World Ocean Weekly

People of the Water

Moken is a Thai word meaning sea people, people of water, sea nomads or sea gypsies. The Moken are a group of Austronesian people of an archipelago claimed by both Myanmar and Thailand. Their way of life is under pressure by assimilation, subversion, suppression, climate change, and corporate greed.

The Moken are a group of Austronesian people of the Mergui Archipelago, some 800 islands claimed by both Myanmar and Thailand, their population comprising two to three thousand people who live and make their living in and on the ocean, a way of life that seems totally primitive to our modern view, but that contains certain values and behaviors that might be exemplary for us all.

I am not going to propose here that we all return to what many would consider a backward, primitive life, deprived of all the modern comforts of life, the benefits of consumerism, the security of what we call civilization. But there is a movement among us for a much simpler life: some opting out of the consumer matrix, some defining comfort and safety in different value terms that are not just romantic or idealistic fantasy, but are rather another form of modern engagement with land and sea in the context of sustainability and community.

Where I live I am surrounded by young farmers and fishers engaged in organic agriculture or the harvest of marine species, gathering and hunting if you will, in a simpler world that is not primitive at all. The Moken have accumulated a vast knowledge of the sea, and while they harvest with spears and nets, dry and prepare products on the decks of their floating homes, bartering and selling at local markets, these habits are not so much removed from what occurs in my local farmers’ market of a Saturday throughout the year: farmed meats and dairy, fish and shellfish, winter vegetables, prepared foods, baked goods, sea salt distilled from out local waters, and other unique products for which I gladly exchange for value.

Of course the Moken are under extreme pressure from government policies of assimilation, language suppression, relocation, and subversion of cultural traditions. Why is it that governments fear the other? There are such consistent attempts to suppress freedom to live apart, with art and tradition that is nothing more dangerous than a continuity of personal expression and collective belief. We see it everywhere that minorities dwell, especially when these communities rise up to protect what is to them both worldly and sacred value. Look at religious conflict in Arabia, tribal conflict in Africa and China, racial and ethnic conflict in Europe and the United States: you’ll discover the same, underlying opposition to diversity and identity, be it by dictators, monolithic governments, corporate dominance, religious uniformity, and all the other structures that work — sometimes together — to oppress, suppress, even eradicate these last vestiges of cultures.

If we are paying attention, these cultures may provide us wisdom by which to transcend ourselves, our consumption, our need to reduce the world to one simplistic structure over which centralized authority presides.

If you look at the reasons for government attempts to relocate and domesticate the Moken, you need look only to offshore oil discoveries in the surrounding waters by Unocal, Petronas, and other international energy companies to understand the political pressure to relocate the Moken to the alien mainland, out of sight, out of mind, out of the way of the environmental impact of drilling and mining and all the other morally bankrupt financial enterprise of the past, proven so destructive on land and now to be so comparably destructive at sea. If the new definition of civilization is to repeat the corrosive and corrupting behaviors of the past, this small event in a place far away is but another example of that decline.

Various anthropologists and scientists have studied the Moken as some kind of vestigial leftover from the past. Interestingly, they discovered that Moken children have superior underwater vision to European children, an hypothesis theorized and confirmed by a comparative study of physiology and visual acuity by a Swedish scientist. The explanation posited was constriction of pupils and accommodation of visual focus to the specific conditions. Moken children see differently than we do, a behavior conditioned by the circumstances of survival — gathering mollusks, marine plants, and fish for protein. The European children were further debilitated by sustained temporary red eye that left them blind to the harvest.

Some look at the ocean and see oil and gas; these are the red-eyed ones. Others look at the ocean and see community and sustainability; these are the clear-eyed ones — sea people, shaped by the past, reacting to the present, and looking at what must soon come to be. We are among them; we are all Citizens of the Ocean; we are all people of the water.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Adversity and the Ocean

Recently in San Francisco, I attended the exhibit “Soul of a Nation – Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 -1983” at the de Young Museum -- art made by black artists during two pivotal decades when issues of race and identity dominated and defined both public and private discourse in the United States. It was a heady time for politics, an explosion of black voices – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and many more – and a comparable exposure of black artists whose visual language expressed the anger and protest against suppression, racism, and injustice. The exhibit was powerful and provocative, art beyond propaganda, palpable outrage and creative declaration that the adversity felt and lived within the black community could be endured no more.

