Ed Ricketts and Oceans

I am inspired in both my marine ecology research and in this current endeavor by the philosophies of marine ecologist Ed Ricketts (I highly recommend here the excellent biography “Beyond the Outer Shores” by Eric Enno Tamm).

His overall sense of holism—developed in part through his friendships with John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell—is obviously relevant to EBM. We continually see statements to the effect that, “managing oceans is about managing people” and to the extent that humans not exert considerable control over ecosystem processes (see Vitousek et al. 1997) this seems to make sense. Ricketts also espoused “non-teleological” thinking, which forces us to focus on what “is”, rather than what “should” be. This philosophy cuts both ways in the EBM debate. On the one hand, EBM is in large part about what we “should” do with oceans—all of its tenets (e.g., including people in decision making, thinking about connections between biological and physical processes, taking a precautionary approach) are fairly intuitive, and thus we “should” do them. But the most thoughtful discussions of EBM recognize the importance of what “is” actually happening in our management bodies, our political bodies and the oceans themselves. Thus, my contributions to this website will usually challenge research as to how much it has considered the “is” part of ecosystem based management—do we have the knowledge, the organization and the budgets to do this? Finally, Ricketts spent much of his last years elucidating a philosophy of “breaking through”, which centered around experiencing radical progress toward enlightenment following a deep crisis. I would argue that oceans are in that crisis period. However, whether EBM becomes the vehicle to help us “break through” into more sustainable use of ocean resources will depend on how thoughtful and efficient we are in its implementation.

In summary, three principles of marine ecologist Ed Ricketts can guide us as we continue our work to protect the oceans:

  • Holism: human systems, socioeconomic systems and natural systems are all linked. Best summed up in Ricketts’ statement, “ecology has a synonym which is ALL”.
    • A natural driver of ecosystem-based thinking
  • Non-teleological philosophy, “IS” thinking vs. “should” thinking. Things that are actually happening can drive further progress.
    • Using regional case studies is a great driver
    • We need to measure progress on the water – how things are actually changing, rather than measuring success in the passage of legislation or good press (these “should” lead to better oceans, but it’s not certain until there “is” more fish in the sea, healthy coral reefs and rich tidepools).
  • Breaking through, coming out of a time of crises to “break through” to a more enlightened place
    • We are in a crisis with the world’s oceans – we should see this as an opportunity
    • Ricketts believed a “break through” could be achieved when opposing parties come to the table with an honest intent to reach a solution, even as they hold on to their core principles.
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