Where Now for Ocean Optimism?

I grew up on the beautiful Moray coastline and spent my early days walking at Findhorn, rock-pooling at Hopeman and watching dolphins at Spey Bay. It is these memories that I draw on when topping up my own personal ‘Ocean Optimism’. After graduating from Aberdeen University in Marine and Coastal Resource Management I spent my time in environmental education roles, sharing my love of the ocean and connecting people to our wonderful seas. Then I landed my dream job working for the Marine Conservation Society – a chance to give something back to the sea and the beaches and wildlife that have been such a big part of my life.

That was nearly five years ago, and my ocean optimism is now in peril. As 2020 starts, designated as the official ‘Year of Coasts and Waters’ by the Scottish Government, we are also working out what to do about the climate emergency, now accepted by all parties. Biodiversity is crashing, the oceans are dying.

I do reserve some optimism for those who deserve it, for the individuals who are playing their part and who need that hope to keep them going. I have also felt it when progress has been made. The Scottish Government and parts of industry have delivered small successes like the ban on microbeads and plastic cotton buds, and I cheered in 2017 when the First Minister committed to a deposit return scheme to keep empty cans and bottles out of our oceans and off our streets. These success stories belong in part to our volunteers who help gather data through the Marine Conservation Society Beachwatch litter surveys, or sign petitions, or write to their politicians. Steps like this are good news for our planet, but they are too small and too infrequent to meet the global challenge before us. Doing our little bit as individuals isn’t enough, either: we need structural changes in policy and regulation.

That 2017 commitment to a Scottish deposit return scheme was a huge source of ocean optimism, and it has inspired change in other countries, but the speed of progress has been glacial at best. The spring 2021 start date announced last year already felt like a process grinding slowly along, given the Scottish Government has had the power to do this since 2009. Now we see parts of industry lobbying to delay that launch date even further, into late 2021 or even 2022, essentially trying to push Ministers into putting off the point at which they take responsibility for their products.

When I see this kind of effort from corporate lobbyists my ocean optimism takes another huge hit.

Our beaches, our seas and our people would pay the price of that delay – and our climate too. Is a bit more short-term profit really enough to justify Scottish Ministers delaying deposit return yet again? This kind of thinking simply is not good enough – our seas, our planet, our people need and deserve so much more. Small measures like this, commonplace around the world, must not be fought over for years, let alone delayed or watered down.

With my ocean optimism wearing thin, I hold onto these crucial but ultimately small successes, but I also make an impassioned plea to those in positions of power to seriously up their game. I am no longer talking about ocean protection, but ocean recovery. When I visit the beaches of my youth it is to do beach cleans, not to paddle and picnic. When I read about my favourite creatures nowadays the articles are about them dying from entanglement, ingestion or poisoning due to pollution, or indeed as a result of climate change or habitat loss. The tales of recovery are few and far between.

2020 is not just the Year of Coasts and Waters – it is also the year COP 26 comes to Glasgow. If we cannot act now then when will we? The answers are there, but is the determination? We need a new (and quicker!) way of working, we need politicians to be braver, and we need not just ambitious targets but also action to meet them. We need to instill that sense of urgency across every sector, and we must hold those to account who are promoting the failed business as usual model. Scotland needs to stop just talking about being a world leader: it’s time to actually become one.

I will keep a small slice of my ocean optimism aside this year, and hope that at the start of 2021 I can then share updates on the world-leading commitments and action taken by the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to help save our blue planet. For now I will keep it reserved for those who deserve it. To those who are power in Scotland – you have yet to earn it.

Comments (7)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    In the long-running future-Earth strip Judge Dredd in UK comic 2000AD, the Black Atlantic is a highly toxic soup of pollutants. Although, for a series dedicated to extreme law enforcement, I am not sure if anyone was prosecuted for that. At least the notion of humans poisoning the oceans has been prevalent in UK popular culture, as a dark dystopian warning. How can you clean an ocean? Perhaps some geological ages in the future, the seas will have boiled dry and condensed again, leaving a sediment of human pollution on the sea bed to be eventually absorbed into rock cycle processes.

  2. Mum x says:

    Thats my girl, don’t ever give up !

  3. Alison Lindsay says:

    I think there has to be a Government posed decision to have a major look at all packaging, working across the EU ( a job for our elected MEPs to initiate) and internationally with as many other concerned countries as possible. The aim of this investigation is to find collective means of packaging all goods minimally and without plastics. As a post war youngster nearly all goods were bought without any packaging – food, clothing and household goods. Shops had paper bags for small items and wrapped from a roll of paper at the counter for larger items, or had boxes stacked nearby if need be.: everybody carried a shopping bag. Items were delivered to outlet shops multi-boxed or unpackaged: preventative arrangements to prevent bumping. We did change over the decades – manufacturers, food producers, businesses etc. can change again. I remember tinned corned beef was a huge post war novelty which I cannot say I will miss; the same with Heinz tomato soup etc. Cooking is not difficult and can easily be learned as children alongside normal family living and learning together.

    1. Coinneach says:

      An easy first step would be to enforce a clear declaration of the materials used in packaging, as is already done for nutritional content (sugar, fats, calories etc) of packaged foodstuffs. This would aid individuals to make better decisions about recycling. Different local authorities have different recycling capabilities which can be checked online in the authorities’ websites and having identification printed on the packaging will reduce unnecessary landfill and aid the sorting of recyclable materials. Could Holyrood do this or is it reserved to UK Gov’t? I can see Health & Safety, Product Standards, Customer Protection are reserved to Westminster, but it’s not clear to me where issues around general packaging belong.

  4. Morag Burton says:

    I agree, our politicians need to be braver. I would impose an ‘eco tax’ on all non-recyclable products asap. Consumers and supermarkets would then soon change behaviour. Sadly, it always comes down to money…

  5. Roderick C McKay says:

    Well done Catherine you have hit the very spots people in power are covering with make up. People we elect to look after our needs require to step up to the plate and make positive decisions however unpopular they are with the big powerhouses who regularly quote job losses as an excuse for no action. The clock is ticking very loudly it needs to be heeded.

  6. Morag Williams says:

    There are deposit schemes running in a few places in Australia.

    I can’t say that it is a resounding success . . . many people continue to discard cans and bottles. However, an odd benefit of the scheme is that some of the poor and/or homeless patrol the streets and raid the bins around the streets of Central Station in Sydney for cans and bottles that have been discarded. I’m guessing that they then take the cans/bottles to the depots to swap their collected bottles/cans for a “refund.”

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