The Hope of the Commons: The World Ocean Summit, 2014

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Ocean Matters Executive Director Laura Parker Roerden

By Laura Parker Roerden

I’m on a flight from Boston to San Francisco to attend the World Ocean Summit. Appropriately, I’m flying JetBlue, whose tag line I notice on another plane as we linger on the runway is “For the love of the blue.”

The World Ocean Summit is co-sponsored by the Economist and National Geographic Magazines, as a gathering of world leaders, business interests, marine scientists and NGOs to discuss the state of the oceans towards devising innovative solutions. In the very first lines of the literature promoting the conference I notice a blatant directive to the attendees. The conference promises a “non-sentimental” look at the issues. The phrase surprises me, as much as it sobers. The Economist and NGS apparently suffer no fool: they’ll be no Kumbaya singing at the WOS.

WOSsmallI am also struck by the necessity of that proclamation. While debates about whether or not climate change is even happening and if it is in fact human-induced rage on in the courts of public opinion and in social media, scientists, economists, and world leaders are gathering to monetize what’s at stake. The bullet has left the gun and the ocean is already wounded. Most world governments have national security plans hitched to the realities of a changing climate, economies, and coastlines. Where we are with all of this is in triage, where cool handedness and data driven decisions are the best tools in our ER doctors’ arsenal.


We hear a lot about how the ocean suffers from what is glibly called the “tragedy of the commons”—short-hand for the reality that no one nation owns international waters, promoting a winner-takes-all attitude towards it.  I have always had a faintly uneasy feeling about that phrase.

In my work with young people in Ocean Matters, we do an activity from Educators for Social Responsibility where all the participants are given instructions in pairs to assume the pose of arm wrestling on a table with their partners. They are then told that for each time that one’s hand hits the table during a three-minute time period he or she will be given a Hershey’s chocolate kiss. A buzzer sounds and the participants begin.

Usually, the pairs begin arm wrestling, with little progress being made and few arms hitting tables. Somewhere one of the pair is overpowering the other and counting enthusiastically, while the other frowns. Very little kisses are distributed. Then gradually, one pair will discover a simple truth: by negotiating to cooperate rather than compete the pair can move their arms like windshield wipers, hitting the table multiple times and mounting numbers of chocolate kisses that are so plentiful they can be easily shared. Others notice the first pair strategic shift and reaping the rewards of piles of chocolate kisses, and join them. The cooperative tactic moves like a wave across the room. And everyone has more.


Looking at the conference list of attendees it’s clear that there is global concern for the state of the oceans. Perhaps, with cool heads prevailing, we will indeed reach that game changing point in the discussion. Perhaps it’s just a matter of scale, of adjusting our lens to a wider angle that will help us transform the “tragedy of the commons” into the “hope of the commons.”

I’ll be tweeting @LPRoerden #OceanSummit and blogging from the event for the next few days. So as we drill down into the issues, be assured that I’ll be keeping you in the information loop. And hopefully there will be a moment or two for singing and sharing chocolate—for the love of the blue.

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