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Sylvia Earle

Princess of Asturias Award for Concord 2018

Your Majesties, Excellencies,
Award Laureates,
Members of the Princess of Asturias Foundation,
Ladies, Gentlemen,
Fellow Citizens of the one and only ocean planet, Earth:

As a child, I learned about Spanish explorers so famous that they often were referred to by only single names: Cortes, Pizarro, Balboa, Coronado, Elcano.

These explorers and conquistadors, all male, were pioneers of their time, the first Europeans to see the South American continent, the first to touch the Pacific Ocean, the first to circumnavigate the world.

Ferninand Magellan was born in Portugal but it was the Spanish King, Charles V, who agreed to support his vision of finding a route to the wealth of Asia. He set sail in 1519 and when he reached the tip of South America, thought he could cross the Pacific in a few days.  Months later, none of the five ships in his fleet made it to their hope-for destination and only one of five ships and only 18 of the original 260 crew made it back to Spain three years after they departed, but those aboard succeeded in achieving the first circumnavigation of the world.

The Magellan - Elcano voyage and other amazing feats that took place during what has been called the “Great Era of Exploration”. Five centuries ago, it was widely thought and widely taught that Earth is the center of the universe, that the sun and all the stars move around us. Some still believe the universe revolves around us, or perhaps just around them – personally!  And,  there is still widespread belief that the greatest era of exploration happened long ago. All the great mountains have been climbed and people have traveled pole to pole, travelled to the moon and sent probes beyond the edge of our solar system.  What is left to explore?

Today’s children know the truth. The greatest era of exploration is just beginning!  Most of the ocean has never been seen, let alone explored.  The deeper in the sea we go, the less we know, but the more new discoveries we find!  Now we know that the ocean drives climate and weather, generates most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, takes up much of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, drives planetary chemistry and provides home for most of life on Earth.  The ocean holds ninety-seven per cent percent of Earth’s water.  Clouds  arise from the sea and water falls back to Earth as rain, sleet and snow. With every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, all of us are connected to the sea.  Even those who have never seen or touched the ocean are constantly being touched by the ocean. The ocean is the cornerstone of our life support system. No ocean, no life.  No blue, no green.  An ocean in trouble means we are in trouble.  

When I was a child, no one had been to the moon or to the deepest parts of the ocean.  Women as scientists, engineers, captains of ships, pilots of aircraft, leaders of companies or of countries were rare.  Some told me that as a woman, I should not aspire to be a scientist or explorer, but there is a difference between should not and could not, so I became a scientist and explorer anyway.

In the middle of the 20th century, computers, cell phones, plastics and the internet did not exist. At the time, it seemed the ocean was too vast, too resilient to be harmed by anything humans could do.  As recently as the 1960s, taking wildlife from the  sea was widely regarded as the solution to how we could feed the growing population of people, as our numbers expanded from one billion in 1800 to two billion when I arrived, three billion by mid-century. Putting trash and other wastes into the sea seemed like a good idea at the time. Whatever we put there, we thought, would simply go away!

But now we know!  What we are putting into the ocean -- millions of tons of garbage, throw-away plastics, toxic chemicals, excess fertilizers and pesticides – is changing the chemistry of the sea. Technologies developed for waging war on one another have been adapted to effectively wage war on the ocean. Sonar, satellites, global positioning systems, new materials for lines and nets – are now applied to capture ocean wildlife on an unprecedented scale. Today, fish have no place to  hide, even in the High Seas, the deep seas, in polar seas.

What we are taking out – millions of tons of wildlife – has caused about a ninety percent  reduction of many species of fish including cod, tuna and sharks as well as many of the small  squid and silvery fish that larger animals rely on for sustenance. Their decline breaks ancient  nutrient cycles, affecting oxygen production and carbon capture, undermining ancient ocean processes that have taken hundreds of millions of years to develop, but a few decades to unravel.  In half a century, about half of the coral reefs have disappeared, along with mangroves, marshes, and sea grass meadows.   The vast pastures of ocean plankton are that produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere are in decline.  The ocean is in trouble.  And therefore, so are we.

That’s the bad news.  But the good news is that for the first time in history, we are able to observe, calculate, measure and see evidence of not only how we are harming the Earth, but also what can be done to heal the harm and make peace with nature – a fundamental key to making peace among ourselves.

This is the sweet spot in time!

Now, as never before, we can measure the decline of polar ice and correlate that with carbon dioxide emissions, the destruction of forests, the decline of the pastures of plankton and blue carbon-sequestering  creatures that we refer to as tuna and whales and krill.

Now, as never again, we know that by protecting large natural areas of the land as parks and natural reserves we are protecting our life support system. The same is true of the ocean.  Blue parks, blue reserves -- Hope Spots --are urgently needed to reverse the alarming declines we are witnessing in the sea. Actions taken in the next ten years will determine our future for the next ten thousands years. Never before could we know what is now known about our absolute dependence on the natural world for making our existence possible.  Never again will there be a better opportunity to take action, while there is still time.

Fifty years ago, Astronaut William Anders took what may be the most important photograph ever during the Apollo 8 mission when he and his two fellow astronauts circumnavigated the moon. That image, Earthrise, the view of our blue planet appearing like as a living jewel set against a beautiful but extremely hostile universe of suns, moons, and comets shocked humankind into a new sense of awareness about how  beautiful this planet is, and how vulnerable we are. Fifty years from now, today’s children may look back and ask “Why did you not do something while there way still time?”  Or they may say,“Thank you, for the wisdom to protect the Earth when there was still a chance to do so.”

I am grateful to you, your Majesties, for continuing in that long-ago tradition of fostering exploration of what humans can do, not only across the unknown ocean, but also the frontiers of art and literature, communication and science, with examples represented here among my fellow laureates.  Knowledge is the key to our continued prosperity, our continued existence.

With knowing, comes caring and with caring, there is hope that we can, we will, we must make peace with nature and find an enduring place for ourselves within the mostly blue systems that sustain us.

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