10/14/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2013


Globalization, like sustainability, is one of those contemporary terms that can define many, sometimes different explanations, policies, and actions. The more these words get used, the larger or more diffuse their inclusive meanings. At a recent maritime heritage meeting, a Swedish historian was discussing his definition of globalization, and asked the audience if we felt that this was only a modern phenomenon, not a function of history. A Dutch respondent stated emphatically no, it was not historical, it was instead a modern invention of technology and political circumstance. He was so certain.

But is he correct? It seems to me that globalization began the first time any intrepid sailor left the security of land for an unknown ocean destination, Phoenician, Viking, Polynesian, Asian, no matter where or when the reality of departure defined the expectation of arrival, even if there were only stars to guide the way. If the Phoenicians initiated what became ship borne trade routes, if the Vikings came ashore at L'Anse aux Meadows in the Americas, they and their global counterparts began the system of connection that now binds the continents and nations in a net of exchange and financial transaction that we call "globalization."

Are there other maritime tipping points that we can cite to counter our assertive Dutchman? Well, let's start with the very familiar steam engine, with its early application on the water and its ensuing revolution of ship technology and construction that exploited existing connection radically and transformed global capacity for types of products and volumes transported, underlies the dramatic expansion of immigration the world over, and transformed exploration and naval warfare into a resultant phenomenon called "empire."

A second maritime example is the undersea cable. Many people understand the facility of global communications to be a function of satellites, but in fact it is primarily sustained by yet another network, albeit invisible on the ocean floor, that connects the continents and has developed from early telephone connection to vast data transfer capacity that underlies up-to-the-minute information exchange, market trading, and internet-based communications such as email and social media.

A third example is global positioning technology, this time satellite based, but essential to modern marine navigation, location services for trade goods and shipping containers, and real-time recording of ocean data collection, sampling, research experiment, weather prediction, underwater exploration and mapping, and navigation of underwater vehicles be they submarines, research submersibles (manned or remotely operated), or free swimming drones or robots.

All these ocean-based functions are definite contributing factors over time to our globalized world. There are certainly other historical examples, just as there are new manifestations to come. What might we imagine for the future?

Here's a surprising thought to consider: unlike any other place on earth, a vast portion of the ocean remains outside the limits of national jurisdiction, the 15 to 200 mile territorial extension of proprietary rights that frequently overlap. The Mediterranean for example, is an impossible scribble of claims on maps and conflicting national policies that cry out for new forms of social communication, consensus agreement, jurisdictional negotiation, and successful tools for governance. The open ocean is less complicated, but as an enormous area, inclusive of a magnitude of political aspirations, natural resource values, and sources of conflict, remains nonetheless a unique and unresolved component of the globalizing world. Successful adjudication of this situation stands as an essential challenge to equitable resolution of the circumstances, demanding for success significant review and reconsideration of values and strategies different from the conventional approaches which have not even served the alongshore reality well.

We return to terminology, to globalization and sustainability. It does not necessarily follow that globalization is a counter-force to sustainability even if many might claim that the demanding integration of worldwide need for goods and services lies at the root of the apparently insatiable consumption-based attack on environmental conservation and sustainability on land and sea. But if, as we face the pressure of some final approach for governance of the ocean outside national jurisdiction, if we face this as an opportunity to rectify and define our response the value of the commons, then we may achieve yet another tipping point whereby maritime enterprise and ocean resources show us the way forward to a viable future.