Why We Need New Stories About the Ocean
Natalie Hart on the Urgency of Literature That Brings the Ocean into the Climate Story
I rarely enjoy reading fiction about the ocean. I write this despite working in marine protection; despite being an author and an avid reader; and despite loving being in, on and around the sea. I write this because often, as I am reading, I worry that our stories about the sea might be doing it (and us) more harm than good.
We know that stories are a fundamental part of how we understand the world around us and our place in it. Culture and entertainment can generate huge cultural shifts. In the field of ocean work, practitioners still refer to the “Blue Planet effect” to describe the transformative effect the BBC documentary had on public engagement and subsequent campaigns against single use plastics. The controversial Seaspiracy on Netflix generated extensive debate and dialogue on supposedly “sustainable” seafood. And it wasn’t until watching My Octopus Teacher that I, an individual fully immersed in ocean issues, finally removed cephalopods from my diet (adios, delicious calamari rings).
Stories can open our imagination, create empathy and connection, and generate shifts in public perceptions and behaviours that lead to real actions that change the world. But it is possible to get stuck inside stories too. The wrong stories, old stories and too few stories can restrict us, limit our understanding and imagination, and hem us in.We need new depictions of the ocean, new stories, told by many different voices in many different ways.
As both an author and a strategic communications advisor on ocean issues, I feel a tension between considering the creation of a story and its impact. As a writer, my focus is all on the prose. If I think about the reader too much, and how the story will be received, I feel paralyzed. The need to keep both the inner and outer critic’s voice out of your head while creating is widely shared writerly wisdom.
But as a communicator my focus is entirely on the reader, or audience more broadly. We design each story, piece of content and campaign, around the impact we need to inspire action. We focus entirely on what our words will make someone think, feel and subsequently do.
At times, those two perspectives can feel in collision course with one another. It is this collision that makes reading ocean fiction such a friction-filled experience for me.
Unlike climate fiction, which can be considered a comparatively recent emergence, literature about or around the sea is nothing new. The ocean has inspired artists for generations, as both a subject and setting. British literature, with our seafaring and maritime history, has long romanticised the ocean. Storms ravage seafarers. The depths conceal monsters.
The extreme vastness of the waterscape creates a simultaneous liberation and isolation so intense that man (because let’s face it, it usually is men) must confront not only nature, but the depths of himself. The ocean is a perfect setting for increasing threat, stakes and tension. But from an environmental perspective, what impact does this have on us as readers? Is the portrayal of the ocean as dark, dangerous and unknowable also a barrier to engaging the public on what a complex and fragile place it can be?
Many stories emphasize the scale of the ocean, and this often translates to a sort of “untouchability” in the minds of the reader. The ocean is considered so big that human activity could not possibly have any real impact. This trope is so pervasive that it even saturates the English language. We talk about something being “just a drop in the ocean” to describe a lack of impact. We buoy up friends facing romantic travails by reassuring them that there are “plenty more fish in the sea.” But lots of drops in the ocean do add up. And there will not be plenty more fish in the sea if illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing continue. As ocean protection royalty the scientist and explorer Sylvia Earle frequently warns, the ocean is “not too big to fail.”
This concept of scale also contributes to a common misunderstanding of the ocean as unchanging, a sense that it always has and always will exist in an unaltered form. In fact, the ocean is changing rapidly. The water is heating up, becoming more acidic, declining in oxygen levels. The sea is even changing color. But just as the health of the ocean can decline, it can also recover. The establishment of more and better marine protected areas, ensuring sustainable and resilient seafood supplies, and an overall reduction in carbon emissions will all have a huge beneficial impact on ocean health.
Some depictions of the ocean exacerbate a feeling that the sea is something remote, far away and detached from our everyday lives. It can reinforce a sense that the wellbeing of the ocean and our own wellbeing as humans is entirely disconnected, which is also far from the truth.
