- “The Ocean and Us,” edited by ocean advocate Farah Obaidullah, provides information from more than 35 female experts on various topics related to the ocean.
- These cover, among others, climate change, overfishing, pollution, ocean management schemes, the human relationship with the ocean, and inclusion and diversity in the ocean space.
- The book helps fulfill the aims of “ocean literacy,” a concept identified by the United Nations as a key driver for achieving the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development outcomes.
- “The Ocean and Us” was published by Springer Nature in February 2023.
Farah Obaidullah’s life has pivoted around the ocean. Growing up in Gabon and the Netherlands, she spent as much time as possible in or near the water, snorkeling, rescuing marine animals and picking up beach litter. As an adult, she spent a decade as an ocean campaigner for Greenpeace and later became an independent ocean advocate and founder of the NGO Women4Oceans.
Not everyone has been as immersed in the ocean as Obaidullah has. In fact, Obaidullah says one of the most common questions she’s encountered over her life has been this simple inquiry: how can I learn more about the ocean? But Obaidullah says she “struggled to find a single comprehensive resource” that people can use to learn more about the sea and our relationship with it.
“There are plenty of websites, there are plenty of NGOs and scientific papers, but no one resource where you can learn everything there is to learn, and where you don’t have to be a scientist to understand it,” Obaidullah tells Mongabay.
So Obaidullah decided to put together a resource herself. She gathered a team of experts from her Facebook group, Women4Oceans, which she started in 2016 before founding an NGO of the same name. She initially envisioned a series of essays on different aspects of the ocean, but quickly realized she was creating a book.
The resulting book, The Ocean and Us, published this year by Springer Nature, is a textbook-style resource with chapters written by more than 35 experts on topics such as climate change, overfishing, pollution, and ocean management schemes like marine protected areas and blue economy projects. There are also chapters on the human relationship with the ocean, such as the connection between the ocean and human health, and the ethical treatment of marine animals. The book also includes chapters that explore diversity and inclusion in the ocean space.
All contributing authors are female, which Obaidullah, editor of the collection, says was a deliberate choice, but not one she necessarily wanted to draw attention to.
“I don’t make a big deal about all the authors being female, and I don’t because it should be mainstream,” she says. “When you look at other textbooks, it doesn’t say these textbooks are written by men or by women, and often textbooks have been written by men. But we don’t take notice of that.”
In a foreword to The Ocean and Us, Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s former deputy prime minister and minister for the environment, says the book “provides almost all the necessary tools for anyone who wants to raise awareness about the ocean, or who simply wants to understand the problems at hand.” She also says the book enhances “ocean literacy.”
The term “ocean literacy,” coined in 2004, can be broadly defined as understanding the complexities and multifaceted nature of our relationship with the ocean. The United Nations recently identified ocean literacy as a key driver for achieving the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development outcomes. The Ocean Decade’s mission is “to catalyse transformative ocean science solutions for sustainable development, connecting people and our ocean.”
Obaidullah says she hopes The Ocean and Us can serve as a resource for people wanting to learn more about the ocean, including those already working in the space.
“You can’t know everything about everything,” she says. “If you’re working on, let’s say, illegal fishing, you might not know about the other dimensions of ocean conservation. Or similarly, if you’re working on climate and the ocean, you might not be so familiar with the issues surrounding overfishing or destructive fishing.”
She also says she hopes the book will combat common misconceptions about the ocean, such as the idea that the ocean will always be resilient to human impacts.
“There’s the idea that the ocean is this infinite resource of food, fish, and that we can dump anything into it,” Obaidullah says. “[T]hat has been debunked, already for a long time, but that perception lingers, and that’s why ocean literacy is so important.”
Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke to Obaidullah following the launch of The Ocean and Us in February 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: What was the motivation for putting this book together?
Farah Obaidullah: The Ocean and Us is the result of observations over many years, and people asking me where they could learn about the ocean and what they can do beyond actions to stop plastic pollution, which, until quite recently was one of the only ocean issues that people understood or that had gained any widespread public attention. I always struggled to find a single comprehensive resource that I could point people to. There are plenty of websites, there are plenty of NGOs and scientific papers, but no one resource where you can learn everything there is to learn, and where you don’t have to be a scientist to understand it. So I thought, “Well, we have this whole Women4Oceans network, so why don’t we ask experts to contribute a chapter about their area of work?” It started as a simple idea, but it quickly became quite an ambitious project.
