The last commons: (re)constructing an ocean future



Publication Details

Seto, K. & Campbell, B. (2019). The last commons: (re)constructing an ocean future. In A. M. Cisneros-Montemayor & W. W. L. Cheung (Eds.), Predicting future oceans: sustainability of ocean and human systems amidst global environmental change (pp. 365-376). Amsterdam: Elsevier.


Recent research on the global ocean has emphasized diverse, dramatic, and largely ominous shifts in the ways that oceans function as a socionatural system. While all of this research provides a critical body of evidence for understanding what "future ocean" we will experience, the future of nature-society relations is ultimately about shaping human systems and behaviors. The last several decades have seen notable changes to marine property regimes, institutions, and modes of governance, with considerable consequences for individuals, communities, and political and economic systems. A growing body of evidence suggests that these emerging dynamics are increasingly resembling the established neoliberal political economic relations seen on land, including the enclosure, privatization, commodification, and marketization of previously untargeted forms of "natural capital." Here we identify historical trends in the enclosure of ocean spaces and resources, how these enclosures emerged, and the discourses that have facilitated their expansion. We contrast the original goals and expectations in creating these enclosures with the reality of their consequences in practice, highlighting the inequitable outcomes for developing countries and marginalized actors. We highlight two case studies in contemporary marine enclosure, focusing on the role of privatization. Finally, we conclude by contrasting two possible "future oceans." The neoliberal ocean future predicts the concentration of ocean resource wealth into the hands of privileged actors while traditional claims based on non-economic values are weakened, marginalized, and rendered illicit. In contrast, an alternate ocean future involving the transparent allocation of rights based on equity and distributional justice has the potential to recover the benefits of communal management, recognizing the inextricable linkages between human well-being and our future ocean.

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