The stories we hear, the stories we tell

Sunset on Gwithian Beach
© 2018 Duncan Greenhill

The relationship we have with nature is critically important, but an extinction of experience is making it dysfunctional. Like many dysfunctional relationships it is shaped by the stories we hear and the stories we tell, to others and ourselves. Stories where the narrative does not always match the truth.

Humans have always told stories to make sense of the world, and stories have both power and magic. The way we see the world is moulded by these stories, how they are presented – how they are framed – and who the story says is the villain and the hero. It all affects our ideas of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Some of the darkest parts of history are characterised by stories that paint some group as an other, as an enemy, stories that then reach horrific expression. The narratives we tell, the stories we choose to live by, will shape how nature will fare when faced with an expected nine billion people on Earth by 2050, and by extension, how we will fare.

As Sylvia Earle has said – “no blue, no green”, meaning that without a healthy ocean there cannot be a healthy, well-functioning planet. And there are many stories we can tell of how the ocean supports us. It gives us breath courtesy of photosynthetic algae expelling oxygen, it feeds us by providing the main source of protein for three billion people. Humans and the ocean are, as the ocean literacy principles state, “inextricably interconnected”. It quenches our thirst and irrigates our crops – much of our freshwater comes from the ocean, evaporated from the surface to fall later on land and start its journey back, carrying the dissolved substances that make the ocean salty. Seagrass meadows provide nursery grounds for fish, and habitats for other creatures, boosting biodiversity. They capture carbon out of all proportion to their abundance, helping us by removing carbon from the atmosphere and lessening the severity of the climate change to come.

The things that the ocean provides us are sometimes called ‘ecosystem services’, which means the ‘goods’ (like fish) and ‘services’ (like carbon capture) that are provided from the ocean to us. I understand why the concept is used, but it’s one I dislike. An ecosystem providing services to humans. From nature, to us. It’s a bad story, the wrong story. It does a disservice because of what it implies – the term to me suggests a hierarchy, a ranking of who is the dominant party in that particular exchange. It does not suggest a parity between the two. That’s not to suggest humanity should be subservient to nature instead. A diver is not ‘subservient’ to their equipment, but sensibly recognises that care and maintenance is better than dealing with gear failure while still thirty metres under water.

To see ourselves as somehow superior to nature, above it, having ‘dominion’ over it, just shows the arrogance that we, as a species, have in its own exceptionalism. For all our advances and achievements from antibiotics to space travel we are simply one more species of primate, albeit with less fur, bigger brains and better tool-making abilities; this exceptionalism insulates us from our connection and dependence on the natural world.

Here in the UK the issue of poor water quality in rivers and coastal waters is, at the time of writing, receiving a lot of attention. Water quality can be degraded by run-off from agricultural land, such as excess fertiliser, or discharges of raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters. Water companies are permitted to discharge raw sewage under certain conditions, for example during heavy rainfall when the volume of water needing treatment exceeds the capacity of the treatment works to process. Enforcing the regulations by prosecuting those that breach them is necessary, but not enough by itself. In 2021 one company received a record fine of 90 million pounds for discharges that were not authorised by environmental permits, with the discharges into waters where the majority were covered by domestic and international environmental protections. But this is prosecution and protection after the fact, when the damage has already been done. The fine was given out in 2021, while the discharges happened between 2010 and 2015.

But poor water quality also affects our ability to enjoy the coast and ocean. When my daughters were small we were in the surf off a Welsh shore, jumping over and diving under the breaking waves. There had been heavy rainfall a few days earlier, so a permitted discharge may well have happened. There is little that will get me out of the water, but coming face-to-face – literally – with one particular “floating hazard” was enough to send me and my family back to the beach. Is this a story we want to tell, a narrative we want to embrace, that our ocean is simply a receptacle for our waste?

Some go to the ocean to lose themselves in nature, some as a group to share the experience with others, bonding in the light from the flames of a driftwood fire on the beach as daylight retreats. Still others go for a challenge, like kite surfing among the breakers or fighting through the sleep deprivation of single-handed sailing in a long-distance race. We can tell the stories for each of these, but should not forget the one that matters most: that the fate of the ocean and our fate are intertwined, and cannot be separated. This is the story that we most need to tell, and the story that most needs to be heard.