50 Years from Today

Mike Wallace of 60 minutes fame complied  a book entitled “The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today: 60 Of The World’s Greatest Minds Share Their Visions of the Next Half-Century.” He asked me to write an essay on my vision for the future but it did not make the final cut. For whatever it’s worth I’m posting it here:

50 Years From Today
Brian Tissot: Marine Ecologist

Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Captain Nemo – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

For me the future holds both fear and beauty, both the possibility of chaos and the promise of a better world.  I live in hope. When I think of the future my thoughts naturally turn to the ocean, both my life’s work and my life’s inspiration. Born into a Navy family (my father retired as a Rear Admiral) I was accustomed to the constant traveling from place to place, mostly near the ocean as it were.  When I turned 13 my family moved to San Diego, California and I lived a dozen blocks from the beach. Somehow, looking at the ocean back then in 1970,  I connected like never before, I was hooked and have never looked back. First it was surfing, then snorkeling, scuba diving, marine biology.  A marine ecologist.

Perhaps my most profound moments when thinking about the future are when I reflect on the past. How different things were back then, how the people were different, the places were different, but most of all the ocean.  It makes me think: how will now seem to folks in 2057? Back in the 1970s the ocean off California was colder, rich, and teeming with marine life.  During fierce winter storms kelp ripped from the ocean shore would create huge piles on the beaches. Fishing was terrific and it was easy to catch 20 rockfish (the limit back then) in a couple hours on a boat; 4 abalone could be found along the shore within an hour. Now things are quite different. The ocean is warmer and less productive, kelp has largely disappeared and along with it abundant rockfish and abalone. Along the Pacific coast the entire ocean has warmed and there have been major shifts in marine life. During El Niño events, fish from the tropics have been found in the Pacific NW!  Much of this, I believe is due to human-induced warming of the Earth, which will be a key part of our future. Another piece, perhaps even more important, has been inability to successfully manage our marine resources for future generations. Both of these represent major challenges that will shape our future in 50 years.

The ocean is a key part of our future, just as it has been throughout human history.  The 20th century saw the largest population increase in human history, from less then 2 billion to over 6 billion souls. However, growth into the 21st century are predicted to make this look mild: the world is projected to have 10 billion by 2057 and 19 billion people by 2100!  As it is now the majority of people live within 50 miles of the ocean and depend, either directly, or indirectly upon it for resources. The ocean provides us with food, medicine, transportation, energy, and inspiration. A healthy ocean protects our shores from storms and hurricanes, moderates our climate, and provides balancing of the planets key elements that control climate change.  We have also learned a lot about the ocean and in turn about global processes.  In 50 years we will need the ocean even more, I predict, food, energy and living space.  Food represents a challenge as most of the world’s fisheries are at or close to their maximum sustainable use or are overfished. Even with vastly improved fishery management, which is doubtful given the economic and social pressures on today’s fisheries, the gains are modest.  One solution which is being tried is open-ocean aquaculture: using the ocean sea to cultivate wild fish in large underwater pens. Early studies suggest this is a promising approach but we need to be careful about potential impacts to existing ocean life.

Energy from the seas is one of the more exciting possibilities. Projects are already in place that create energy from ocean waves, tides, temperature differences, and from the mixing of salt and fresh water. In 50 years the ocean will likely provided a much larger, environmentally cleaner and sustainable source of energy. Space represents one of the most interesting uses of the sea. There are already floating amphibious houses in the Netherlands, which float as rivers and the sea rise. Due to global warming sea level is predicted to rise over one feet by 2057, causing flooding problems in major cities such as London, New Orleans and low lying islands throughout the world. In these places, and others, floating homes might be an adaptive way to deal with changing conditions. But why stop there? Why not build entire cities at sea that are anchored and or perpetually cruising  around the world, like the proposed Freedom Ship. Even more, many see floating cities as the best way to learn how to colonize space, another strong possibility as we move into the next 50 years.

But technology, for all its marvels and promise, will not create a better world in 50 years. For every gain in advantage over the natural world also allows us to destroy it, and destroy us even more. Ultimately, more important than what we will do in the future, is how we will do it.  I hope our expansion into the sea  will require us to cooperate and live together as a planet, to create a world-centric moralistic perspective.  The ocean truly is the last and final frontier on the planet, our last chance to prove our humanity, our ability to learn and grow together, and most importantly to share.  As we grow, as the land fills with people, we will turn to the ocean more and more for its wealth. I see two possible future paths: to continue our deeds of the past, to take without limit, to plunder the ocean resources and damage its capacity to nurture us. This pattern has been our story so far.

But I believe in another path, one that unites us in a common humanity. For although the human race has many differences, we have many more similarities. My thinking has been very much influenced by the writings of Ken Wilber, an amazing scholar and philosopher with a integral view of the universe, a melding of eastern and western philosophy and a powerful vision for the future. Ken’s vision is that our ongoing environmental conflicts are not really about industrialization, or pollution, or fighting over increasingly scarce resources,  but about a lack of mutual agreement about how to deal with these issues. Our conflicts arise from our inability to listen and learn from each other, to reach a mutual understanding and agreement based on a global moral perspective.  And although our differences are what make us strong, and adaptable to the changes which are forthcoming, it is ultimately our similarities that we must honor as well.  And this is something we can work on right now by listening, understanding, and learning from each other, by realizing that each of has something to contribute.

So, as we turn to the ocean in the next 50 years for our food, energy, medicines, and places to learn, live and dream, we are faced with the challenge of sharing this rich, vast, but largely uncharted frontier. A place with few shared human laws but many universal truths. I believe in a future where when we turn to the ocean for salvation, human laws and universal truths merge, and we learn how to move forward as a vibrant, healthy, sustainable planet.

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