'Plumbing the depths: the battle for the oceans'.




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Published on Oct 31, 2015

Debate at 'Battle of Ideas' conference, Barbican, London, 17 October 2015.

This film is of the introductory remarks by Dominic Standish to this debate. The list of other speakers and debate information can be found at this website:


This is the outline of topics for discussion:

With the world’s population expected to reach nine billion in 2040, and perhaps as many as 11 billion by 2050, demand for resources will increase significantly. One of the possibilities being actively explored is how the world’s oceans, which cover 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, could help meet the future demands of society.

For example, fish and other seafood are important sources of nutrition, providing one sixth of all the world’s protein. There are also minerals and metals extracted from the sea. At present, 60 per cent of the world’s magnesium is extracted from sea water. Phosphates, crucial to agriculture, could one day be extracted from deposits in shallow marine environments as land-based resources dwindle. Substantial supplies of energy could be provided from methane hydrates trapped beneath ocean sediments, with a Japanese project aiming to make these commercially viable by 2016. The oceans could also house offshore windfarms without disrupting the landscape, while the windier conditions at sea should provide more reliability of energy production if costs can be reduced. A major tidal power project has also been approved for Swansea Bay. Above all, the oceans are, in effect, a limitless source of water, which will be in short supply in many parts of the world in the future. If we can turn seawater into potable water in an economically viable way, it would be a major breakthrough.

There are challenges, however. According to the World Resources Institute, fish farm output will need to double to meet demand by 2050. How can this happen without the pollution and other problems currently associated with aquaculture? Plastic pollution has been the source of great concern, with an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic ending up in oceans each year, threatening wildlife and the food chain. Meanwhile, ocean acidification from greenhouse gas emissions are said to be threatening coral reefs and other sea organisms.

Given the difficulties of sustainably managing the Earth’s resources, should society ‘move to the ocean’, or would we just meet a new set of difficulties? Can states, industries and populations ensure the lessons of the past 50 years are applied responsibly when shaping the approach mankind takes in exploring for minerals, harnessing the oceans’ energy and drawing upon the oceans’ diversity? Have environmental concerns about the oceans been overstated or will a ‘move to the oceans’ threaten a relatively unspoilt part of our planet?


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