Can the humanities help save the ocean(s)?

By Nina Rivers & Ingvild Boberg
On board the Hermes 2 Boat in Norway

Nina Rivers, One Ocean Hub, Law School, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

Ingvild Boberg, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (IKOS), University of Oslo, Norway

This blog post reflects on the role of humanities to help save the ocean, based on interactions at the summer seminar “OCEAN: Use and Regulations of World Oceans – a Cross-Disciplinary Conversation” held in Tromsø, Norway from 12-16 June, 2023. The aim of the OCEAN seminar was to facilitate thought-provoking conversations on traditions, discourses, beliefs and regimes that regulate human interaction with, and exploitation of, the world’s ocean(s).

The seminar brought together experienced lecturers and PhD students in the fields of marine biology, history, theology, and law. Hub Director Elisa Morgera gave a presentation on Inter- and Trans-Disciplinary Approaches for the Transformative Application of International marine Biodiversity and Human Rights Law, while Dr Nina Rivers reviewed two PhD papers in the PhD seminars.

The seminar was hosted by the Authoritative Texts and Their Receptions (ATTR), a cross-disciplinary and trans-institutional national PhD school funded by the Research Council of Norway, and co-hosted by the Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea (NCLOS), University of Tromsø. Members of ATTR come from Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, and Tromsø and have graduated in disciplines of law, theology, religious studies, literary and philological studies, linguistics, cultural studies, musicology, archaeology, and art history. 

How do we understand the ocean?

The week kicked off with a sobering account of the effects of climate change in the Barents Sea by Professor Marit Reigstad, a marine ecologist and PI of the Nansen Legacy at the University of Tromsø) in State of the World (and Arctic) Oceans: Challenges for humanities and social sciences. The seminar participants were invited to reflect on their own relationship to the ocean, and to share what they felt were the biggest challenges the ocean faces today. The final question: Are we on the right track? 

Elisa Morgera’s presentation shared some innovations across the One Ocean Hub in understanding multiple threats to ocean’s health and human well-being, connecting marine natural and social sciences, law, history and arts with a view to supporting transdisciplinary research with ocean-dependent communities, including Indigenous Peoples, women and children, as well as UN agencies. She focused in particular on the role of human rights and art-based research to identify and challenge blind spots in international law of the sea and to support more transformative and inclusive decisions in ocean governance at different levels. 

How are historical perspectives relevant to our work? 

In Ordering the Ocean in L’Ancien Regime France: An Exploration into the Intellectual History of the Ocean, Professor of the History of Ideas, Ellen Krefting (University of Oslo), spoke on how our ideas of the ocean and what it contains have changed over time. At the centre of her presentation was Jean Baptiste Colbert’s L’ordonnance de la marine (“The Ordinance of the Marine”) from 1681, but Professor Krefting also touched on changes in how the ocean has been drawn on maps throughout history.  The talk was followed by Oceans as Method: Ships and the Anthropocene by Professor of Sociology Renisa Mawani (the University of British Columbia).

Professor of International Law, Surabhi Ranganathan (University of Cambridge), presented a different kind of storytelling in her analysis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in Writing Histories of the Law of the Sea: The stock story. Professor Ranganathan demonstrated how the international community used stock stories (a formulaic way of storytelling that follows a predictable sequence of events, often featuring familiar characters and situations) to tell the story of the UNCLOS negotiations in the 1970s. She presented a series of different counterstories to this, prompting us to further explore how alternate narratives can be used to unsettle commonly accepted narratives – and perhaps how to see new possibilities.

The seminar was broken up by a short trip to sea aboard the Hermes II, a cutter from 1917. We also paid a visit to Tromsø’s Polar Museum, which features exhibitions related to life on Svalbard and the lives of polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen (14 June 2023). 

aboard the Hermes II, Photo: the Authoritative Texts and Their Receptions (ATTR)
Is it ‘the Ocean’ or are there many oceans? How do we understand ourselves and our relation to these oceans?

Over the course of the week, we saw the ocean presented in many different ways. We saw some of the ways in which the ocean is not just one thing, but also a complex network of different seas. It is both vast and vastly varied. To account for that variation, it is necessary to look at the ocean from many different perspectives.

Over the course of the seminar, we discussed not only the ocean but also the stories we tell about the ocean – in law, in creative work, in the way we map the world around us. In Implications of Climate Change and Biodiversity Change in the Arctic for Coastal Sámi Wellbeing, Associate Professor Camilla Brattland (University of Tromsø) presented work she is doing to fill knowledge gaps about Sámi relations to the ocean. To accomplish this, she uses story mapping to create the basis for a Coastal Sámi Atlas.

One of the primary aims of the week was for senior academics to provide in-depth feedback and constructive critique to PhD candidates around either a paper they had written or on their actual research focus. This led to productive discussions on a broad range of topics from the candidates from sustainable food production through aquaculture, to historical ideas about the deepest depths of the ocean to literature about the sea from Okinawa and Japan. 

At times it seemed we came away from daily sessions with more questions than answers. A recurring question was, How do we understand the ocean? How can we understand the ocean not as a vast, open space or an infinite well of resources, but as connected, vibrant ecosystems that are directly affected by our actions? The ocean is vast and widely varied; even when we are swimming in it, it is hard to take it all in. The depths of the ocean present their own challenges, too – the crushing pressure of the water makes it impossible for us to experience without the help of technology or imagination. Perhaps that is why, as was mentioned in these talks, there is a persistent idea that throwing things into the ocean makes them disappear. The nature of the ocean makes consequences less visible below the surface. What counterstories can we tell to counteract the destruction of the ocean? How can we work within the legal systems that we have to effect positive change?  

Ongoing research under the One Ocean Hub

Ongoing Hub research is trying to respond to some of these questions by working with researchers from different humanities and natural science disciplines such as artists, historians, marine biologists, lawyers, anthropologists, sociologists and economists. In addition, we are also by working closely with those who interact with and depend on the ocean and coast on a daily basis such as fishers, bait collectors, surfers, divers, lifeguards, tour operators and coastal communities. Among the research outcomes we are working on are also papers that explain what and how we have learnt from ocean-dependent communities and how we can support other researchers to engage in a similar path of knowledge co-production.

Some of the 2023 Tromsø ATTR seminar team, from left: Ellen Hey, Ingvild Boberg, Viktor Andersson, Mazyar Ahmad, Ina Ausland, Nina Rivers,  Kate Jama (on screen), Terje Stordalen, Ellen Krefting, Mathilde Morel and Apostolos Tsiouvalas (16 June, 2023). Photo: by the Authoritative Texts and Their Receptions (ATTR)

Related SDGs:

  • Climate action
  • Life below water