreed upon to constitute the post-2015 development agenda. These will be a set of global goals that will guide our development trajectory. One of the 19 proposed SDGs is on Oceans and Seas: thus representing a recognition, at international level, of the crucial importance of oceans, and the urgency to protect them. The involvement of the Millennial Generation will perhaps be what catalyses the success of this new set of goals.

If the MDGs suffered from the criticism that they were too narrow in scope and failed to achieve the buy-in of the majority of people, the engagement of youth through social media tools, social entrepreneurships, policy innovations and activism will make a difference in breaking the barrier between the highest levels of decision making at the UN and local actions on ocean.

Out of the Blue

Bearing in mind that SIDS and Commonwealth youth stand to gain the most, in terms of innovative blue jobs, from the ocean, it makes sense that Commonwealth-wide initiatives to engage with ocean issues should become ever more important.

Out of the Blue is one such positive initiative that gives a voice to youth across the Commonwealth to depict the ocean and what it represents to them. Language is no longer a barrier: the silos are broken down.

Out of the Blue aims to capture precisely the greatest asset of the Millennial Generation: the power of sharing, and by doing so, creating awareness, and significantly, giving youth a sense of ownership of the ocean. Let’s face it, the Millennial Generation is one which highly prizes shareable visuals. To capture the beauty of the ocean, or the despair we have subjected it – and ourselves – to, is one of the most powerful ways of calling out what we stand to lose if we do not take action, even small individual ones, immediately.

Making a difference

To conclude, there is one story which tells of a little boy who, during his daily walk with his father by the beach, sees thousands of starfish who had been washed up by a storm the night before. The boy proceeds to pick up a starfish and throw it in the water, and repeats the procedure over and over again. The father tells him he is never going to save all of the starfish. The little boy stops for a moment, heartbroken, but then stoops, picks up another starfish, and throws it back in the sea, saying, “It made a difference for that one”.