Mongabay: What exactly is ocean literacy? And why do you think there is so little of it?
Farah Obaidullah: Even the term, “ocean literacy,” I think, is quite intimidating. It’s a relatively new term, meant to enhance our knowledge about the ocean across all aspects. It’s not just about textbook knowledge about the ocean but also about understanding our relationship with the ocean and how we’re connected with the ocean. We still lag so far behind in terms of general knowledge about the ocean, even though it’s 70% of our planet. Most school curriculums, even geography lessons, are still centered around what happens on land, and maybe what happens in the atmosphere, and now certainly around climate change and carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect — but it’s still very much not about the ocean. So I’m very happy that there is a term “ocean literacy.”
Mongabay: How did you decide what to put into the book?
Farah Obaidullah: I sat down with a few people from the Women4Oceans network to discuss what this book should cover. I already knew it had to cover basic issues such as climate change, fisheries and pollution. But I also wanted to go a bit further and explore less well-known topics that concern our oceans … for example, the aquarium trade, marine animal welfare, communities and the ocean, or tourism and the ocean. There were many more chapters that didn’t make the book because we couldn’t identify experts in time to contribute chapters. But it was about having a broad range of issues in the book, including the issues around social dimensions, whether that’s gender and the oceans or communities and the ocean. There are also chapters that try to explore and discuss how our identity affects the way that we can participate in the ocean space. That’s quite a new area of knowledge, where we recognize that our identity impacts how we can participate in this space, and whether that’s our gender or our cultural or ethnic background or any aspect of our identity, and, of course, the intersectionality around that.
Mongabay: Why do you only include female voices?
Farah Obaidullah: It was the most obvious choice because the Women4Oceans network is all women. I don’t make a big deal about all the authors being female, and I don’t because it should be mainstream. When you look at other textbooks, it doesn’t say these textbooks are written by men or by women, and often textbooks have been written by men. But we don’t take notice of that. It’s a deliberate choice. Obviously, I know many amazing men that could have contributed chapters, but I thought this would make the book unique, and I wanted to see how that would be received because there’s nothing like it.
Mongabay: Did you intend to produce a textbook, or did you have a different format in mind at first?
Farah Obaidullah: The concept evolved with time. When I first started this project, I knew I wanted something accessible, maybe short essays covering particular topics I would bundle together. And I wanted to make the resource available to everybody. I didn’t even think so far as publishers — I just wanted to put knowledge out into the world. But then, of course, as you start thinking through the steps required and get commitment from writers, you want to make it as universal and accessible, and far-reaching as possible. Then, you think, well, it should be a book, and if it’s a book, then you need a publisher. We thought about self-publishing, but whilst you have more ownership of the book with self-publishing, it’s also a lot more work. You also have less access to universities, libraries, and so on. So as I was approaching publishers, Springer Nature was keen to collaborate with me on this, and they are known for their textbooks.
I wanted it to be an easy-to-follow length but also with lots of illustrations so that the information could go beyond just words on paper. I also thought it was important to have each author highlighted or profiled in the book so that when you read it, you realize that these are just everyday people who made it their mission to learn about the ocean to become experts in their field, and that these people come from all different backgrounds … that you’re not born a scientist, you’re not born an expert. I think that human story inspires people who may think, “Hey, I can do this. I can be this person because this writer started where I am right now.”
Mongabay: How are you hoping The Ocean & Us will be used?
Farah Obaidullah: I’m hoping that it will provide a source of inspiration and information for people. I hope that schools and universities will embrace this book as a comprehensive resource, not just for people who have an interest in the ocean, but also people already working in the ocean space, because you can’t know everything about everything. If you’re working on, let’s say, illegal fishing, you might not know about the other dimensions of ocean conservation. Or similarly, if you’re working on climate and the ocean, you might not be so familiar with the issues surrounding overfishing or destructive fishing. It doesn’t pretend to cover everything; it just introduces you to a topic, provides further resources for reading or watching, and hopefully inspires people. And you don’t have to read the book chronologically — you can just decide, “Hey, today, I want to learn about the blue economy or about marine animal welfare.” And hopefully there will be a topic in there that triggers curiosity or triggers inspiration to either learn more or to take action, or maybe even to inform your career choices.