Adversity. It’s an odd word: a shape shifter, ranging from hard luck to hard times, from a difficult set-back to a permanent, oppositional state of being. There were very few African or Asian visitors in the galleries. The audience was people like me who, in truth, have known very little adversity at all. Africans and Asians and Latinos continue to face the situation every day, still; they don’t need to come to an art museum to feel or understand.

The ocean is a scape for adversity.  W hen humans intrude, leave the certainty of the known, they step into a world that is contradictory, unpredictable, and unwelcoming to the intrusion of a small craft attempting to get from one place to another in such an adverse medium. The winds are adverse. The tides are adverse. The waves are adverse. In such a situation, survival demands order, cooperation, knowledge, experience, and the subversion of any fixed terrestrial ideas or social prejudices, any inhibition to getting from here to there. Ship’s crews were united in the face of adversity or they did not survive. Seamen came from all parts of the world, all races, and still do, and they are unified by proven means of discipline, harmony, cooperative work, and patterns of behavior that have proven to overcome adversity, even its most violent expression, without bias, without exclusion, without a necessary integration of strength, skill, determination, and respect for those alongside, aboard.

It would be silly to say that there was no racism at sea. But the accounts of accord, shared culture and traditions, and the certainty that no single force can better the collective force of many, no matter what their origin or color of their skin was an operative paradigm. But what has always struck me about sea experience, however limited mine might be, is that the ship is both reality and symbol for education: the captain teaches the mate, the mate teaches the crew, the crew teaches each other, in a continuous curriculum of experience inclusive of what we today call physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, history, politics, sociology, economics, psychology, literature, and art.   Thus, on a ship, as in successful society, opportunity, commitment, and work counter adversity, the entire crew working together toward successful passage through any challenge.

A ship where adversity reigns is a slave ship, an inequitable imposition of one system on another, an involuntary engagement, and a social tyranny with inevitable physical and spiritual distress and disruption. The cargo, being racially discriminated, is subject to the most adverse conditions, dehumanized, commodified, all the aspirations and values of civilization for them abandoned, and resultant, discriminatory cultural conditions established to be continued on shore, human beings relegated to exclusion by race and to a reality of social injustice. Who would not be angry and outraged and politically motivated to protest and bring such violence to an end?

The lessons of the ocean are not just a metaphor. They are real, and they are being lost as we continue to permit and condone racism on land, contemporary events that are a sad continuum with terrible consequence for civility and harmony today. We are building walls. We are separating by origin. We are excluding by race. These are terrestrial behaviors that must not endure. We cannot forget the wisdom of the ocean. We cannot segregate the crew. We must not give in to adversity.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

A Tale of Two (Ocean) Cities

"it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

These are the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most popular fictions of all time. Dickens was writing about the French Revolution, a period of intense social turmoil and political upheaval. The book’s first paragraph concludes:

“we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Noisy authorities. Superlative degree. Light. Darkness. So far like the present?

Reading those lines, I cannot but compare them to the circumstance we face today; the similarities are evocative certainly, coincident at worst. Thinking on this, it occurred to me to exemplify the irony through a tale of two ocean cities: far apart, one smaller, one larger, but faced with the reality of our time so socially and politically uncertain and affected by disruptive consequence from premeditated action against the nurturing continuum of water.

The first is Newtok, Alaska, a Yup’ik village on the Ninglick River on the Bering Sea, population 380. In a recent National Geographic article, the situation was described as follows: “Thawing permafrost and erosion has increased flooding risks and caused the land around homes to crumble and sink. The community landfill has washed away, fuel storage tanks lean precariously, and some houses have already been torn down because they were in danger of collapsing…So, after years of planning and construction, families began arriving in the freshly minted village of Mertarvik, about 10 miles southeast on Nelson Island. During breaks in the high winds and heavy rains that lashed the Yukon Delta, eighteen families made the move and began unpacking belongings in their newly built energy-efficient homes.”

