De-Provincializing Development

Protecting Life Below Water: Tending to Relationality and Expanding Oceanic Consciousness Beyond Coastal Zones by Zoe Todd

In this post, Zoe Todd describes how humans are always embedded in watery worlds and notes the dangers of crafting sharp distinctions between aquatic worlds and terrestrial ones.

This is the third entry in our new series “De-Provincializing Development,” which seeks to cast a critical eye on US progress towards the new UN goals. It examines SDG #14: Life Below Water.


I come from a landlocked province, one that is bordered in turn by the Rocky Mountains, the subarctic, and the rolling prairies of Montana and Saskatchewan. It is perhaps strange for a landlocked anthropologist to write an impassioned defense of oceans and ocean life, let alone to defend the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #14, which urges humanity to tend to and protect “life below water” (UNDP 2017).

Photograph by author.

The meltwater from rapidly shrinking glaciers in my home province’s Rocky Mountains carves and shapes the lands and lives of the territory in which I grew up in dramatic ways. If I close my eyes, I can imagine the clear, cool waters that originate in Alberta Rocky Mountain glaciers running their way into creeks and rivers that eventually rejoin their watery kin in the ocean-scapes of the planet. The link between my home province and the oceans is also temporally rooted: the western interior seaway once covered present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and the fossilized remains of ancient marine kin dot the prairie and boreal landscapes (Canadian Museum of Nature 2016). We are, therefore, embedded in watery worlds—surrounded by oceans that exist today and haunted by the fossilized marine life that once peopled and animated the lands I grew up in. The plasticity of oceans through space and time matters and informs our responsibilities to marine life, both extant and extinct.

The ocean, so often, is presented as a vast and unknowable “final frontier” (Xprize 2016), one whose species and depths we have “barely” mapped (NOAA, n.d.). This positioning of the unknowable ocean and its alien life-worlds recreates problematic logics of exploration, exploitation, and distancing that shaped and shape so much of Euro-American, capitalist-colonial devastation of myriad nations and environments.


At a global scale, employing a notion of relatedness in our efforts to understand the plight of oceanic/marine beings in this time of the so-called Anthropocene forces humans to reconsider our ideas of boundedness and separation from (and mastery over) the environment.


To counter this idea of life below water as “alien” and “unknown,” I argue in my own work on prairie human-fish relations that every place in Canada is a fish place. Every place is tended to by waters that cycle through the earth’s hydrological systems and make their way back continuously to the ocean. And these watery arteries link us explicitly to the oceans that cover the majority of the globe. It is crucial, in times of environmental/socioecological upheaval, to underscore and impress the interconnectedness of lands, waters, space, people, and time on my fellow Canadians and scholars. While the prairies, in their landlocked glory, may seem a literal world away from the coasts, oceans, and the disasters and struggles that impact marine life, Indigenous legal traditions from my home territory teach us otherwise. In Métis legal traditions and cosmology, we draw upon the nehiyaw (Plains Cree) principles of “wahkohtowin,” “wicihitowin,” and “sakihitowin” (Dorion 2010, 113; MacDougall 2011, xxx). Loosely translated, these legal principles underscore relationality, collective reciprocal responsibilities and labor, and love, respectively. As MacDougall (2011, xxx) explains, wahkohtowin is, in short:

A worldview that privileged relatedness to land, people (living, ancestral and those to come), the spirit world, and creatures inhabiting the space. In short, this worldview, wahkootowin, is predicated upon a specific Aboriginal notion and definition of family as a broadly conceived sense of relatedness of all beings, human and non-human, living and dead, physical and spiritual.

Applying the principle of wahkohtowin to our understandings of ocean life and devastation, it is not hard to draw out the interrelatedness of life in central/interior Canada with the struggles and realities of coastal/marine ecologies around the globe. At a global scale, employing a notion of relatedness in our efforts to understand the plight of oceanic/marine beings in this time of the so-called Anthropocene forces humans to reconsider our ideas of boundedness and separation from (and mastery over) the environment. Donna Haraway, in her recent writings on the Anthropocene, mobilizes her interpretation of M. Beth Dempster’s proposition of “sympoiesis” (2016, 61), a term that Haraway uses to mean “making with” (58). Haraway’s use of sympoeisis and sympoeitics deliberately refuses the contours of borders and boundaries. Instead, we are always making with. From a Métis feminist standpoint, this accords closely with a Métis worldview predicated on kinship, reciprocity, and care.

