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Editorial: trying to turn the tide

Humanity has long engaged with the mythological image of the opaque ocean through attempts at dominion, but we are now forced to plan for an imminent and uncertain future as the waters return to rise against us

We’ve come a long way since the days when the seabed was just a mysterious, otherworldly and impenetrable landscape. Today the ocean is a realm that can be visualised, studied down to its deepest trenches, and conquered. Publication of the first scientific maps of the ocean floor was a Herculean task involving data analysis, number crunching and sonar soundings, undertaken by geologists Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen in the pre-computer world of the 1940s. As she meticulously charted the measurements on the paper, a ‘blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibility’, Tharp remembers seeing ‘the whole world spread out’ before her. Uncovering rifts and valleys, volcanic ranges stretching for thousands of miles and mountain peaks taller than Everest, these maps depict empty and homogeneous landmasses surrounded by the complex topographic underworld of the ocean. As a reversal of the world as we know it, it portrays the ocean as a space of possibility. 

Underwater worlds, mythical drowned cities and flooded landscapes have long permeated the human imagination, inspired science fiction novels and films, and prompted designers to conceive of experimental and innovative structures, to project speculative scenarios and fantastical worlds. But today, the reality and the urgency of the situation have caught up with the fantasy. The post-apocalyptic future of JG Ballard’s Drowned World is here. The future is now, and the prognosis is terrifying. 

As the Earth becomes uninhabitable and the world as we know it starts to disintegrate, fundamental questions emerge. In this issue, Will McCallum asks ‘How do you design for future elemental attacks we have not yet conceived of; but also, on a metaphysical plane, how do you design for a future that has no respect for millennia of references upon which this discipline is built?’ Mitigation and adaptation are both required to apprehend the uncertainty. From the liquid char landscapes of the Bengal delta to the typhoon-prone coasts of the Philippines, architecture needs to learn to live with water, adapt to changing climates and become more resilient. These parts of the world are facing challenges that are only going to concern more of us tomorrow. 

Humanity’s relationship to the ocean oscillates between domination and defeat. The unstable ‘ocean’s skin’ is seen as a challenge by engineers and architects, fabricating impressively equipped and (almost) impeccably constructed artificial islands from the Middle East to the South China Sea. Yet the environmental implications and consequences of such ambitious reclamation projects reach far beyond the boundaries of their sites. The ocean is an intricately connected and complex ecological system. As Stefanie Hessler deplores in Outrage, the claims that the consequences of actions such as seabed mining are ‘far away’, both deep below the ocean and in geographically remote areas, are scandalous Eurocentric obfuscations, reminiscent of colonial narratives.

Control of the world’s oceans can be traced back to the era of European empire building. Today, the sea continues to be a laboratory of modern political space. The complex jurisdictional regimes of this seemingly uniform and lawless expanse are brought to life in Forensic Oceanography’s research into rescue operations in the Mediterranean, exposing several cases of non-assistance to migrants in distress, often with tragic consequences. 

As this issue goes to press, the world’s youth is going on strike in more than a hundred countries to protest against our politicians’ alarming incompetence at tackling the heightening ecological crisis. The solo protest of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg last September has escalated into a global movement, with slogans such as ‘sea levels are rising and so are we’ plastered on placards across continents. ‘Our relentless search for new trade, new energy, new leisure, new conflict is reflected in and extended to the sea’, argues Philip Hoare in the keynote essay. By dissociating local actions from their global impact, we fail to find solutions. But, as Hoare warns us, ‘truth is the ocean has never been under our control, and our future is threatened by the fact that it is now rising against us’.

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today