• Joe MacInnis

    Photo courtesy Joe MacInnis

In the early 1960s we learned how to live and work inside the lethal depths of the sea. New technologies, such as saturation diving, undersea stations and research subs made it possible for me to study the emerging physiological and psychological relationships between humans and the ocean’s depths. 

In 1964, I participated in the American “Man in Sea” project directed by Edwin Link and supported by the United States Navy and National Geographic. A rookie diving physician on a steep learning curve, I was responsible for the health and safety of two men living in an undersea station on the edge of the continental shelf. When they surfaced from the life-threatening cold, darkness and pressure, I was elated. They were safe — after what was then the longest, deepest dive in history.

In 2012, I was the safety physician and expedition journalist for the James Cameron-National Geographic Deepsea Challenge expedition. This time we weren’t so fortunate. Two of our teammates were killed in a helicopter crash. For 60 days we fought heart-breaking grief, technical failures and oceanic forces. After nine test dives, in a brilliant fusion of personal leadership and team genius, Cameron climbed into his radical new research sub and made the first solo science dive into the Mariana Trench, the deepest, darkest place in the ocean.

In the half-century between those projects, my work took me on more than 40 undersea science and engineering projects, from under the ice of the Arctic Ocean to the haunted decks of the Titanic to the hydrothermal vents of the mid-Atlantic ridge. Along the way, I had the good fortune to work with individuals who shared their precious wisdom about leadership in high-risk environments. 

They all had an explorer’s mindset — passionately curious about how the world works, and their role in it. They worked on tough challenges. They came up with original solutions for difficult problems.

Spend time deep inside Mother Ocean and you read her dark waters differently than the average person. You see them breathing and feel them pulse and move. They are home to countless forms of life. Mother Ocean has much in common with a psychopath. Ask any sailor who’s survived a hurricane. She is superficially charming, but lacks empathy. She has no sense of the consequences of her actions.

During the past 50 years, we’ve been using weapons of mass destruction against Mother Ocean. From her surface to her seafloor, from her tropical shores to her polar coasts, we’ve slaughtered her whales, her sharks, her big fish, small fish, coral reefs and plankton. We’ve poisoned her depths with oil, chemicals and nuclear waste. Driven by greed and a blind refusal to consider the future, we’re pushing the planet’s most vital ecosystem into a death-spiral.

Mother Ocean is really really pissed off. She’s overheated, storm-spawning and hyper-acidic. Think Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and the Pacific Ocean hot spot called “The Blob.” Think algae blooms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. Communicating in the brutal shorthand of a private language, she’s telling us: “You’ve just had the hottest year in history. Record rainfalls in Washington State, Oregon, Norway, the Maldives and Chennai, India. More than a third of you — 2.4 billion people — live within 100 kilometres of an ocean shoreline, many in megacities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Singapore. Lost in the gleaming seduction of your pocket screens, you think I’m an abstraction. You’ve forgotten a geological past that includes dramatic changes in my coastlines. You’re ignoring a geological future that takes you into the red zone.

If we’re going to save ourselves from the worst of Mother Ocean’s vengeance, we need to think and act like science-driven explorers. We need millions of people networked together in a collaboration of Earth and environmental sciences, arts, engineering and movements for social change. Critical to this are the humanities and social sciences.

A global collaboration of activists is already under way. You see it in individuals — Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall, Bill Gates, Naomi Klien, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Michael Bloomberg and Pope Francis — and institutions — Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, California’s Scripps Research Institute, and the World Wildlife Fund. It’s unfolding in universities, corporations and governments. Recently, oil company’s BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total called for a carbon tax, and pledged to be “part of the solution.” Every major world leader says we need bold action to make the transition to renewable energy. 

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was a solid step, but there’s a long way to go. If all the parties keep their promises, the planet will still warm by an estimated 3.5 C. Mother Ocean’s fury will accelerate.

If we encourage and support them, agile and adaptive minds — oceanographers, urban planners, cognitive scientists, engineers and policy makers — can create big ideas and strategies about how best to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. They will define goals that matter and build teams that work. They will continue the long, hard struggle until the mission of carbon reduction succeeds.

To make this happen, we need leadership — personal and professional leadership that does small things for the planet with great love, leadership that yearns to explore new climate and energy frontiers.

We can be encouraged by looking closer at what we learn from climbing into research subs and exploring the depths of the sea. We uncover geological and biological facts that increase our understanding of Mother Ocean. But we also confirm a fundamental truth about ourselves. That exploration — evidence-based, action-driven, solution-seeking exploration — is one of the most important acts of any enduring society.

Exploration ennobles our minds and lifts up our hearts. It makes us better than we are.