To know is to care

11 March, 2020

The greatest threat to the sea – and therefore to ourselves – is ignorance. So says legendary marine scientist Sylvia Earle. Many people agree, and are therefore investing time and effort in getting more people to know more about the sea.

We live on a blue planet. The sea spreads out with vast expanses and depths, and it can be hard to grasp that all this vastness needs our protection. But that’s how it is. Around the world, efforts are being made to protect the marine environment, and major players such as the UN and the EU are investing heavily in marine research for sustainable development.

The biggest threat to the planet is our ignorance, says marine scientist Sylvia Earle.

When we protect the sea, we also protect ourselves. You’d think so, because who hasn’t seen pictures of plastic debris or read about overfishing, but there is an interdependence between us and the sea that is about so much more. Half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea. Our pharmaceutical residues end up in the fish of the Baltic Sea. Without the sea, the climate would gallop faster. After all, millions of people depend on food from the sea.

Necessity the need for as many people as possible to understand how we affect and are affected by the sea was described by a group of American researchers and educators fifteen years ago. They reasoned the basic insights that all citizens should have, and summarized it in the concept of ocean literacy. In its English version it is translated to the slightly more devious word ‘ maritime awareness‘.

But how to make people more aware of the sea? One way is to take develop knowledge material for teachers working with marine education. It is on once. The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management received this as a government mandate in 2019. A another is that marine scientists also take on the task of imparting knowledge and insights about the sea for people outside academia. At Kristineberg Marine Research Station in Fiskebäckskil has an experienced researcher that does just that.

Sam Dupont’s room is on the second floor of the station and looks like a scientist’s workrooms usually do; a couple of computer monitors, books, more books, stacks of paper. Gullmarsfjorden glimpses through the window, still angry after the storm Dennis passed by.

– It is not so common for researchers to engage in outreach as much as I do, but for me it is important. I want my research to be useful, and I want to drive change.

dead trees
Sam Dupont tries to engage the public in his research by using different communication tools, such as poetry or music.

Sam Dupont’s research is about ocean acidification. It is a new field of research that is linked to our carbon emissions. Because when the ocean absorbs some of the carbon dioxide the pH drops, and this can be devastating for small larvae and other marine animals. The he has shown in his research, and he uses his findings to tell about what to expect if carbon dioxide emissions are allowed to increase.

Is wouldn’t it be better to go with skinny polar bears?

– You can make people sad for the polar bears, but that doesn’t lead to they change something because it’s too far away. But if you can get people to realize that, for example, the shrimp we eat here at home on the west coast is affected, so that’s another thing.

Ju closer to oneself, the greater the concern and thus the reason to act? Then it can be, and it resembles the gloomy and inexplicable logic of the news journalism; two hundred dead in an accident far away gets substantially less media and mental space than two at home in Sweden.

– If you have the luxury of being able to choose to research something that people care about, then it is good. That’s why I chose oysters. A colleague of mine in Australia chose clownfish in his research on ocean acidification. When he showed that the clownfish in the experiment became confused and lost by the acidification it attracted attention as Nemo does not find his way home.

Must do you have to live near the sea to be sea conscious?

Sam Dupont in the lab
Sam Dupont in the lab. Photo: private.

– Sure, it’s easier if the sea is nearby and can be experienced, but the cool idea with ocean literacy is to get people to understand how it’s all connected and realize that wherever you live in the world, you are connected to the sea. With the climate, the air you breathe… and in the other direction. You can live up in the mountains but your driving and your consumption leads to marine environmental problems.

“I am hopeful about the young generation. They are committed and really want to do good things.”

Sam Dupont

Yourself Sam Dupont was born and raised in Belgium, far from the sea. He studied botany, but after a marine biology course in France twenty years ago, the sea a large part of his life. He uses his feeling and passion for the sea when he now tells and lectures – though he does so in different ways. It depends on whom he addresses.

– It is different depending on whether they are schoolchildren, students, politicians, researchers, business leaders or whoever they are. It’s a challenge that I really enjoy, but there is one group that I always dread – even though it’s also fun and exciting – and it’s kids, the ones who are around nine, ten years old … They set the most complicated issues because they have no filters and are completely ruthless if you don’t is good enough.

A common way for scientists to communicate science in encounters with the so-called public is lecturing, and it can be both brilliant and effective. But there are also other ways. Sam Dupont collaborated with the musician and poet Henrik Wallgren in the I am the ocean project, which targeted secondary school children. For two days, the young people were able to use their senses, carry out physical exercises such as rowing in rough weather and ponder the big questions.

– I am hopeful about the young generations. They are much more aware than I was at their age. They are committed and really want to do good things.

So adults are harder to reach?

– A lot of research communication is done in museums, and that’s great and interesting, but I think it reaches those who are already informed and convinced. We try to design activities for those who don’t go to museums at all. We have done this in Nordstan in Gothenburg. People go there to shop, and we need to find a reason for them to stop and talk to us. I’m not sure we change anything with that, but sometimes we get a dialogue going and it’s pretty cool to try to reach people who aren’t interested at all.

Is it time to raise our maritime awareness?

A dilemma that has long been discussed in the world’s various environmental movements, and which is now hyper topical in the context of the climate issue, is the art of conveying a serious without people stopping to listen or counter with imaginative arguments because it simply becomes too hard to take in. Or is it that we now live in a time where we actually need to be afraid to come any Where?

– No, intimidation is the worst possible way to bring about change. It doesn’t work, it’s better to talk about the solutions. Surely we have all reason to be sharp, but we also have the capacity to change things and I think we’ll make it, even though we have a ton of reasons not to act. There are so many psychological triggers that limit us.

How will we get the global changes we need? CeCAR was established solely for to tackle that issue.

CeCAR stands for the Centre for the Study of Collective Action and is a new and interdisciplinary centre at the University of Gothenburg. It consists of scientists like Sam Dupont, but also by researchers and experts in political science, psychology, economics, law, pedagogy and philosophy. Together they tackle questions about what determines whether large-scale collective action is successful or not, and a distinction is made between voluntary and regulated action. It sounds like an equally interesting as a complex type of research, for those who are actors in the studies are both very many (citizens, consumers) and variable (nations, companies, organizations).

– There is a lot of research on how information is presented. We try different strategies to communicate and then interviews the people for six months later, and it’s not rocket science. If people are made to feel that it is about something they care about, they act.

Sam Dupont, who has just joined the UN’s IPCC climate panel, believes that the truly the decisive changes in climate must still come from policy makers. – But people need to understand the decisions. A treasure on carbon dioxide limits our freedom and will only happen if it gets sufficient acceptance, which depends on how it is presented. Communication is super important.

Text: Anna Bisther
Photo: Henrik Widman
Photo: Simon Stanford
Header image: Katja Kircher/Scanpix/TT

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