There is only housing for one third of the Newtok families, with electricity, but no public water and sewerage systems, no school. This small event, planned since 2003, is a front-line consequence of climate change. For those moving, for those forcibly staying behind, which is it? Best of times? Or worst of times?

Now, transport yourself over 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Jakarta, Indonesia, a mega-city of over 30 million people that is confronting similar cause and effect: global warming, subsidence as result of over-consumption from the water table, industrial and human pollution of fresh water systems, sea-level rise compounded by extreme weather, land erosion and indiscriminate filling of coastal lowlands to house economic expansion and population increase, corruption of existing governmental regulatory controls and proposed construction of new, very expensive mitigation structures. All these to an extreme that paralyzes response in place and time. Enormous geo-engineered solutions such as giant offshore barriers, dikes built on top of existing dikes, new dams, canals, giant water collection areas, and complex control technologies — all these have been proposed at astronomical cost of trillions on trillions, typically under-financed or realistically beyond financial possibility. And finally, there is the unimaginable social prospect of relocation of millions of people, facilities, housing, and services to some other, perhaps safer, more-protected place in what is essentially a low-lying island nation surrounded by water. Worst of times? Best of times?

The exponential magnitude between Newtok and Jakarta is almost beyond calculation, but the impact on the people who live there, desperately responding to changing climate conditions, disruption, community resilience is tragically the same. Dickens writes:

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Which is it? Which will it be? What will it take?

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

How Many Ways Do We Hear the Sound of Water?

How many ways do we hear the sound of water? Just to think about it demands a total immersion in sensory memory and anecdotal recall. What was that sound? When was it? Where was it? How do these questions pertain to its articulation in words, a medium fractured and evocative, but ultimately limited in comparison to the infinite euphony of water?

Think of water as many sounds in one sound: myriad compositions, with ripples and waves as notation of melodies and embellishments. Every performance is unique; the players invisible; the conductor, wind and weather; the orchestra, a system of conveyance that responds to the direction of planetary turning and gravitational force. Think of the earth as a vast concert hall for the appreciation for how we, as individuals and cultures, explore the extent of water, Nature’s most essential element, and interpret its meaning, overtly, or covertly through our senses to our minds.

But who is the composer? Is there a creator? Every culture has its story of origin, often connected to manifestations of water. The great flood. The drowning. The miraculous survival. The baptism. The burial at sea. We want to explain, attribute the making of the ephemeral and fluid to a hand that often looks like ours, as if we are both an expression of the divine and its maker. Water lies at the core of mystery, the miraculous, the appearances that dissolve into the inexplicable and unknowable. There is no definitive answer to who or how, only the certainty of movement.

Think of the sound of water on water: rain on the pond, incoming waves on the receding. This is the percussion, the underlying rhythm of constant motion, the fluid beat of time, and change. This is the code we seek to break when we sit by the stream or walk alongshore, looking for answers, reasons, place, and value. That search is universal, not exclusive to any one of us apart from all the others. What would it be if we all found what we look for when we go to the ocean in search for life in a single drop?

That would be value beyond value: a crest of understanding, of spiritual meaning and psychological solace, that might unite the world just as, together, the whales swim long distances north to south, the salmon return home to spawn, the turtle lays her eggs for the next generation to risk its life in the sea. If that is so, why would we do anything to put that conjoining medium at risk by consuming it to extinction, or by poisoning it beyond utility, or by failing to conserve and sustain it as key to our survival? As with so many things that shape the human quandary, it makes no sense.

What would it mean if there was no water? What if all the rain is acid, the wells are exhausted and the aquifers finally run dry? What if we pollute and consume without limit? What if changing climate and increasing temperature do create conditions that so erode our industrial, agricultural, sanitation, and urban systems that society is compromised toward chaos? Think about that future as drought, and drought as silence, and silence as the expression of emptiness inside. Who are we then, without vitality, movement, aspiration, security, continuity, hope of a future?

