EJ Series, Part 4: Propagules, Pumps and Briny Relations

Susan Reid offers meditations on the material liveliness and relationality of the ocean itself as providing conditions in which alter-imaginaries for governance might emerge. This blog is based on a paper presented at the Environmental Justice 2017: Looking Back, Looking Forward Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017.

Plankton. Image by Elovich via Shutterstock

We humans are in a soak with the ocean. Our global material flows now transition with the ocean’s planetary currents and pumps; and our intensifying carbon streams bring transitions of an entirely different register.

In the imaginaries of current governance regimes, the ocean is instrumentalised as a quarry, pantry, sink and sump. With such foundations, environmental legal protections can only mitigate against the ongoing and harmful impacts of human activities.

Moving Things that Stir and Pump

Myriad lives emerge daily to squirm, wriggle, pump, and glide from seabed to surface, entraining sediment particles as they rise. It is the largest migration of animals on the planet. Searching for food and avoiding predators, they rise in the shelter of night, to the moonlit surface: krill, plankton, and nekton– threshold-busting creatures ascending from the ocean floor, sea ridges, and through shelf and slope waters. Dawn signals a necessary dive and sinking retreat to the sunless interior. Vertically migrating zooplankton may input as much energy into the ocean as winds and tides (Wilhelmus & Dabiri, 2014)

Salt and Flushing Melts

Dependency on a stable climate system makes us vulnerable to the dynamic agency of material exchanges and flows; and their very real susceptibility to change in a direction not yet familiar. Neimanis and Walker’s concept of ‘thick time’ captures the slow, long-range gestationality of water’s generative materiality (Neimanis & Loen Walker, 2014). It is a concept that lends itself well to the high-pressured old ocean. In the thick time of the thermohaline circulation, materials exchange and transform very slowly; effects generated by present activities may be suspended over time frames well beyond visibility.

The physical and temporal scales of the thermohaline speak little of its vulnerability to changing material intensities, and the exquisite exchange and material transitions at its heart. As ice forms around the polar regions, it spits salt back into the sea. When this dense, cold, saline water sinks, warmer surface waters move in to replace the sinking water and these minute exchanges create planetary scaled overturning. Cold deep water then creeps horizontally across the seabed until it can rise again to the surface. Thermohaline overturning moves just a few centimeters per second; its ancient water can take a thousand years to complete the cycle (Mann & Lazier, 1996), and as many years to see the sun.

Carbon’s lively agency is implicated in the thick time of thermohaline overturning. Equally planetary in scale, it blankets the atmosphere and precipitates different types of transition. One of these are the warmer surface waters, which melt polar ice, pouring an excess of fresh water into the thermohaline mix. In this transitioning process the exchange becomes increasingly diluted and enfeebled. As we become aware of the real potential for a thermohaline circulation collapse (Keller, Tan, Morel, & Bradford, 2000, 19), how might the lively ocean systems find visibility in governance regimes? How might governance for transitioning ocean systems be re-prioritised above the commercial development imperatives of resource corporations?

The Transitional in Change

Warming surface waters, storm and rain intensifications, are not suddenly upon us, or separable from us, but are our nature/culture transitions; carrying all the way along the intensifying activity of our industry and increasing emissions, to the warming ocean. François Julien observes that transitions are not easily discerned, often invisible, and unspoken except in the eventual signaling of transformation that they bring about (Jullien, 2011). The slowing thermohaline circulation and increasing presence of plastics, are just visible outcrops of subtle transitions already underway.

Transitions are not all imbricated, as if some earlier ocean conditions might return once prevailing conditions are removed. Some transitions signal irrevocable transformation. We talk surficially of changing currents, changing climates, or the changing ocean, as if the currents, climate and ocean possessed some form of prior integrity, rather than a continual transition. Cutting through change to transition enables certain relational connections to be understood. As a processual quality, for example, transition is shared across nature/culture, humans and more than human.

How might we imagine the material conditions for ocean transitions differently, with a view to the manifold liveliness of the world? How might we develop governance approaches that are more sensitive and adaptive to shared material vulnerabilities, over time? Sarah Ensor identified in Rachel Carson’s work an ecocritical approach that sees the present as “the future of any number of pasts–some near, some far, some recent, some long gone” (Ensor, 2012, 418). Repurposing Carson’s approach for ocean governance, we might consider the ocean’s present condition and our material additions and extractions as already legible futures. If the conditions experienced by today’s ocean are already the pasts of any number of futures, all the more reason for intensified precaution and longer range temporal scales to inform our governance regimes.

Transitions may be either too far away, unfolding over the long range of the thermohaline or the gradual removal of ocean pulses too small to see. Missing the silent material transitions of our material inputs and extractions we are, as Jullien (Jullien, 2011) observes, surprised or bewildered when the visible effects appear.


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Susan Reid is a PhD candidate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, where she is researching ocean justice, relationalities and juridical imaginaries. Susan is an artist, curator, arts developer and lawyer, and is active with a number of national environmental and climate action advocacy groups.