Reframing ocean literacy under the UN Ocean Science Decade 

Hub researcher and Empatheatre co-founder Dylan McGarry contributed to the Ocean Literacy Dialogue and the UN Ocean Decade Conference, with a particular emphasis on the need to shift attention from ‘ocean literacy’ to ‘ocean fluency’. In his words: “There are many ocean fluent people, from small-scale fishers, Indigenous Peoples, surfers, swimmers and children. We don’t need to make them literate, but support their ways of knowing and being with and in the ocean”. He was then invited to contribute to the re-framing of Challenge 10 of the UN Decade for Ocean Science on ‘Changing humanity’s relationship with the ocean’. In this blog post, Dylan reflects on the contributions he made to the Conference, the experience of contributing to the white paper on Challenge 10, and his ongoing work in this area.  

Dylan McGarry speaking at ocean decade 2024

“Adjusting the weave of ocean literacy to ocean fluency” 

“I was lucky enough to share a paper Dr.Anna James and I are soon to publish entitled: Adjusting the weave of Ocean Literacy in South Africa: Inviting a critical conversation and some imaginative leaps.  which I presented during the Ocean Literacy Dialogue side event at the UN Ocean Decade Conference in Barcelona”, Dylan says and continues: 

Some of the key ideas we explore in the paper are the current definitions used for Ocean literacy are defined by UNESCO as: 

An understanding of the ocean’s influence on you, and your influence on the ocean. Ocean literacy is a way not only to increase the awareness of the public about the ocean, but it is as an approach to encourage all citizens and stakeholders to have a more responsible and informed behaviour towards the ocean and its resources. 

However, this definition overlooks critical aspects. Firstly, it lacks a relational understanding of agency and learning, as individual learning alone cannot address environmental challenges. Experts note that decisions regarding ocean extraction involve various fields, highlighting the need to consider collective influence. Secondly, the notion of educating society assumes homogeneity, ignoring diverse knowledge holders and learners. Kelly et al. (2021) identify five limitations hindering global ocean literacy development, including youth-centric learning and a disconnect between society and marine science.

Lysa wini , Katy Soapi and Dylan Mcgarry at ocean decade 2024

Addressing these challenges is vital, particularly in regions like South Africa, where education can perpetuate systemic alienation. Daweti et al. (2022) caution against relying solely on education to solve issues, emphasising the importance of collective learning and understanding systemic factors. Drawing on South African experiences, we can reimagine ocean literacy to address local needs and global knowledge hierarchies, fostering a more inclusive and effective approach to understanding and stewarding our oceans. 

As such some of the suggestions are to: 

  • See Art as a form of research; as Erin Manning puts it, “Making is a practice of thinking and theorizing”, and we have found it to be a instrument in in supporting customary governance. 
  • Expand Ocean literacy beyond the confines of marine science education, which, if misused, can be a form of social engineering and cause climate anxiety if not tempered and supported by ocean humanities and cultural education; 
  • reframe the Challenge 10 of the UN Ocean Decade by shifting attention from “society” as the ‘whole humanity’ as it is defined in the Whitepaper, towards the privileged minority, industry and governments (“the 1%”) who are primarily responsible for ocean decline and climate collapse; and 
  • refocus attention under Challenge 10 on supporting climate anxiety and building social tissue through convivial ocean culture education. 

Contributing to reframing UN Ocean Decade’s Challenge 10 

Currently, Challenge 10 of the UN Decade reads: “Ensure that the multiple values and services of the ocean for human wellbeing, culture, and sustainable development are widely understood, and identify and overcome barriers to behaviour change required for a step change in humanity’s relationship with the ocean.”  

During the Ocean Decade Conference, a White Paper was discussed on needed readjustments to the challenge. I was encouraged by the White Paper Chair Prof Diz Glithero who participated in my side-event earlier in the week, to come and speak into the presentation of the draft paper.  

What I loved about this White Paper policy session is that the chair, made it very participatory and inclusive, inviting speakers from the floor to speak into the White Paper, as well as anonymously critique it using an online interface. I was able to share both an enthusiasm for the whitepaper moving away from ‘connecting people to the ocean’ (as many people already connect to the ocean) and rather change the wording to ‘restoring ocean relationships,’ which acknowledges the inclusion, equity, and justice issues surrounding ocean knowledge production, education, and ocean heritage work.  

