What can be learnt globally from the UK-based project “Leave No One Behind”?

By Lindy Brown (University of Plymouth)

“Leaving No One Behind” is a UK-based research project which seeks to understand the relationship that an urban coastal community has with the ocean, and the degree to which Ocean Literacy, defined as an understanding of the ocean’s influence on you – and your influence on the ocean, is a relatable and relevant narrative in this context. It enquires to what extent an emotional connection with the ocean, and an ability to communicate concerns about the ocean, translate into making informed and responsible decisions regarding the marine environment.

The aim of this blogpost is to introduce the premise and  emerging themes of this modest research and explore the relevance to the work of the One Ocean Hub in relation to public participation and representative justice. It will conclude with a discussion about why small-scale local community engagement may be key to addressing climate adaptation at the ocean-climate-human-rights nexus.

SDGs in the UK Context

The 2021 IPCC 6th assessment report states that ‘it is a fact established by science that human activity is the cause of atmosphere, land and oceans warming’. Global society is reliant upon the ocean for the regulation of climate and the capacity of this ocean to provide this service is being degraded by human activity. Climate change is being felt first and most acutely by the poorest and most vulnerable in society and many of these reliant upon fish protein for their diet and livelihoods. Compounding these difficulties, there is a predicted increase in global poverty for 8% of the total human population resulting from the pandemic, the first increase since 1990 (Sumner et al. 2020), leaving millions of people experiencing deprivation and inequality.

In 2015, the Member States of the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a route to addressing the ‘wicked problems’ of our time (Rittel & Webber 1973). Wicked problems are complex global problems requiring bold and audacious thinking, and, if positive change is to be achieved, at the rate necessary, then there must be a willingness to work beyond traditional professional boundaries, adopt alternative ways of thinking and more collaborative approaches to solving these global challenges such as poverty (UN SDG 1: No Poverty)and the degradation of the ocean (UN SDG 14: Life Below Water). 

The city of Plymouth in the UK, on the face of it, appears light years from the problems targeted by the SDGs – yet poverty and deprivation have persisted on the shores of Plymouth Sound for decades.

In the UK socio economic deprivation is measured using an Index of Multiple Deprivation, which provides an overall relative measure of deprivation for each Lower layer Super Output Area (LSOA). An LSOA is a small area with an average population of 1,500 people. According to the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2019,  Plymouth has two LSOAs (1.2%) in the most deprived 1% in England.

Devonport, the focus of this project, is one of these communities, situated on the coast and categorised as ‘deprived’ since 2007. This is not a fishing community and neither the Navy nor shipbuilding, although sited in Devonport, are primary employers. Additionally, people appear not to choose to reside in Devonport due to its proximity to the ocean owing, in part to the housing stock options. Devonport shares some characteristics with other coastal communities in England, including low educational attainment and poor health outcomes which were highlighted in the Chief Medical Officers Report into Coastal Communities.

Devonport is also situated within the recently designated Plymouth Sound National Marine Park, a model premised upon the UK terrestrial National Park and a prototype for other UK based Marine Parks (Pittman, S et al 2019). The Marine Park seeks to capitalize upon the many existing marine protection designations and aspires to ensure that all of Plymouth’s citizens can benefit from living near a nationally protected landscape though both access to the ocean environment (e.g. recreation) and any linked economic development within the city.

It is well documented that environmental management interventions (e.g. Marine Protected Areas, National Parks) can have inequitable benefits for different members of society and valuable lessons are to be learnt about the success of aspirations of ‘access for all’ without authentic efforts to engage  as detailed in SDG 16 ‘national blue economy policies need to be informed by understanding of local contexts through genuine public participation, so that they can meet the needs of all actors’.

Poverty as being “seldom asked”

One of the insidious manifestations of poverty is the ensuing marginalization. Mood & Jonsson, in their 2016 research ‘The Social Consequences of Poverty’, explain the impact of poverty beyond the home and quotes the United Nations from 1995 as describing poverty ‘in addition to lack of economic resources…is characterised by lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social, and cultural life”. Our understanding of the impact of poverty is therefore expanded from financial deficit to the creation of psychological barriers resulting from lowered self-esteem – people do not have the funds to access activities and lack the confidence to do so.

