Oceans back from the brink - May 2070
This is a transcript of a public talk by Professor Michelle Ching who shares her story of the world before Tethys and the formation of the Ocean Stewardship foundation of which she is the director. Professor Ching holds the endowed chair for Ocean Sustainability at the University of Macau and, in 2061, was appointed Earth Ambassador for Ocean Life.
Thank you for inviting me to hold my talk today! It is truly a great honour for me to be here, to share my humble story with you.
During my childhood, I had one dream – to swim in the ocean and look beneath the waves. I grew up on the coast of Macau, very close to Guangdong province in South China. So, a dip in the ocean should have been easy, right? Sadly, no. The coastline near where I lived was so polluted that even if my parents would have let me swim, which they didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to see through the murk.
So, I would sit by the water and imagine what adventures could be waiting out on the high seas. I would ignore the stink of the pollution, the sight of the watery slime, with no more fish populations. I would imagine myself as a queen of the oceans, clearing away pollution and making it possible to fish, swim and just float on the waves. I had good reason to have such ambition, since my family comes from ‘oceanic royalty’…in a manner of speaking.
In my family we have always had strong women. But I was very curious about one particular woman. One of my ancestors…My family didn’t openly talk about her. They were…ashamed…what other people would think. But sometimes, if my ‘poupou’ was in the right mood, she used to tell the story of my Hǎidào nǎinai - my pirate grandmother - Ching Shih. I was truly in love with her adventures and her ability to lead others to do great things. Historians though, they were less charmed.
In the 1800’s, Ching Shih was the scourge of the South China Sea. She was considered a thorn in the side of the Qing Dynasty, and also the Portuguese and British navies. So you can probably understand why it was a family secret. My family was embarrassed to have such a notorious character in our history. But to me, something about her has always been fascinating. It was her rebellious nature and strength as a leader that inspired me. I like to think that the same audacious spirit that guided Ching Shih has helped us to bring the oceans back from the brink.
If you had asked me back when I finished graduate school if I thought I would be standing here in 2070 and telling you about how we saved the oceans, I would not have taken you seriously. I would have expected to be standing here speechless at the tragedy that was our desolate and devastated seas, the seas of my childhood. But, against all odds, that is not why I am here today.
It all started with Lovelace – an outstanding innovation in artificial intelligence. Lovelace was based on a neural network created by a wily collective of hackers and whistle-blowers but very soon supported by tech companies, progressive governments, and ordinary citizens from 100 countries. Lovelace ripped through corporate empires and their shell companies within shell companies within shell companies exposing their rotting cores, one by one. For the first time the world had fulfilled the promise of big data in support of citizenship. Lovelace achieved the improbable, near total transparency of information. No one knew what to expect next…
Heads rolled, for sure. But the heads kept rolling – governments fell, multinational corporations buckled, and international banking organisations froze then collapsed. As one world died, something altogether different emerged in its place.
Unexpectedly, the chaos created a gap in power structures and unprecedented motive for collective action. In a massive boost of empowerment, bottom-up efforts around the world sprang up to tackle social and environmental issues. The global commons became common to all – user rights to knowledge, oceans, ice sheets, rainforests, microbial resistance, became every child’s birthright. You all know this story now. Out of this, a campaign unlike any in history emerged to tackle the biggest tragedy of the global commons - our seas. So here I am to share a handful of these amazing stories.
First off, BOFFFF…I like this acronym very much - BOFFFF! Would you not agree that it sounds great? Let me explain for you - it stands for – Big, Old, Fat, Fertile, Female Fish. And what does this mean? Many people realised the key role that BOFFFs play in fish populations and so we avoided killing them all with the help of genetic tagging and digital tracking. We tagged so many of them that you can still go online and adopt a BOFFFF and sponsor her. A global effort involving the commercial fishing industry, scientists, and ordinary citizens was put in place to find and create refuges for these fish and their habitats. The next step was the expansion, digitisation and open sourcing of the Global Marine Genome Biodiversity Network (GMGDN) – I do not like this as much as BOFFFF. A loose network of conservation biologists, geneticists, and amateur bio-hackers use this platform to undertake collaborative genetic engineering efforts, which have boosted the ability of populations of important marine species to adapt to changing oceanic conditions.
Secondly, ‘Coral Bots!’ - I first learned about them when I was in secondary school and thought they were marvellous. These swarm robots work autonomously and in concert with one another, using a set of algorithms similar to the group behaviours that that govern schools of fish and murmurations of starlings. Now, millions of these little machines chip away at the Pacific garbage patch which is no longer great, It is now almost entirely gone. They have continued to advance and they now can suck up micro plastics, treat sewage and filter out dangerous chemicals. Better yet, using cutting edge chemical engineering, they can also mimic the behaviour of algae, and sequester carbon out of the atmosphere as calcium carbonate. This helps to combat ocean acidification, and renew the creation of coral communities.
Lovelace was just the beginning. The moment that changed everything came a few years later. I woke up early one morning and checked my messages. One jumped out.
Hello. I am Tethys. How can I help?
We all remember the first time we connected with Tethys, right? There is really only - before Tethys and after Tethys. Young people here today cannot even imagine life before Tethys. Anyway, for your benefit this was my first interaction with our artificial super intelligence. You know, I thought I was rather special. Later that day I realised that a couple of billion people had received the same message…
The birth of Tethys… birth…is that the right word? Anyway, her help led directly to the formation of the Ocean Stewardship Foundation. Without her, it I mean, I think of Tethys as her…it would probably never have happened. People from all around the world sharing knowledge, experiences, gene stocks, management techniques, all facilitated and supercharged by Tethys. This was helped by the introduction of the eco-currency, EarthCoin and the cooperative eco-investment fund, GAIA. Every one here had their GAIA account credited with 100,000 Earthcoins the day you were born if you were lucky enough to be born after 2050. Together these financial innovations gave a huge boost to the entrepreneurial communities. They helped connect grassroots activities enabling people to work directly with one another, albeit from opposite sides of the planet, on restoring nature and securing their own wellbeing all with the support and assistance of Tethys. If you harmed Earth, you harmed yourself.
I am now director of the Ocean Stewardship Foundation. To my own surprise, I oversee a small fleet of ocean-going vessels much like Ching Shih…. except my boats do not have cannons! I like to call this my Blue Flag Fleet, rejuvenating the seven seas. Jointly funded by everyone on earth, the foundation is housed in a state-of-the-art floating campus, spending most of the year somewhere in the South China Sea…but we are able to move around as we hold seminar series, conferences and other events across the region.
When my rebellious side takes over, I like to think about my distant ancestor, the pirate queen Ching Shih. She was one of the most successful pirates in human history. When she retired, she had the audacity to keep what she and her crew had plundered. No, she was not a good person. However, she was a brave, singular and remarkable one. To bring the oceans back from the brink of disaster as we have done, we have called upon our own pirate spirit - our bravery, audaciousness, and vision – and rather than plunder the oceans, today, we can stand and look with wonder at the good we have achieved together.
Thank you everyone.
The text of this story is the copyright of Dr. Andrew Merrie. All images are copyright of Simon Stålenhag and reproduced with permission. The music is the copyright of K. La Luna.