To truly care for the planet, we require thinking in a way that accounts for all of Earth’s inhabitants—whether they’re hidden in the depths, too small to know, or easy to overlook.
A wealth of genetic material from marine sources—known as “marine genetic resources” (MGRs)—holds actual or projected value for industrial and pharmaceutical use. Humans have been using marine materials for centuries, but are only now gaining an increasingly precise and technical understanding of their potential applications. The capacity to commodify molecules and genes of underwater life forms, particularly microbes, opens a new avenue for exploitation on a planetary scale. In response, a spokesfish for the Oceanic Multispecies Cooperative has issued the following statement:
1. Enigmatic spokesfish: In response to the debate over the “common heritage of mankind” principle now circulating in spheres of ocean law, I am compelled to come forward as the designated spokesfish for the Oceanic Multispecies Cooperative. The voices of marine communities have gone unheard for millennia—this despite the vital services we provide for life on land, and even with the great curiosity of humanity for our “mysterious” habits and ways of life.
Our oceanic spaces, mostly out of sight and reach to terrestrial beings, have already been greatly harmed by human deeds. Although interdependence is a fundamental circumstance of life on Earth, the runaway exploitation of oceanic ecosystems seems to be approaching the point of ecological collapse. Even those of us going about our daily lives underwater are uncertain of whether this point has come.
2. Within the oceanic community we are particularly interested in the human concept of “resources.” The origins of this term mean “to rise again; to recover,” implying the need for time and relief, so that life or matter can replenish itself. Failing to allow for this relief weakens ecological carrying capacity, defined as the ability of an ecosystem to sustain the lives of multiple beings without exhaustion of its reserves. Why consciously ignore this risk? Here in the ocean we instinctively follow this principle, curbing uncontrolled consumption of prey. At the same time, financial subsidies from land actively support overfishing, mining, and unsustainable energy production at sea. This impetus clearly prioritizes human livelihoods and misinterprets the sacred interconnectedness of our biosphere by imposing a one-way flow, as resources are forced to rise not again but forever. Directing this stream solely from source to end, ocean to land, beneath the seabed to upper atmosphere, is thoughtless and irreversible. It is an ongoing catastrophe.
3. The impacts of such catastrophes are not limited to the most vulnerable: they also fall on any neighboring being in the biosphere, from the most fragile to the most resilient. In fact, some of the toughest marine inhabitants are in constant contact with the advancing front of this catastrophe—such as the tuna community, keenly aware of the need to escape warming waters while dodging omnipresent trawlers. For this reason, tuna felt the urge to counter the human-designed Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and step forth with their own representative body (Oculi ad Veritatem Aperti, Reformed Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, 2020).
We are plagued by a paradox: the beings most accustomed to hunting by humans appear to be those best able to commune with them, to grab their attention, either due to visibility, to charisma, or some older mammalian connection. Just think of the many ex-whaling communities who, having downed their harpoons, now wish to “save the whales.” Perhaps this empathy is born of a common past, reaching out to take the whales’ hidden hand bones, invisible since the great cetaceans migrated from the land back into the sea during the Eocene epoch nearly 50 million years ago.
4. Deep sea communities lack this recognition, and thus connection. For example, crustaceans and microfauna that dwell around hydrothermal vents are attempting to amplify their snapping expressions in protest against the machinery proposed to scavenge precious metals—cobalt, manganese, and neodymium—from their homes. The projected speed and scale of this harvest, known as “deep sea mining,” will alter their ecosystem’s ancestral equilibrium. But no hand reaches out to comprehend their ancient ecological knowledge, only to grab the elements that sustain them. This dynamic is familiar even to the most powerful marine community: the realm of microbiota.
5. Too small to be seen by all but the most acute oceanic eye, and yet all-encompassing, microbes represent the founding form of life for our biomes. Everywhere and yet nowhere, they exceed quantification. Their zealous multiplication overwhelms simplistic vertical evolutionary models in all directions. As they experiment fearlessly with form and behavior, they pass traits not only downwards, upwards, onwards, but left and right too, in bounteous promiscuity. From this expansive microbial philosophy the most incredible effects have emerged: the ability to communally repair holes in biofilms, adaptation to new conditions and control of air and water quality, the production of toxic poisons... We owe them a debt of gratitude. The planetary-scale stabilizing effects of microbial activity on the climate are rarely celebrated by humans, who instead become fixated on rarer and more potent, and thus profitable, possibilities.
6. “Marine genetic resources” (MGRs) is the opaque term thought up by enterprising humans to refer to potentially useful genetic material derived from any marine creature. Not only regulation but also ownership of MGRs is being enshrined in their legal and intellectual property systems. As of 2018, almost 10,000 patents were held for genetic sequences from marine microbes (Blasiak et al., 2018).
As the ancient knowledge and practice of microbial life become commercialized, humanity must decide which principles will underlie its legal regime. Should MGRs be free to access by all, as is the case for the high seas, or labeled the “common heritage of mankind,” which dictates that nations on land should benefit equally from the production of resources? To the Oceanic Multispecies Cooperative, in which microbial representatives are the largest group, both preconditions are problematic. Construing microbial behaviors as resources without any exchange or return, overlooking the careful ecosystemic balance that these ancestral creatures sustain, amounts to simple predation. It is not wrong to prey on others. Indeed it is necessary. We have been doing this since the very first moments of our life on Earth. Rather, it is wrong to do so without returning anything to the common pool in usable form, or to override the time needed for resources to rise again—to recover.