Despite the obstacles that some depictions of the ocean might pose for public engagement on environmental issues, there is great value in ocean stories. They have the potential to create an emotional connection between the reader and the sea. People are more likely to want to protect what they love and value, and books can provide a connection to the ocean. Behavioral science has repeatedly shown the fallacy of the information deficit model—the idea that simply giving people the information they need will create the motivation required to change behavior. We need emotional drivers too.
Ocean literature is, of course, not a static entity. Like the ocean, it is a landscape that has evolved in response to the conditions around it, and there is a growing body of literature showcasing the changing nature of the ocean and the multitude of ways that human activity can affect ocean health.
Non-fiction and memoir appear to have evolved with the realities of the ocean at a rate faster than fiction, perhaps because the authors are writing to explicitly address these issues or come from professional arenas that mean they are up to date. Science writer Sabrina Imbler wrote a highly compelling blend of memoir and marine biology, exploring their life through the lens of sea creatures in their book How Far the Light Reaches. In Spring Tides, marine biologist Fiona Gell tells the story of creating the first marine nature reserve on the Isle of Man, where her family have lived for generations.
Fiction about the ocean is particularly good at doing what at times ocean advocates are not – placing people at the centre of the story. Wyl Menmuir’s The Many shows a community of fishermen pulling strange fish from a contaminated sea. Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea blends gothic and horror with the backdrop of a deep sea research mission. Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch centers on the love affair between a fisherman and a mermaid.
Much ocean-, island- or coastally located fiction showcases human connection and interaction with the ocean, whether as part of the backdrop or plot. In environmental circles there can be a risk of overfocus on the ocean as an environment or ecosystem, without showing the multitude of ways it connects to human experience. It is ultimately human wellbeing, after all, that is such a driver for so many of us who work on environmental protection.
Finally, ocean-featuring books can also bring ocean-related issues to a wide variety of new readerships, or what we might consider in communication terms to be “unengaged audiences.” This for me is one of the key differences that separates ocean and climate fiction. While climate fiction is likely to attract a readership already predisposed to some level of environmental interest, the ocean is simply a setting. A landscape. People can come to books that feature the sea, with no motivation to understand the ocean at all, but they can learn or feel something about the sea through the process of reading. And perhaps these people that we don’t normally reach are the most important of all.
The ocean is already playing a massive role in protecting us from the worst impacts of the climate crisis. It is the world’s biggest carbon sink, covering 70 percent of the planet’s surface and comprising around 91 percent of livable space. The ocean has absorbed around 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and even captured 90 percent of the excess heat generated by fossil fuel burning. This absorption has not been without cost to the ocean, there is much that can be done to ensure that the ocean sustains the biological and physical processes necessary to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere.
We can protect blue carbon ecosystems, establish more and better marine protected areas, even just keeping enough fish in the sea contributes to the ocean’s ability to store carbon. We can avoid industries that risk disturbing existing carbon stores, such as deep sea mining, and we can be wary of industries seeking to use geoengineering approaches to artificially carbon-load the ocean.
It isn’t just literature that has so far fallen short of incorporating the potential of the ocean into the climate story. For the first two weeks global leaders have been meeting at COP28, the annual UN Climate Conference, discussing how to address the climate crisis and limit its impact. I have been here, speaking about how to communicate on the ocean more effectively. It wasn’t until COP26, just two years ago, that an annual ocean-climate dialogue was established in the Glasgow Climate Pact, formally anchoring the ocean in the climate negotiation process and encouraging countries to integrate and strengthen ocean-based activities in their work plans to address the climate crisis.
Stories affect how we see the world, but also how the world works. Some stories are shaped by the world around them, while others drive change and help shape that world. We need new depictions of the ocean, new stories, told by many different voices in many different ways. If an awareness of the role that the ocean plays in mitigating the climate crisis is not part of the public consciousness, how can people be expected to advocate for it? In a landscape where hope and solutions can feel hard to come by, new ocean stories can provide us with both.