Millennials Rise on Earth Day to keep Marine Life Afloat

05/05/2017 04:22 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2017

Update: I have left the Sustainable Oceans Alliance to work on applications of emerging tech (Blockchain, smart contracts, Big Data, etc) to ocean conservation.

This Earth Day, April 22nd, the Sustainable Oceans Alliance held its third Annual Sustainable Oceans Summit, with a theme of making the ocean “famous.” The event drew hundreds of participants and was live-streamed through a generous grant from the Walton Foundation. Viewers tuned in live from Peru to South Africa.

The Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA) and McCourt E&E held the event to highlight the importance of healthy oceans to all life on Earth. On Earth day, the Summit aimed to #MakeTheOceanFamous to highlight the importance of the ocean on our blue planet. Most of Earth’s surface is covered by water, and the biogeochemical cycles that produce oxygen, store carbon, regulate climate and sustain life on Earth depend on a fragile ecological balance in the ocean that teeters on the edge.

The Summit’s social media campaign using #MakeTheOceanFamous was amplified over 500 times Saturday, including tweets from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the UN Office of Projects and Services, Conservation International and the XPrize Foundation among others. Tweets using #MakeTheOceanFamous reached an audience of 1.32 Million Twitter users.

Summit speakers focused on raising awareness and emphasizing solutions. While the situation of the oceans is dire, speakers and participants did not dwell on problems; rather, they highlighted solutions and reasons for hope. The idea that we can restore the ocean was a common thread throughout the program.

Dr. Greg Stone’s talk discussed the upcoming technology revolution and its promise to solve complex conservation challenges. He took participants through ancient history, to the ocean’s situation today, making the case that young people and new technology can drive an ocean renaissance. The ocean renaissance could both bring life back into the ocean, and reconnect humanity to the sea. "You can find evidence of humans in the ocean since the 200,000 year mark" Dr. Stone said, underscoring the deep connection we have to oceans, “The ocean saved us hundreds of years ago and it has to save us again.”

National Geographic Explorer Dr. Enric Sala illustrated the regenerative ability of the ocean, using the example of a marine reserve in the Mediterranean. An area of only 1 square km has been protected in the Islas Medes reserve for 20 years. It now contains marine life no longer found in most of the Mediterranean. No-take marine reserves allow the ocean to replenish itself, and contain greater biodiversity and larger animals than surrounding waters. “When you don’t take out the fish, they take longer to die” Sala noted with a chuckle.

Asked by a student interviewer for a word to describe the future of the ocean, Sala spoke about the ocean’s wonders, but then noted that the words danger and urgency describe the present of the ocean due to “too much fishing, pollution, [and] climate change”. He went on “But the future of the ocean, I’d leave a question mark, without a word. Because that word depends on what you guys push the world to do.”

Maggie Thompson, the Executive Director of Generation Progress echoed Sala’s call to action powerfully, emphasizing the potential for meaningful change through engagement. Speaking about Millennials on ocean issues and climate change, Thompson said: “We’ve got numbers on our side…we have a body of peers that’s coming up. And if we engage them and mobilize them on this issue… we are going to be incredibly powerful.”

Millennials are heeding the call and taking action to change the status quo. One participant, A student who traveled from New York to attend the summit, left inspired to make a difference. She is nearing the end of her studies in civil engineering at Columbia this May, but wants her engineering program to incorporate sustainability. “I realized there are so many threats; and yet we’re not considering these in design or in the education of the next generation of architects.”

After the summit, she reached our to her program’s Department Chair at Columbia and has had discussions on how to incorporate sustainable design principles in Columbia’s civil engineering program. She was particularly inspired by the breakout session led by William McDonough on Cradle to Cradle design, where he underscored the principles of a circular economy and the urgency of adopting that model, noting the toxic effect dominant economic models have on human health and the environment. “We have targets to do less bad, but doing less of something bad doesn’t connote doing good.” McDonough noted.

Another group of Georgetown students featured at the Summit is developing technology to prevent plastic microfibers from flowing from washing machines into our waterways and the sea.

In the afternoon, speakers focused the power of creative thinking, technology, and innovation to solve previously intractable issues. Julia Roberson, VP of Communications for the Ocean Conservancy walked through a strategy for communicating the threat of ocean acidification, as the audience took notes furiously to record her insights.

The afternoon program also included a panel on the Future of Sustainability and Innovation in the Private Sector moderated by Matt McGuire, former U.S. Executive Director of the World Bank. The Director of UNOPS, Grete Faremo, Head of Citi Environmental Finance Michael Eckhart, CEO of Playmob Jude Ower, and founder of We Are The Oceans (WATO) Daisy Kendrick discussed opportunities for innovation, tech and creative thinking to create a sustainable future. Eckhart and McGuire discussed restructuring finance to enable sustainability, sharing insights that Faremo echoed: "It's about sharing risk to develop solutions that give better results."

WATO Founder Daisy Kendrick and WATO advisor Jude Ower described their strategy to engage on oceans. “We are the most connected generation in history” Kendrick noted, but “First we need to educate and today we are doing that through gaming.” Ower has been critical to the development of gaming as part of WATO’s engagement strategy, bringing experience and insight to the table as founder and CEO of Playmob, a gaming company which aims to raise $1 Bn for charitable causes.

At the summit, WATO launched its new game “The Big Catch” which features an endangered Vaquita porpoise cleaning up the ocean. WATO, UNOPS, and SOA hope that in addition to helping reduce plastic use, the game might also help save this critically endangered species—of which fewer than 30 individuals are left in the wild. The game is part of a larger push to bring youth into the fray on ocean issues, an interest that SOA, WATO, and UNOPS share. "We need to bring youth on board, leverage partnerships & push for inclusion to preserve oceans” Grete Faremo noted, “This is about not leaving anyone behind.”

The final keynote of the Summit started on a sober note, describing the ocean today as “unhealthy, unappreciated and unknown.” But Dr. Paul Bunje, the Chief Scientist of the XPrize Foundation believes it doesn’t have to be this way. “If we embrace exponentials, pay for success, and empower the crowd, the ocean can become healthy, appreciated, and understood.”

“This is what SOA is about” Daniela Fernandez, founder of SOA said, “enabling innovation and youth involvement to change the status quo. We’re growing SOA to make these issues mainstream concerns—because our survival depends on it. The world needs youth to rise up.” Change could not come soon enough to save oceans, struggling to keep life afloat. Gladly, hundreds of millennials signed up to the fight on Earth Day.

Sebastian Nicholls is the Program Director of the Sustainable Oceans Alliancea global organization that empowers the next generation to become leaders in preserving the health and sustainability of our ocean. He also serves on the Board of Charge Across Town, a California nonprofit that promotes the adoption of electric vehicles and EV infrastructure in order to mitigate climate change.

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