Mongabay: Are you aware of some schools already incorporating ocean literacy?
Farah Obaidullah: Yes, so I am also a consultant with the EU4Ocean coalition — a coalition that aims to enhance ocean literacy across the EU. And one of the pillars of that project is actually called the Blue Schools Network. This pillar has already collected a number of schools across Europe that want to be blue schools and incorporate ocean literacy into their curriculums. So there is this movement to enhance ocean literacy, which is great, but there are still very few resources out there to enable that. And so I hope this book will be a useful starting point for teachers.
Mongabay: What are some common misconceptions people have about the ocean?
Farah Obaidullah: Until recently, a common misconception has been that the ocean is so vast that we humans can do nothing to impact the ocean’s functions. There’s the idea that the ocean is this infinite resource of food, fish, and that we can dump anything into it. So we continue to dump waste — nuclear waste and all kinds of rubbish and, of course, the plastic that everybody knows about. Of course, that has been debunked, already for a long time, but that perception lingers, and that’s why ocean literacy is so important.
There’s also a misconception, or perhaps a sort of ignorance, about how much of our planet is made up of ocean. The ocean is basically our entire planet, but that still hasn’t registered with most people, unless you are privileged to spend time at sea.
Another misconception I have come across quite regularly is that the deep ocean or the ocean floor is devoid of life, that there’s nothing there. So, not that long ago, we were dumping oil rigs in the ocean, because people thought there was nothing at the bottom of the ocean and nothing that’s living there. That perception still carries through, which is why we’re now seeing this threat of deep-sea mining, potentially the next disaster facing our ocean, because there’s still this misconception about the life that lives in the deep ocean. The deep ocean is thriving with ancient life forms, and we still haven’t even mapped most of the ocean floor.
There’s also a misconception about fish and other marine life and the fact that people think fish don’t experience pain or experience emotions. But fish are just as complex as any other being. This is an important, lesser-known, misconception, but one we need to talk about.
Mongabay: What are the most pressing issues facing the ocean right now?
Farah Obaidullah: Obviously, climate change. Everybody hears about it all the time, and it sounds exhausting, but climate change is absolutely impacting our oceans — it’s causing them to warm, it’s causing them to acidify, it’s causing the oxygen content to decrease. And all of this is impacting life in the oceans, but also impacting the functions of the oceans — of its ability to buffer against the worst of climate change, its ability to absorb more heat, and so on. But another major threat is fishing, which, as our population increases, and as our appetite for seafood increases, we are expecting more and more of our food to come from the ocean. And there’s only so much we can take out of the oceans. At the moment, we’re taking out more than the ocean can replenish. So those are two major threats … and pollution is another threat.
If we allow deep-sea mining to go ahead, then we’re unleashing a new disaster, a new crisis, onto our oceans, of which the consequences are not fully understood. But we do know that deep-sea mining will cause irreversible damage to life in the deep ocean that is slow-growing, and therefore cannot regenerate on human time scales. And we know that the ocean is the world’s largest carbon sink, and that carbon is locked up in our seabed. So if we start to mess with the seafloor by putting these huge machines down there to start strip-mining the seafloor and disturbing the sediment there, then we don’t know what the consequences will be on the chemistry of the ocean, but also what it means in terms of the oceans’ ability, in the long run, to capture more carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists are warning that we should not start this industry before understanding, or should not start this industry at all.
Even though we are facing so much more diversity loss and the climate crisis and everything else, knowledge is power, and with this book, I hope we can turn things around.
Mongabay: What element of the ocean fascinates or inspires you the most?
Farah Obaidullah: It would have to be the mystery, because we simply don’t know very much about the oceans still to this day. Most of it is undiscovered; most species are undiscovered. And that adds to the awesomeness of the ocean, because there’s still so much to learn about it, and it’s so vast, and it’s so powerful.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Banner image: Farah Obaidullah holds a fish on a fishing boat. Image courtesy by Alex Hofford/Greenpeace.
McKinley, E., Burdon, D., & Shellock, R. J. (2023). The evolution of ocean literacy: A new framework for the United Nations Ocean Decade and beyond. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 186, 114467. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2022.114467