Our oceans are in danger, deteriorating as a result of human activity, and yet they are precious, serving as sources of food and energy, spiritual inspiration, and means of transportation. In a roundtable discussion between New York City and Beirut, researchers sounded the alarm on the current state of the Mediterranean Sea and our oceans at large.
Marwa Elshakry is an associate professor in the Department of History at Columbia University. Her work specializes in the history of science, technology, and medicine in the modern Middle East. “The sea can be thought of as one of the last earthly commons,” she began, “and it is now under threat.” Our atmosphere and climate rely heavily on the oceans, with more than half the oxygen we breathe being produced by them alone. It is for this reason that Elshakry became involved with the development of FLOATS.
FLOATS, the Floating Laboratory of Action and Theory at Sea, is an international experimental platform aiming to generate, and popularize social-scientific knowledge of the seas through research, teaching, public campaigns and community work. Their mission is to offer a continuous critical commentary on the perils of the current, worldwide domination of territorial and terrestrial frameworks. Bringing together academics, artists, activists and others, FLOATS rotates through various seas, islands and port cities.
Yaser Abunnasr, an Associate Professor at the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut, is also involved in the development of this project. He built upon Elshakry’s concept of the ocean and the imaginative space it contains. "The shoreline is a space of flow, of materials, energy, and waste. These linear corridors act as connectors. It is a habitat and a conduit,” he said. He fears attempts to commodify our oceans.
Jina Talj, an environmental scientist and marine ecologist, and Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, an assistant professor at the Departments of Political Studies and Public Administration and Sociology at the American University of Beirut, spoke about ocean’s importance as a life-giving
“More than 70% of the earth’s surface is ocean,” says Talj, “with 95% of living creatures on the planet living within the ocean.” Her work as a scientist and activist has been to both protect marine biodiversity and advocate for global policy change. She emphasized, “politics is a fundamental issue in addressing our most pressing issues when it comes to marine conservancy.”
Kosmatopoulos’ time working with aid ships attempting to breach the Israeli blockade into Gaza taught him the political nature of our oceans. “The militarization of our oceans is symptomatic of how we treat marine space,” he noted. The humanitarian crisis facing Gaza and the use of public space – our oceans – as a tool for occupation is an example of the multifaceted ways our seas are exploited.
The discussants engaged with the audience members on the work they had presented. Many around the table asked how they could help in addressing these issues. The discussants expressed multiple actionable items such as aggressive recycling programs, carbon taxes, pollution control, but the unanimous and most central action they emphasized was holding governments accountable for preserving our shared oceans.
Abunnasr closed the discussion and left the group with a final statement: “we truly take the sea for granted. We depend on the sea for mobility, economy, oxygen and life. It is critical that we all understand this if we are to save our seas for future generations.”