The sound of water is the music of life. Without it we are hollow and dry, deaf and dumb, silent and deadly, useless and unworthy. We need it to birth and grow. We need it to nurture body and soul. We need it to sustain our families and friends, our communities and nation states, our sense of possibility and optimism for a world somehow better, less fraught, more equitable and just through the magical sound of water.

Go down to where that water flows: as you drink, remember; as you listen, resolve, that such beauty must be shared, and that you are now creator, conductor, and virtuoso performer in the symphonic masterpiece called water.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

For the Love of a Fish Market

Wherever I go, I am drawn to fish markets. Whether they be street stalls, neighborhood stores, city markets, or even the counters at supermarkets, I am inevitably attracted by the actuality of such places, the variety, color, and strangeness of the species, and the special beauty of life, lost life, and life enhanced by gifts from the sea.

Markets are typically animated by fishmongers, often immigrants, who bring to the place a social vitality derived from the old country: recipes, customs, and a certain animation and colorful exchange between workers, customers, and tourists. It amazes me how markets are so lively, even as surrounded by catch that is not really dead, but paused in waiting to serve us with life in a wonderful circle of natural reciprocity. Markets also evince the authenticity of work, hard work, dangerous work, by people often far away in places as foreign as the fish themselves. There is truth there, a challenge by a world so stark and different from the gloss and ease and normality of our privileged lives, so separated and protected from such distant reality. Markets are foreign, nurturing, exciting, connecting – this latter is their very purpose, to connect the world though the beneficence of marine life.

I was for twenty years the surrogate landlord for the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. As president of the South Street Seaport Museum and Development Corporation, the first line relationship between the market and city government passed through me and required that I work daily with the wholesalers and distributors, loaders and unloaders, to maintain the operational efficiency of a market that was itself an historical artifact, both in its overnight iteration and its business practice. I lived in the Seaport District and the market was right outside my door. My children would pass through it in the early morning on their way to school. I would sometimes walk out into the market in the after-midnight hours to experience it and try to understand how it worked and what it meant for the welfare of a vast urban community that consumed fish in enormous amounts,  harvested and distributed from all around the world. I would meet the market leaders at Carmine’s, the local bar that catered to their nighttime hours, to discuss problems and changes. It was the end of their workday, and I shared with them eggs and rye, their dinner, my breakfast.

In the past year I have visited markets in Lisbon, Portugal; Santiago, Chile; Nuuk, Greenland, and Tokyo, Japan, among others. The new Toyusu Market in Tokyo, a modern replacement of the very colorful Tsukiji Market that had served that city, that international exchange, forever, was designed to maximize access, operational utility, and working conditions with new systems, distribution structures, and health conditions. What the old facility lacked in organization, condition, color, and historical romance is now transcended by cleanliness, efficiency, and economy.

But still, when you attend the auctions, the old ways are evident: the mysterious hand gestures of the bidders, the frantic speed of transaction, and the understood accountability for each transaction. The individual stalls of buyers and sellers are still there, the ancient methods of cutting the fish remain, the perfect beauty of skilled hand and long knife cutting a tuna into perfect, deep red, small sculptural sections. The presentation of products has been dramatically modernized with vacuum packaging and aerated containers to protect the freshness and transportation beyond--whether to the sushi restaurant next door or the market 3,000 miles away.

Recently in my market here in Maine, I found a container of smoked mussels from Japan. Even though we have a similar product here, I bought these to discover extraordinary quality: plump meat, lightly smoked, sweetly brined. The same company also offered a package of tiny minnow fish, perfectly salted and dried. There is a saying that when a Japanese looks into a bowl of rice, she sees the shadow of each grain. Every grain among thousands. Think about those single mussels and single minnows among millions. Where did they come from? How were they caught and processed? How did they find their way from Asian catch to an Atlantic table? Each was perfect in itself; like the clarity of those grains of rice, each was once free, only to find its way to my dinner last night.

It is, by all explanation, inexplicable that one small fish taken from so far away is there to serve me, to sustain me, to share with me all the implications of engagement with the sea. Truth is in each single fish everywhere. It is a gift to us all through an ocean of giving.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.