Oceans of Conflict and Imagination

Overriding these turns to the ocean across the various subdisciplines of human geography are two increasingly prevalent geographies of the ocean: the construction of the ocean as a site of conflict and its construction as a space of imagination.

The rise of the ocean as a site of conflict is a direct result of its dominant management paradigm, wherein specific zones of the ocean are dedicated to different functions. The viability of this paradigm, which has its origins in beliefs about the ocean's vastness and in a strict separation between coastal and deep sea ocean uses, is being questioned today. At the global scale, the frailty of this paradigm was evidenced during the debate in the 1970s and 1980s over the establishment of a regime for extracting manganese nodules from the seabed beneath the high seas, as the United Nations struggled to develop a universally acceptable set of institutions and norms for an activity that would require state like territoriality in a portion of the ocean that historically had been exempted from territorial control. At the meso scale, the limits of the paradigm can be seen in efforts to regulate the harvesting of fish that swim between national EEZs and between these zones and the high seas. At the local scale, numerous coastal communities are attempting to manage the activities of competing local users, including those engaged in subsistence fishing, commercial fishing, sport fishing, scuba diving, shipping, and mineral and petroleum extraction.

Amidst these conflicts (and in the wake of past attempts to solve them through the spatial fix of singleuse zonation), the ocean is a space that leads one to question the efficacy of rationalist planning paradigms. It likely is no coincidence that two of the works of geophilosophy most frequently cited by human geographers make reference to the ocean as a space of alternative sociospatial formations. In One Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1988) write, ''The sea is a smooth space par excellence,'' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988) while Michel Foucault (1986), in Of Other Spaces, writes, ''The ship is the heterotopia par excellence'' (Foucault, 1986: 22–27). In both cases, the allusions to the ocean as a space of alternate ordering are metaphorical, but, like all metaphors, they gain some of their power because they resonate with what is known about the material conditions of the entity being referenced.

Thus, for human geographers, the ocean, long ignored or, at best, viewed as an arena within which social actors encounter one another or nature, now is seen as a space of society, and, as a space of society, the ocean has come into its own in human geography as a space that one can 'think with' as one attempts to understand broader structures, processes, and potentialities – on and off shore.