7. Consider the meaning of “heritage.” Objects or qualities are defined as such when passed from one generation to the next, extending beyond the lifetimes of the creatures who brought them to be. Together, microbes and whales embody a balanced practice of inheritance centered around re-sourcing. Each whale, throughout its long life, consumes hordes of plankton, crustaceans, and algae, transporting nutrients between surface and seabed as they rise and dive to feed. When they die, they fall and return their tissues and minerals to communities that flourish around the carcass, from microbes to mollusks and cephalopods, fish, and other cetaceans.
Much common microbial heritage has lingered on Earth since the origins of life, which took place under disputed circumstances. Humans have their own theories. Those which align most closely with microbial mythologies tend to involve the primordial broth: a complex mélange of biochemical potential that was brewing throughout the Hadean Eon. The details have of course been lost in the four billion years since that febrile time, but the general consensus is that all the necessary elements were in place, awaiting some trigger, a catalyst to provoke the great shift from the inorganic to the organic. What that catalyst was remains to be clarified within the soupy haze of deep time, but from that entropic chaos flew life. Did the process take place in a single act or a multitude of smaller events scattered across the planet? Our communal memory simply does not reach back far enough to tell, although we do know that no tree has a single root, but instead a series of strands that extend fractally to become the medium of growth.
8. To humanity we offer the following: microbes are the medium of growth. They are the archetypal brothmakers, who conjured the complexity and texture of biodiversity that arose in promiscuous tendrils, and which they continue to agitate. They are the firstborn of chaotic entropy.
9. The obsessive scientific search for the last universal common ancestor of all creatures alive today, carried out by codifying microbes’ livelihoods as data, is bypassing the richness of ancient marine history. We believe that the human construction of life’s evolution on Earth as a pyramid has been fundamentally misleading, as it depicts a hierarchical process in which the result overshadows the premise. It is the opposite, in truth, a chaos in which what lies at the base soaks everything that follows. Circular rather than pyramidal, foaming and spreading in erratic spheres. As seawater carries the elemental memory of microbial origins, the oceans embody the maturing form of the primordial broth in its long-simmering evolution.
10. Philosophical categories assigned to the high seas and the seabed have led to their delimitation as “common” human territory. But this realm, composed of multiple states, strands, and symbioses, has been shaped by entanglements which are too extensive and pervasive to be observed or valued in isolation. They are more-than-human, more-than-fish, more-than-microbial. As such, they belong to all, from solitary mammals to the teeming microorganisms that colonize every channel.
11. From this outpost, we propose a journey upstream in human law-making tradition and return to the words of diplomat Arvid Pardo, who introduced the idea of a common heritage in 1967:
The dark oceans were the womb of life: from the protecting oceans life emerged. We still bear in our bodies—in our blood, in the salty bitterness of our tears—the marks of this remote past. Retracing the past, man, the present dominator of the emerged earth, is now returning to the ocean depths. His penetration of the deep could mark the beginning of the end for man, and indeed for life as we know it on this earth: it could also be a unique opportunity to lay solid foundations for a peaceful and increasingly prosperous future for all peoples.
In our reading of Pardo’s words, “peoples” transcend clades and borders to include all marine citizens. In keeping with this spirit, we believe a shift is needed: the planet’s future needs to be prosperous not only for all peoples, but for all beings. The shift we imagine takes place in all framings of the marine, including legal terminology, and rises from a microbial politics.
12. The deep oceans are first and foremost a planetary phenomenon, within which are suspended the primordial strands of life’s origins. We have all reached a basic understanding of this, either from millennia immersed in it, or through the remarkably complex and effective quantification functions developed by humans. It is no longer possible to claim a limited understanding of deep ocean spaces. Their dismissal as an agent from the discourse around ocean governance creates a blind spot that endangers every life form issued from those strands.
13. We believe that all of our common heritage stems from the very origin of life, the single most important political achievement in our shared planetary history. The primordial broth functioned as a reactive political base for experimentation, allowing the emergence of plural intelligences, sensitivities, and modes of organization that have collectively shaped and still share the macro-infrastructure of planet Earth. Human systems must welcome equally the microbial nodes from which they stem and continue to rely upon.
14. To care for the planet we need to uphold life in its cosmic uniqueness as the common heritage of allkind. This demands thinking in a way that accounts for all of Earth’s inhabitants. A form of governance that aspires to be truly planetary cannot be envisioned without inviting actors unseen, whether hidden in the depths, too small to know, or simply overlooked—despite their bubbling expressions.
Fiona and Pietro envisioned this edible batch of a contemporary primordial broth with ingredients gathered from the Venetian Lagoon. The feast and recipe were realized by Venetian collective Barena Bianca, and conceptualized with the help of local chef Marco Bravetti. The broth itself is an amalgamation of endemic proteins and sugars, misos and garums, microbes and seaweeds, mesofauna, and regular-sized fish, in which the typical hierarchy of ingredients is overthrown. The microbial suspension is all-encompassing, interspersed with jellied forms and foamy expressions of an oceanic existence.
Images courtesy of Fiona Middleton and Pietro Consolandi