In his poem “The Great Ocean,” published in 1950, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of the “gifts and destructions” of the sea. If just one of these were to be given “into my hand,” he went on, he would choose “not the final breaker, heavy with brine, that thunders onshore,” but “the inner spaces of force/the naked power of the waters/the immoveable solitude, brimming with lives.” More than half a century later, his words can inspire us to consider both the aspects of Earth’s oceans that are most apparent to us land-dwellers, and those which, although perhaps equally powerful, are more hidden from our view.
The environmental importance of the oceans is unparalleled. Many of us are acutely aware of the role of the ocean in shaping our atmosphere and weather, and alarmed about the ways that role is changing due to human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. We are aware of ocean acidification resulting from increased carbon dioxide absorption, as well as the pollution of the seas from our use of agricultural chemicals and plastics. The scope of these problems can seem overwhelming. But there are also inspiring efforts to preserve the marine environment, such as oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue, which aims to create a global network of “Hope Spots,” or protected areas covering 20% of the world’s oceans by 2020.
The ocean is a major economic force. Two-thirds of global GDP is produced in the ocean coastal zone, and in the US, coastal states account for over for 80% of GDP. The risks of climate-change induced sea level rise and increased storm incidence thus have clear economic and financial implications, which many investors, corporations, and policy makers are beginning to address.
The ocean is a workplace. Industries directly linked to the ocean itself, including tourism, fishing, and extractives, provided more than 2.7 million US jobs in 2010, and millions more around the world. Offshore workers, including fishermen and oil rig operators, may be exposed to serious safety risks beyond the regular oversight of regulators. The isolation of offshore work can also facilitate severe human rights violations, as recent reporting about forced labor in the Thai shrimp industry has shown. Increasingly, investors and corporations are exploring the ocean-based aspects of global supply chains, and seeking to protect the health, safety, and freedom of workers within them.
Oceans are political and military battlefields. Throughout human history, civilizations have fought for control of key sea routes, ports, and fishing grounds; in our own time, control of offshore oil and gas resources has been an added source of conflict. China’s island-building in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea is just one dramatic recent example of power maneuvers at sea, and political considerations are likely to continue to complicate global efforts to address the environmental and economic challenges mentioned above.
Oceans hold history and knowledge of ourselves and the world. Scientists tell us that life on earth began in the sea, and our own bodies carry the evolutionary evidence of our aquatic origins. Discovery of the ecosystems surrounding deep-sea vents has demonstrated that complex food chains can exist that are not based on photosynthesis, expanding our conception of the conditions necessary for life both on earth and elsewhere in the universe. And the oceans are home to the cetaceans that science increasingly suggests are most similar to us, in their sophisticated use of language and their highly developed social organizations. Yet less than 5% of the ocean has been explored; it therefore represents an immensely rich frontier for the further expansion of human knowledge and imagination.
In sum, when viewed from these many perspectives, the ocean is indeed, as Neruda wrote, “brimming with lives,” both human and not; and a space full of force and power.
Consider it may even induce the sensation of limitless connection that Sigmund Freud famously described as “the oceanic feeling” central to religious experience. For Freud, of course, that feeling, like all religion, was an illusion. But today, the oceanic links among ecology and economics, society and science, may be intensely real.
 For global GDP figure, see the Center for a Blue Economy at http://www.miis.edu/giving/initiatives/center-blue-economy. For US figures, see the 2014 report from the National Ocean Economics Program at http://www.oceaneconomics.org/download/.
Kimberly Gladman, PhD, CFA, is Managing Director for Research at the JUST Capital Foundation. She serves on the UN-PRI Academic Network Steering Committee, the Research Advisory Committee of US-SIF, and the Global Advisory Council of Cornerstone Capital.