They also established drivers and indicators for each policy suggestion. Drivers 3 and 4 called for ocean literacy and inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, which were aspirational but required more practical indicators that acknowledge the protocols and practices in which Indigenous and customary law function in practices that are place-based and experiential. While the White Paper mentions place-based and experiential learning, I added that mechanisms to include transgressive social learning were critical and to add indicators of conviviality, ritual, ceremony, and friendship-building as ways to monitor and evaluate if these knowledge-making practices are emerging in locally relevant and ontologically grounded ways. 

Furthermore, I critiqued the overuse of ‘behaviour change’ language in the white paper, which is often translated into marine science education that focuses on individual responsibility with little sensitivity to the ways in which people’s agency and behaviours are constrained by existing systems, techno-science, and instrumental logics. I explained that the line between ‘behaviour-change’ and social engineering is fine, and coming from South Africa, where the Apartheid system used social engineering, such as the Bantu Education Act, to silence and disempower Indigenous and customary rights holders, we should be cautious of using such terms in the paper. Indeed, social engineering is necessary for the global 1% and powerful industry, who are causing the majority of the harm to the oceans.

Mpume Mthombeni (Empatheatre, South africa), Elsemi Olwage (University of Namibia, Namibia), Milica prokic (University of Strathclyde, UK), Elisa Morgera (University of strathclyde, UK) and dylan Mcgarry (Rhodes University, South Africa) at ocean decade April 2024 (photo: Mpume Mthombeni)

Yet behaviour change systems, when experienced by children, marginalised communities, and the world majority (who have existing unique/ sovereign relationships with the sea), can cause severe forms of climate anxiety and grief. As such, the current ‘behaviour change’ ocean literacy can become nothing more than marine science propaganda. I, therefore, encouraged the policy to recognize existing ocean-fluent peoples, such as small-scale fishers, customary rights holders, Indigenous healers, surfers, swimmers, and children – and co-design social learning practices that meet the needs of these groups to restore their access and connection to the ocean. 

Outlook: further rethinking of ocean literacy 

Looking ahead, more work is needed around ocean literacy. As mentioned above, the definition of ocean literacy by UNESCO and several publications related to the concept contain three worrying trends. Firstly, this definition excludes an understanding of the relational. While of course, individual learning does matter, environmental and social change educators far and wide know that individual understanding is inadequate to grapple with our environmental and ocean challenges. The “ability to make informed and responsible decisions regarding the ocean and its resources” does not depend on an adequate understanding of the ocean – it also depends on your class position and the policies of the society you are living in.  

In fact, many experts in marine science are implicated in decisions around ocean extraction (Bennett, 2018; Pereira & McGarry, 2023; McGarry et al, 2024) and not only in the sciences, Bozalek (2023) explores how ‘privileged irresponsibility’ plays out in all aspects of higher education. An individual’s influence must be understood through their relational and collective existence (Glissant, 1990; Alaimo, 2016; 2017; Simpson, 2017; Alaimo, 2018; Ferdinand, 2022 ; Bozalek, 2023) . Secondly, recommendations about “educating society” carry assumptions about who holds the knowledge and who needs to learn. Society here is used as a homogenous group – in this case, it is specialists at the UN who hold the knowledge and likely, the generalised public that needs to learn, but this is not the case. 

Kelly et al. (2021) consider an extensive range of ocean literacy literature and conclude by revealing five main limitations that are currently impeding the potential development and improvement of global ocean literacy:  

  • Youth-centric ocean learning,  
  • Western-centric programs,  
  • Single-issue focus,  
  • The ‘digital divide,’ and  
  • Disconnect between society and marine science and policy.  

It is generative to think with these limitations for how to build a life-affirming ocean literacy in the context of South Africa. Daweti et al. (2022) indicate:  

When “education” is called upon in response to a problem, there is a risk that summoning it might collude with systemic alienation. This happens if the assumption is that the problem lies only with the individual and their awareness, rather than with a historical and material system that we are collectively and unevenly locked into.  

We are not arguing against education, but we want to make space for reclaiming the essential part of human freedom that we call “learning”, and we want to think about this carefully with youth and children in the context of the “majority world.” We can drawing from the idiomatic intelligence of adjusting the weave of the fish Kraals in Kosi Bay, as a means to adjust to changing currents, changes in fish stock health, different seasons and practicing greater care for the fish and their habitats. In that way, we need to consider what is needed in South African in terms of ocean literacy, in what ways must we adjust the weave, and how might our experiences in South African aid in thinking differently around ocean literacy globally to shift the knowledge hierarchies that currently structure ocean literacy. 

Watch a short video clip from the Ocean Decade Conference here

Video of Dylan McGarry speaking at ocean decade 2024

Related SDGs:

  • Quality education
  • Reduced inequality
  • Life below water