Ocean of Life

Bookshelf: Ocean of Life

Ocean of Life – Callum Roberts

Ocean of Life
Ocean of Life

This book is both deeply alarming and relentlessly optimistic. Its author, Callum Roberts, is a professor of marine conservation. He is able to see with clear eyes the damage that we have done to the world’s oceans, but also believes that science has the tools at hand to halt the decline. His optimism is not shared by all of his scientific colleagues, but it makes it bearable to read books like this and gives one a sense that it is still possible to be a positive force for the sea as a private individual. Despite the deliberate tone of optimism and hope, Ocean of Life is a very frightening book.

Roberts’s prior book was of The Unnatural History of the Sea, which explained the extent to which, over the last 1,000 years, humans have been modifying ocean ecosystems by harvesting marine life – to excess. I found it devastating. This book is concerned with other ways in which humans have been tinkering with the sea in addition to overfishing, including but not limited to climate change, industrial pollution, plastic debris, and noise from ships and from other human activities. Huge dead zones from fertiliser runoff and ocean acidification make some parts of the sea an outright hostile place to life.

Not only have we removed countless animals from the sea and added pollutants, but we have also adjusted ocean currents and moved species from one location to others – the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic is an example. Roberts lauds the efforts by recreational divers to control the invasion that are portrayed in Carl Safina’s Saving the Ocean series, but admits that they are ultimately futile except on individual reefs, and lionfish are in the Atlantic for the long haul.

Unlike Paul Greenberg, Roberts believes that initiatives such as SASSI, which encourage consumers to make sustainable seafood choices when shopping and eating out, have value, and he encourages the conservation-minded reader to explore them. He also provides a long list of excellent marine conservation organisations which one can support financially in order to make a difference to the decline of the oceans; he has worked with all of the ones he lists except for Sea Shepherd, and I’d suggest you support those. With the shambles of poseurs mixed in with legitimate conservation organisations, it is sometimes hard for the public to discern who’s a charlatan only interested in raising their own profile, and who’s actually spending the donated funds on conservation strategies that effect change. I’d love to see some guidance on this from a South African perspective – the ratio of fluff to substance here seems very high!

There are excellent reviews of Ocean of Life by the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Independent. The Economist has an interview with Roberts online, too.

You can get a copy here and here (for overseas readers) or here and here (if you’re in South Africa). The book has appeared under the titles Ocean of Life (in the UK, I suspect) and The Ocean of Life (in the US).

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.