Lucy Underwood: Is Education the Answer?

I wanted to pick on one recurring theme during the ocean conference that is Ocean Literacy, a term I hadn’t heard prior but simply defined as ‘an understanding of the ocean's influence on you—and your influence on the ocean. There are literally hundreds of organisations working on providing easy to reach and appropriate platforms for marine education, raising awareness to create change.  

At first glance from a New Zealand perspective I thought we were doing pretty good in ocean education. I remember learning about the rocky shore, marine species, and doing water wise, but perhaps this wasn't focused on the interactions and the threats that our actions can directly have to impact the ocean. I definitely didn't learn about ocean acidification, ocean currents, phytoplankton, fisheries management until I chose to study it as a university career.

Did you know that over half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean?? Made up of the expelling from phytoplankton including cyanobacteria and green algae? And that this is under direct threat from the warming of our ocean?

There is a strong emphasis on educating the issues, with the idea that being empowered by knowledge your actions will have a positive change. 'People protect what they love. They love what they understand. They understand what they are taught. Armed with that information, there is nothing we cannot achieve.' Quoted by Fabian Cousteau on world oceans day at the United Nations. This is a powerful and inspiring quote, that I do believe to be true, however there still is a divide between understanding and positive action.

Sustainable use of our oceans is so much more than the conservation of species and habitat. The ocean regulates our climate, provides us with oxygen, provides us with medicinal properties, contains a high proportion of our protein and sustains livelihoods, so without it we are nothing.  

These are the points that the dedicated ocean literacy groups are trying to emphasise. Linking the ocean to humans in order for people to more readily uptake the information and realise that the ocean is not just an endless source of resources. I will outline a few examples. Firstly there is Ocean Atlas launched through Germany as a free resource to the public that outlines how the ‘freedom of seas’ principle in which we have governed this environment has led to degradation. They focus on using infographics and displaying data on world maps to visually show where the problems lie. Then there is sea change a programme launched by the European Union to provide better education programmes within schools on human health and the ocean, they have free to download resources and factsheets online, again making it easily accessible to the public. One place that really inspired me was Malmo in Sweden. They have a very extensive and thorough ocean literacy programme for all ages, that includes hands on interaction, and to top it off they are constructing a 700m2 marine education centre for the public!

I asked in a few sessions the question, so how do you empower people to actively change their lifestyle after they have the knowledge? How do you indicate to people that there is something they can do when a problem seems so large? Most people didn't give me a straight answer, however Daniel Schaffer from the Foundation for Environmental Education emphasised that after education there needs to be a clear action plan in place to ensure positive change follows through. In the schools which they initiate their education programmes, the school must then think of a collective action plan on how they will address some of the environmental issues they were taught to positively change the school's operation. Act local think global.

Being amongst 7000 attendees yet being one of the few youths in the sessions was amazing considering everyone around the table is talking about our future.There were multiple references  about the ‘youth’ saying how we don't care about the pressures we face and that as a collective we are not engaged in these issues. In my opinion this is not the case, or at least I hope it isn't. I believe that most youths I know at least are well informed, as the information is so readily accessible and the changes are already happening in the global community. The reason why some do not make change is because of the obvious constraints there are in our society to do so. It was frustrating that the older delegates were willing to make decisions on our behalf, however were not willing to hear us or what we had to say. I think the pinnacle was when we were able to finally speak in a session, yet it was at 5pm on the last day during the closing meeting.

Perhaps living in NZ these issues are not in the forefront of our minds as we are fortunate enough to live in a country that is relatively new in terms of human occupation, that still has some pristine marine environments and fish stocks that aren’t yet depleted. It was an interesting experience talking to people from other countries about New Zealand. They have such an idyllic perception of our country, with pristine landscapes, bountiful oceans and sheep running around the place. Although this may have been true in the past, and on the surface it might still be the case, if you dive just a little deeper you are fronted with the sad yet true information of fish dumping, invasive and destructive trawling practice, water pollution from land runoff, and deep sea mining encouragement, to name a few. I was struck with the odd sensation of wanting to protect our ‘clean green image’ to the international community however also feeling like a fraud if I did not share some of the negative impacts that are happening in NZ. I know we as New Zealanders do not want this happening to our amazing oceans, so why is it?? Thankfully there’s an election coming up… ;). We should be leaders in sustainability and as a clean pure environment. It is how we market ourselves and it is who we are.

The main point is to get educated, then make a change as it can be tangible. I will briefly outline two easy to uptake principles to feed into your lifestyle. Number one cut the waste!! If you reviewed after every day the amount of plastic waste that you threw away the results would be shocking. So much of it is easy to avoid. Get a reusable water bottle, don’t use plastic bags, stop buying products that contain microbeads and think before buying products that contain excessive packaging. Secondly think before buying a seafood product. Ask the supermarket where the fish has come from and whether it is being sustainably managed and fished. You can use this handy guide  (available as an app) to make better choices on the fish you buy. Next time you are picking up that tuna can ask yourself, is this really necessary, do I know where it has come from and how damaging the practice is to the fish stock and marine ecosystem. We as consumers actually have a lot more power then you might think. The market is driven by what we buy. Making the right choice is important and will make a difference.

I am making it one of my missions on return to try and educate and influence positive action as best as I can. We won’t always be perfect, and some things are out of our control, but anything is better than nothing :)  

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on June 18, 2017 and filed under UN Ocean Conference 2017.