Reimagining how we work with the oceans.

Rebecca Sykes
6 min readJan 4, 2021
Source: Andrew Spencer

To meet a number of the sustainable development goals, many look to the ocean as an “untapped resource”. In 2012, the European Commission saw the potential of Europe’s oceans, seas and coasts as a source of potential for jobs and growth:

“we are increasingly aware that land and freshwater are finite resources. Further clearing of forests or draining of wetland will deprive future generations of the benefits they provide. We need to look how the 71% of the planet that is ocean can deliver human necessities such as food and energy in a way that is more sustainable. Meeting environmental targets can also be a source of innovation and growth.”

The intention to feed, clothe, house, educate and provide human necessities is morally just. Yet, while sustainable might philosophically mean to perpetuate ad infinitum, it has come to be practiced as ‘not doing quite so much damage as we were last year, quarter…’. Sustainable development is therefore a concept under debate. It assumes that we are in a position to use what we want from ecosystems (or earth systems) as long as their capital exists for use by future generations of humans. The debate over the interpretation of this concept continues in many areas, e.g. what capital might future humans need? Considering our experience with the global pandemic, we can perhaps see more clearly that we cannot be considered good judges of what situations future generations will encounter.

The ocean makes the Earth habitable for all life, yet we have already caused substantial damage to the marine environment through activities on land and in the oceans: through CO2 emissions, chemical pollution, clearing of shorelines, overfishing and plastic pollution. These are outcomes of us meeting our needs through social, economic, technical and governance systems, where we are often happily ignorant, or intentionally distracted from our effects. These systems have not adequately considered nor adjusted for what ecosystems need to thrive. We do know that western society has not yet excelled through our institutions and corporations in the task of participating with an ecosystem to mutually meet our needs. Instead, we have neglected the needs of natural systems and this, in turn, is already having disastrous impacts on human lives and causing extinction for other forms of life. Therefore, we know that the concepts, the institutions and corporations taking to the ocean now, are not fit for a planet able to sustain our lives in the future.

So, should we continue along this path? Or instead ask:

How do we meet our human needs, such as for food and energy, from the ocean in a way which does not degrade the oceans, but restores them?

How should we think and act towards the ocean in order to do this?

How can we participate in a new relationship with the ocean where we mutually meet our needs?

For the oceans, we are still getting to grips with what it’s needs are, we barely know the species that live in the oceans, regardless of what they need for a good life.

So, how best can we develop thinking, design practice, operational practices, regulation and a culture which promotes mutual benefit with ecosystems?

The UN has declared a decade of ocean science to seek answers to at least some of these questions:

The United Nations has proclaimed a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) to support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health and gather ocean stakeholders worldwide behind a common framework that will ensure ocean science can fully support countries in creating improved conditions for sustainable development of the Ocean.

A better scientific understanding of the oceans is a welcome thing and will provide information to support policy responses and adaptation strategies. Yet science’s curiosity-driven exploration often paves the way for exploitation with our current financial and institutional structures, economies and engineering approaches. So, how do we shift societies’ organisations and ways of thinking to meet our needs mutually with those of the ocean systems with which we depend?

How can we reimagine how we cooperate with ocean systems in the ocean activities we are planning and undertaking? And when do we choose to not act, finding that our aspirations are not mutually beneficial?

This is where I’m intrigued by the ideas in Doughnut Economics: a compass and set of principles for living within planetary limits and a social foundation. Could this provide an approach and a new set of goals to work towards? Goals which create equal emphasis on not exceeding critical limits of earth-systems, while bringing the human population to a socially just foundation. Goals we can create and work towards, knowing we don’t have all the answers at the start.

The Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) was launched in 2020 to put the ideas of Doughnut Economics into practice. It has been working with cities such as Amsterdam to explore the possibilities through the lens of the City Doughnut. Groups have come together in towns, cities and regions to create a Doughnut Action Plan, mapping where their place is today, with respect to targets or metrics according to the dimensions from the Doughnut.

After mapping, they start to create a vision for their place and identify the initiatives that are already in existence and help achieve that vision. This helps direct policies to support the values, narratives and ways of working that further develop these. What emerges is a snapshot of the place, which can be developed and updated as initiatives grow, change, fail,and are reinvented, as they learn. An iterative process is envisioned; the world is always changing, so projects and goals evolve.

DEAL now host a platform for sharing of projects, ideas and events.

It makes me wonder what a Doughnut for the Oceans would look like, and can we make a Doughnut Action Plan for the ocean? It would be great to see it applied throughout the seas; there is only one ocean, why not?

So, do you agree?

Can we use the Doughnut Economics approach to ensure mutual benefit with ecosystems in the ocean environment?

If not on its own, what else do we need?

If you were going to create a doughnut for the oceans, how would you choose to define the space you would apply it to? A physical asset? A region, like Dogger Bank? A bioregion?

Get in touch with your thoughts and comments here, or via our group on linkedin.

For now, let’s try it at the scale of an ocean development. An ocean development might be defined as a system or structure created by humans which passes through or remains present within the world’s ocean or coastal spaces. Traditionally these might be described as offshore renewable energy installations, such as offshore wind farms, aquaculture, fisheries, floating housing, navigational marks, vessels, artificial islands/reefs etc. This is where a significant amount of the design and the action takes place in commercialised countries.

I’m working with the University of Southampton’s Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies for Intelligent & Resilient Ocean Engineering. We’re exploring how we can reimagine our relationship with ocean development and how we can change our approach to the oceans to shape mutual and cooperative relationships through our ocean actions.

I’m going to be sharing more thoughts, and questions, on applying the Doughnut to an ocean development in the coming weeks.

Thanks for reading,




Rebecca Sykes

Thinker, engineer, creator, entrepreneur, citizen scientist … Writes about sustainability, economics, business and oceans.