Atlantic cod. (Image by author)

If we dwell for a moment on this notion of relatedness, and tend to the analogs and synonyms for this idea that exist in myriad legal-ethical sociocultural systems across the globe, we can elicit an understanding of the “life below water” flagged in SDG 14 that integrates not only the oceans but also myriad systems, relationships, ecosystems, and life-worlds that are connected to oceans, coasts, and marine worlds through watersheds, hydrological systems, and storied time-scapes throughout history.

So, in my impassioned defense of life below water, I actually want to upend the separation of ocean life from terrestrial/land life implicit in SDG 14. Taking the notion of wahkohtowin (and its many analogs in other cosmologies and legal-ethical systems) to bear on our understanding of what “life below water” means to us, I want us to refuse the tendency to exoticize oceans as a world apart from land life—a marine Other in which we dump raw sewage and plastic, and which we pump full of toxic chemicals (UNDP 2017). Instead, I want to encourage readers to consider the ways in which the oceans are present in our day-to-day lives, regardless of whether we live in coastal or island regions. We eat overfished cod and sickened farmed salmon from coastal locales. We season our food with salt extracted from seawater. We dump our prolific plastic into the waters, forming gyres that cover great expanses of the Pacific and other oceans (Eriksen et al. 2013). The danger in seeing the ocean as an Other and not as kin or an entity we must work with—or to nod to Haraway and her contemporaries, “become with” (2016, 11–12)—is that it becomes a dead zone for us to pollute, damage, and poison. It emboldens us to be the very worst kind of human kin to the vast waters of the world. So, I argue that the ocean is not a massive “unknown” territory out there, nor is it an earthly watery outer space for us to mine and dive (Xprize 2016), but is in fact an intimate familiar. After all, its hydrological and ecological roles shape the most basic of our daily human-environmental experiences (NOAA, n.d.; UNDP 2017).


In my impassioned defense of life below water, I actually want to upend the separation of ocean life from terrestrial/land life implicit in SDG 14. . . . I want us to refuse the tendency to exoticize oceans as a world apart from land life—a marine Other in which we dump raw sewage and plastic, and which we pump full of toxic chemicals.


For this reason, it is important for all humans—not just those who rely on oceans for income and sustenance—to center an oceanic consciousness in our work to disrupt and dismantle wholesale destruction of the world’s lands, waters, and atmospheres. Without tenderness towards life (and not-life, as Povinelli [2016] teaches us) below water, we risk transforming the oceans and marine locales of the planet into zones of devastation. In fact, in destroying the oceans, we risk everything. So the care and tenderness that we apply to our waterways, more-than-human life, stories, laws, and narratives matter. Life below water deserves our care.

 

REFERENCES CITED

Canadian Museum of Nature. 2016. “Marine Creatures.” Accessed September 02, 2017. https://nature.ca/en/plan-your-visit/what-see-do/our-exhibitions/fossil-gallery/marine-creatures.

Dorion, Leah. 2010. “The Life Long Process of Growing Cree and Metis Children.” Master’s thesis, Athabasca University.

Eriksen, Marcus, Nikolai Maximenko, Martin Thiel, Anna Cummins, Gwen Lattin, Stiv Wilson, Jan Hafner, Ann Zellers, and Samuel Rifman. 2013. “Plastic Pollution in the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 68 (1-2): 71–76.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

MacDougall, Brenda. 2011. One of the Family: Metis Culture in Nineteenth Century Northwestern Saskatchewan. Vancouver: UBC Press.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). n.d. “How Much of the Ocean Have We Explored?” Accessed September 02, 2017. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/exploration.html.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism. Duke University Press.

UNDP. 2017. “Sustainable Development Goal 14.” Accessed September 2, 2017. http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-14-life-below-water.html.

Xprize. 2016. “Oceans vs Space: Which is Really the Final Frontier?” Accessed September 2, 2017. https://www.xprize.org/news/blog/oceans-vs-space-which-really-final-frontier.

 

Zoe Todd is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University.

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