The education of a wave

06/09/2016 12:15 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2017

Co-authored by Dr. Takeshi Takama, founder of su-re.co and professor at Udayana University.

Our friendship was an improbable one. Hailing from the United States and Japan, we were steeped in our respective countries' questions of environmental science and public policy some 7,000 miles apart. One of us had been sporting suits and heels in Washington, while the other nested amongst New Zealand's otherworldly landscapes.

In 2002, we each navigated transitions to the hallowed halls of academe in the Oxford University Centre for the Environment: rather than responding to hair-on-fire White House deadlines, days were paced out by heady lectures and tea times. Instead of seeing issues from an antipodean vantage point perched on the Pacific rim, life on the Greenwich meridian meant we were in the belly of a former colonial beast.

While the original chronometer and conventions maintained by British mariners in the 19th century were long-ago outstripped by the realities of the 21st century, it did not change the fact that we were following in the footsteps of global thinkers, challenged to simultaneously learn and question the ways of the world. In the very home of British geography, it was easy to imagine the adventures of intrepid explorers, from tweed-clad climbers summiting snowy peaks, to well-funded seafarers informing early cartographers' sketches.

We quickly learned "hic sunt dracones" - here be dragons! - was never actually written on maps, as we had hoped. It was, however, scrawled in 1510 on the now-famous Hunt-Lenox Globe. Nearby New College was founded in 1379, and the animal heads mounted on walls loomed simultaneously eerie and reminiscent of rich traditions established long before we found our way to the English grey and drizzle.

While those who came before us endeavored to make sense of the planet, efforts to understand bled quickly into conquering and taming. Diseases spread, and right-angled political boundaries were traced with scant respect for cultural and tribal realities.

Not unlike medieval monks, we discovered that while we might be in our new English world, we would never be of it. But that was okay. Wrestling with thorny challenges such as climate change, global health, and entrenched poverty requires fresh thinking from what international capitals' sage and silver-haired had been trying.

During our years on the Isis, as the Thames is called as it meanders through Oxfordshire, we tucked ourselves in libraries, we read, and we wrote. We debated big ideas over pints and port. While thankful for the opportunities to learn from those with far more experience than us, we also bristled at antiquated assumptions and hidebound tradition as we tackled our geography theses via evidence-based analyses driven by powerful geographic information systems.

Almost 15 years later, we write from O'ahu and Bali, wildly different isles from where we met in England. Despite spanning the Pacific, we find ourselves sharing similar paces and routines. Be they the daily sunrises and sunsets on opposite sides of the equator and International Date Line, or the surf alerts, our worlds are intricately connected to the natural world dictating its lessons to us.

NASA reports that the world's sea level has risen an average of three inches since 1992, with the Pacific Islands most acutely at-risk. The seas cover almost three-quarters of the planet and produce more than half our oxygen. The world's population is forecast to surpass nine billion by 2050, increasing global demand for wholesome food, clean water, housing, education, health care, and energy, all challenges exacerbated by a changing climate. Alarmists point to the risks of increasing economic inequalities and political unrest. Those committed to living sustainably must ensure that the needs and interests of future generations are safeguarded.

On this World Oceans Day, our lives continue far from the bells of Carfax Tower, chiming the daily pulse of academic life. Hōkūle'a's journey reminds us that the British Crown's claims to knowledge were abundant, but no one holds a monopoly on exploration and ingenuity. Today we find ourselves inspired by very different discoveries: tropical blooms, inquisitive lizards, sun-weathered neighbors' stories, and then some. Rather than publishing in academic journals, our efforts are the applied.

Informed by our books and databases, in addition to the paces and rhythms of our local tides, regular visits from the box jellyfish and birds, and fueled by tropical fruit, our current offices look and feel different from those we knew in the past - and they must. We may feel far away, but together we note huge swells for O'ahu's Banzai Pipeline and Maui's Jaws at Pe'ahi, recognizing the work of climate change. With the strongest El Niño in at least twenty years, the Balinese are witnessing strangely dry easterly winds in the middle of their rainy season. These winds are stellar for wave riders at Uluwatu, Kuta Beach, and Canggu - but injurious to local farmers and their livelihoods.

In his sweeping Pacific, Simon Winchester illustrates this ecological mindfulness and local ingenuity via the Hawaiian ahu'ula, a ceremonial cloak made of thousands of o'o bird feathers. Requiring years of patient work to collect the colorful feathers so as to not harm the elegant local birds, the capes were worn by Hawaiian chiefs and presented to visiting seafarers.

Society's folly has been in the arrogance of separating itself from the knowledge of the natural world. One need only look as far as Waimea Bay's ferocious waves for humbling reminders that we humans are tiny and eminently crushable. Living on the Ring of Fire offers frequent messages of vulnerability if we care to listen.

While the Hobbesians might assume the worst, we Lockeians have confidence in human ingenuity so long as we are willing to learn from our mistakes and assess lessons learned. Consider the Hawaiian notion of kuleana, the Jewish tikkun olam, Balinese tri hita karana, or the Japanese otagai sama. We take inspiration from universal ethics of responsibility, for acting kindly and mindfully to improve what we can in the world around us.

Be it a moving meditation during a sunrise surf session off the Island of the Gods coast or a sunset beach yoga practice at Magic Island, we find solutions precisely where formal education meets the daily lessons of the outdoor classroom.