Our survival depends upon our ocean. It provides half the oxygen we breathe, and helps to feed nearly half the planet. It regulates our climate. It makes our “blue planet” unique. Still, so many of us take it for granted and exploit this irreplaceable resource, from dumping millions of pounds of plastic into it every day to devastating our food supply through overfishing. As an engineer on Tidal, X’s project to protect the ocean and help feed humanity sustainably, I’m deeply passionate about the future of the ocean. How can we act now to restore the ocean’s health for generations? Perhaps we can all learn from the examples of others who sought to bring about small changes that became much bigger.
Pioneering scientist Dr. Julia Platt — an underappreciated embryologist, neurobiologist, and politician — is one of my favorite examples. In the early 1900s, waste from Monterey's canneries was polluting the area's waters and poisoning the local ecosystem. Dr. Platt began by tearing down a fence that violated the town’s charter because it blocked public access to the beach. She then fought to establish a small, protected pocket of the coastline as a refuge for marine life, helping its marine ecosystems recover from overfishing and pollution. While she didn’t succeed against the canning industry, her work set a legal precedent to protect and conserve California’s coast. Monterey is now known for its natural beauty. I often go diving there on weekends: its kelp forests are teeming with otters, and humpback whales frolic nearby. I wonder if Dr. Platt imagined future generations enjoying Monterey’s pristine waters, no longer needing to dodge waste from the canneries.
Everywhere we look, we can see the results of small actions building up to make huge differences. The very first Earth Day, fifty years ago, was a reaction to an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California — at the time, the worst oil spill in American history. More than 20 million Americans, then roughly 10% of the country’s population, participated in teach-ins and gatherings. It led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and a series of policy improvements to protect our waters and planet.
It might seem more difficult today, particularly in these tough times — but if we just look, there’s the results of small actions everywhere, too. From a single school strike, Greta Thunberg’s climate campaign has mobilized a new generation of climate activists. We’ve seen incredible stories of creativity and ingenuity come from people all around the world fighting COVID-19. I only recently read about Selina Juul, the “Food Waste Fighter,” who emigrated from Russia to Denmark at 13, and was shocked by their food waste. She’s since been credited by the Danish government with single-handedly helping the country reduce its food waste by 25% in the last five years.
When it comes to the world around us, change happens over much longer timeframes and more slowly than we would like — especially in the face of problems that seem so dire. It’s easy to get discouraged, but that’s exactly when we need to be most determined. I’m inspired to see how people have all made a big impact in their own way, starting with a locked fence, or a teach-in, or a school strike. As the paper in Nature put it: “Rebuilding marine life represents a doable Grand Challenge for humanity, an ethical obligation, and a smart economic objective to achieve a sustainable future.” Let’s each do what we can, no matter how little it might seem.