By Chris Mcowen, Lead Marine Scientist, UN Environment Programme World Conservation Centre (UNEP-WCMC)
Does life categorise itself as marine, terrestrial or freshwater, or do we make these decisions? When you have a meal of fish, potato and watercress are you eating a meal of marine, terrestrial and freshwater foods or simply food? Do you power your home with marine or land-based energy or just energy?
These questions may seem facile, but they invite us to consider the implications of a basic human urge: the desire to categorise.
As humans we categorise and box things into ever smaller pieces. We have evolved to do this: it helps us to make sense of the world. But what do we miss by thinking this way?
If we restrict our thinking to neat little boxes within boxes in ever growing silos, we must think around them in sharp right angles. Flow becomes restricted and things fall through the gaps.
Nature doesn’t fit into boxes or categories, and neither do the threats it faces. Everything in nature is connected, fluid and dynamic, and our thinking needs to reflect this if we are to halt biodiversity loss and tackle associated challenges such as climate change, food security, energy production and human wellbeing.
To achieve transformative solutions, we need to take a cue from the very things we are trying to protect. Breaking free from boxes can grow innovation and open new pathways to meaningful solutions.
The need for a change in mindset is particularly relevant to how we think about and manage the coastal zone. The dynamic nature of the coastal zone does not fit neat categorisation. Biodiversity, people, the food we eat, the energy we consume and the waste we produce crosses back and forth across the land-sea ‘boundary’ repeatedly, sometimes coming to rest a few metres away or moving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres in-land or out to sea. Green is sometimes blue, and blue is sometimes green.
We should ask then why it is that our policy responses, management structures and scientific disciplines are complicating the challenges we face in conservation by thinking in terms of green or blue, or using terminology like ‘land-sea divide’.
We are asking that question at UNEP-WCMC; we are keen to explore and overcome these boundaries as we seek to halt the destruction and degradation of life in the world’s coastal zones. We are not starting from a blank slate: decades of thought have developed and shown the benefits of approaches that manage the coastal zone in an integrated manner.
However, we can go still further. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to just blue or green economies, marine or terrestrial protected areas, land-based or ocean-based threats or food, energy or transport systems. We need integrative solutions that complement each other and are bigger than the sum of their parts, underpinned by knowledge sharing across systems, not just up to the point where things become wet or dry.
To enable this transition we need meaningful collaboration and connectivity: between terrestrial, marine and freshwater scientists, institutions and data; between different sectors and government departments; between local, national, regional and international strategies– we need to think outside of all those boxes.
Approaching challenges with a fluid and dynamic philosophy is key to transforming our relationship with the coastal zone.
Of course, it will not be easy. It will require a shift in mindset and in the status-quo. However, even tentative steps in this direction have the potential to generate long-lasting rewards. Sustainably managing the entire coastal zone can help address major drivers of biodiversity loss such as habitat degradation, invasive species, disease, pollution, climate change and exploitation.
This isn’t something we can achieve on our own, nor do we want to - that again halts the flow of ideas. Strength and progress come from diversity of opinions, experiences and skills. In the same way that everyone deserves to benefit from and enjoy the coastal zone, everyone has a role to play in its safeguarding. Not the land and the sea, not the blue, not the green, just the messy, undefinable beauty of the coastal zone.