Additionally, the Mood & Jonsson research suggests that potentially the ‘poor’ have less of a voice, and therefore and less influence on society than others, demonstrating how communities become more marginalised, are considered not to have a view, or be interested and described as ‘disengaged’ or ‘hard to reach’. This term which has evolved to ‘seldom heard’ and I would respectfully add my own definition ‘seldom asked’, resulting in an absence of representation in ocean governance. As highlighted by One Ocean Hub research, the inclusion of views by those who are most affected is key to ensuring evidence-informed decision making and demonstrating the value of that voice. Further, that act of inclusivity begins the process of engagement.

Being asked about the ocean

Devonport is a community of approximately 17,000 (2021) and has both historical and cultural maritime connections with the Navy and a major dockyard having a significant presence. The sample group was 66 streets all under half a kilometre to The Plymouth Sound, and the data collection was through door to door, cold calling. The questionnaire design consisted of three sections – demographic data, how you feel about your life, and relationship with the ocean (Ocean Literacy).

A hundred questionnaires were completed with an even spread of age gender and educational qualifications. 95% of respondents cited an emotional relationship with the ocean and they were all positive. Responses also indicated that the majority understood the relationship between the health of the ocean and human health. However, few cited any behaviour aimed at protecting the marine environment. Older respondents appeared less interested in learning more about the ocean (local or global), with few respondents of any age referencing the need to protect the ocean for future generations.

This may indicate an absence of a custodial relationship for the ocean environment to ensure a healthy legacy for future generations, in contrast to indigenous coastal communities whose intergenerational stewardship of the ocean is both an exemplar of good practice and often unheard in ocean governance.  Perhaps there is a question about how people can move beyond an emotional relationship with the ocean and commit to behaviour change if there is no ‘economic investment’ and whether the narrative of being a ‘good ancestor’ has currency to provide reason and motive for engagement by those who live by the ocean, and inland. To quote Abraham Lincoln, ‘You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today’.

Of note in the research project was that 80% of respondents said they had not heard of the Plymouth Sound National Marine Park and the 20% who had, were unable to provide any detail. This is an interesting outcome due to the the considerable promotion undertaken by the city and may indicate that the work to engage all Plymouth citizens in the initiative has not been sufficiently local or targeted at those more deprived communities.

Why might this research matter in a global context?

Ocean Literacy is a narrative in marine conservation that is evolving swiftly to be inclusive and relatable. Key is the development of measures of success which move beyond a feeling and knowing relationship with the ocean to impactful pro-environmental behaviours. Spoors et al (2021) in their paper Piloting a Regional Scale Ocean Literacy Survey in Fife, Scotland, describes Ocean Literacy as ‘encapsulating the journey of improved awareness of marine and coastal issues to the adoption of clear values and attitudes based on that knowledge’, and that understanding a community’s position in this transition enables targeting of public engagement efforts to progress towards a healthier marine environment. However, this necessitates the development of measures which will provide a framework to ensure consistency, and the Fife study recommends that a national framework is then applied through a ‘nested’ (local) approach. Such an application would address the issue of ocean and marine policy being premised upon assumptions and ‘historical arrangements’ that exclude certain sectors of society, as underlined in One Ocean Hub research (Niner et al, 2022).

Devonport is not on the front line of the climate crisis, unlike many countries, such as Namibia, and Island States. However, the imperative to ‘transform behaviours at all levels’ to mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic damage necessitates the engagement of everyone in understanding the impact of ocean warming and the very real jeopardy experienced now by coastal communities in the Global South. To fail to involve marginalised communities may be to assume they do not care about the problem and cannot contribute to a solution.

The project “Leaving No One Behind” is about developing a local approach to a global problem through the mechanism of inclusive public participation.

The value in this research may be that it asks questions about the authenticity of some public participation processes and suggests that communication and engagement endeavours may not permeate those barriers created by marginalisation, despite good intentions and effort.

Research undertaken by the One Ocean Hub speaks to the need to seek out those who are seldom asked and explore a variety of participatory methods that provide a menu of opportunities for people’s voices to be heard in ocean governance (see here, here and here).

Indeed, perhaps the solutions to ‘the wicked problems’ of our time continue to elude society because the views of those with the ‘lived experience’ are neither sourced, nor valued, and the One Ocean Hub provides a platform for those narratives to be amplified and heard (see here, here and here).

‘Leaving No One Behind’ involved simply going into a community, to their doors and asking them what they thought about their ocean. Devonport isn’t a large community and not everyone wanted to speak, but those who did gave their time and shared their views generously, in their environment. The opportunities that exist through such authentic communication is why small-scale local community engagement may be key to addressing climate adaptation at the ocean-climate-human-rights nexus.