Environmental Geographies of the Sea

Just as historically there has been little cultural geography of the sea, similarly few human geographers until recently have focused on the ocean as a space of nature. To some extent, this likely is because, until recently, it was believed that humans could do little to influence the condition of the marine environment or the status of marine resources. Prior to the series of United Nations conferences that culminated in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the customary law of the sea that had guided state practice was based on the belief that the ocean was immune to overfishing as well as to environmental degradation from the inflow of pollutants. For the most part, the ocean also historically has been resistant to Western style agriculture. Thus, to the extent that environmental geographers, in the wake of the early twentieth century backlash against environmental determinism, were seeking to study the mutually impacting relationship between nature and society (i.e., ‘man’s’ impact on the ‘land’ as well as the ‘land’s’ impact on ‘man’), the ocean was a space of little interest.

Recently, this situation has changed, for a number of reasons. Political ecologists increasingly have become attentive to the ways in which the Western model of constructing nature through taming it, controlling it, binding it into private property, and ‘improving’ it (i.e., the agricultural model) is just one way among many in which societies productively interact with nature. The turn to recognize alternative environmental management, common property resource management, and tenure systems has led a number of geographers to the ocean, where management systems frequently diverge greatly from the Western model.

Additionally, the marine environment has received increased attention because of technological developments: technologies both have revealed the myriad ways in which humans have long impacted marine nature, and they have allowed for this alteration to occur at an ever greater rate. The ocean has now joined environmental topics like atmospheric pollution, climate change, and the world’s water supply as a transboundary problem that requires study and action on the global scale, and a series of multilateral treaties have been signed to address this issue.

Since marine nature is now recognized as a global issue, its study has come to intersect with the study of other global issues. In addition to its inclusion within the constellation of global environmental issues, geographers increasingly are finding that of this space of global nature must be studied in the context of global social phenomena, including the rise of global economic flows, the hegemony of transnational corporations, and the ascendancy of neoliberal ideologies that govern the stewardship of nature. Furthermore, because of the high cost of oceanographic research, work in this area almost always requires governmental funding, which raises further issues for human geographers interested in the relationships between states, science, and nature. Thus, issues in the understanding and management of the marine environment relate to bigger questions regarding the global management (or construction) of nature and the relationship between global economic–environmental processes and the ways in which nation states claim control over territory and scientific knowledge.

The role of the ocean as a space for integrating human geography with the sociology of science is further enhanced by its position between two apparently contradictory trends in knowledge creation. On the one hand, the ocean, now more than ever, is the domain of expert knowledge. On the other hand, the ocean is increasingly a space of Romanticism, as fewer and fewer individuals are directly experiencing the ocean as a space of everyday life and labor, and instead are turning to the sea as a space of relaxation, exploration, and escape. Thus, lying at the intersection of increasingly intense tendencies toward both scientific rationalism and nonrational Romanticism, the ocean serves as a laboratory for scholars who are attempting to explore the (in)compatibility of these two perspectives.