In the light of the above criticism, ecocentric and holistic approaches appear like a lost cause. This seems to apply not only to the discipline of environmental ethics in theory, but also to the normative grounding of maritime governance in practice. However, this section offers a new vindication for ecocentric reasoning in the marine realm. It starts by arguing why such new vindication is of interest in the first place (Section 3.1). It then paves the ground for defense of ecocentrism not based on teleonomy or retinity, but on ontological grounds. To this end, it first describes a particular ontology in the marine space—namely the Area as “common heritage” (Section 3.2). It proceeds by explaining why this ontology is subject to a certain “fuzziness” and why it hence requires a holistic perspective to be functional (Section 3.3). This way, ecocentric and holistic reasoning gains new traction as an ethical basis in maritime affairs.
Given the argumentative weaknesses of both strands of ecocentrism, why not abandon the project altogether and return to purely individualistic approaches to environmental ethics? There are two reasons why a closer look is of interest in the particular case of marine environmental ethics, and thus in the normative groundwork of maritime affairs.
First, and most importantly, past rationales for ecocentric reasoning have implicitly focused on humanity’s interaction with the terrestrial environment. This focus is most apparent in Leopold’s concept of a “Land Ethic” in his seminal work (1949), constituting the basis for subsequent literature on ecocentrism. Even Callicott, one of the early proponents of the retinity-based strand, acknowledged that his argument—relying on the interconnectedness of humans with other species—does not quite get off the ground in the context of marine ecosystems (Callicott 1997, p. 4). Few authors have tried to flesh out a genuinely marine environmental ethic,Footnote 3 and none seems to have provided a defense of marine ecocentrism.
Second, elaborating new grounds for ecocentrism in the debate on maritime affairs is not merely a theoretical exercise for its own sake, but also a practical necessity. Recently, an increasing number of approaches to ocean governance has—oftentimes implicitly—relied on ecocentric reasoning (or holistic, that is—recall that both terms are used interchangeably here). Moral value is no longer reserved for individuals—be they human or not—with ecosystems as a whole being left with instrumental or economic value. Instead, there is now talk about “the intrinsic value of the ocean” (Dupont and Fauville 2017, p. 519), giving us “an ethical and moral duty to respect and protect the ocean” (ibid., p. 520). That is, the obligation of environmental protection and wise governance no longer stems from our duties towards particular human beings or animals suffering from our exploitation of the sea, but from a duty towards the ocean as a whole.
The reasoning of such approaches focuses on the deontological dimension of humanity’s interaction with the ocean by defining rights and duties. Others emphasize the axiological dimension by specifying values: they define, for example, the “EIV [ecosystem intrinsic value] for coastal and marine ecosystems” (Ye et al. 2020, p. 10) as “the objective value of the ecosystem in and for itself” (ibid., p. 3; emphasis removed) and seek to quantify this value for specific case study areas. Some authors ascribe holistic values to specific aspects of the ocean, e.g., by arguing that “marine biodiversity has intrinsic value of its own” (Reuchlin-Hugenholtz and McKenzie 2015, p. 6), while others stipulate “ocean values” (Laffoley et al. 2021, p. 1513) more broadly. This renaissance of (implicit) ecocentrism is not limited to the selected academic writing. Empirical surveys show that ecocentric reasoning is spreading in marine ecologists’ reasoning (Shilin et al. 2003, p. 254) and also among a wider set of stakeholders who “articulated intrinsic values” (O’Connor and Kenter 2019, p. 1255) in interviews on marine ecosystems.
Thus, despite the difficulties of embracing an ecocentric land ethic, it seems worthwhile to vindicate such approach in the marine realm. Doing so would substantiate those proposals for maritime governance which implicitly rest on ecocentric reasoning. While Callicott (1999) abandoned ecocentrism altogether given the criticism sketched above, this paper tries to avoid throwing out the baby with the seawater.
The common heritage
The use of the maritime realm by humans has consequences that span both time and space. Furthermore, vast areas of the oceans lie beyond national jurisdiction. Hence, international coordination in the preservation and exploitation of the sea is a necessity. To achieve such coordination, however, it is vital to share an understanding of what there is to be preserved—and potentially exploited. That is, a common ontology of the sea, and particularly of its internationally shared resources, is essential.
An important step into this direction was taken by the international community through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). It defined the high seas as the water column beyond the countries’ exclusive economic zones and territorial waters (Art. 86), comprising about two-thirds of the ocean. Similarly, the Area denotes those parts of the seabed that do not belong to any country’s legal continental shelf (Art. 1(1)); i.e., it spans the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction and covers roughly half of the seabed.
Crucially, UNCLOS specified that “[t]he Area and its resources are the common heritage of mankind” (Art. 136). The notion of a “common heritage” is not so much a concept of joint ownership as of joint stewardship (van Doorn 2016, p. 194). It acknowledges both an international and an intergenerational dimension of justice (ibid., p. 193) and takes “the benefit of mankind as a whole” (Art. 140) as a criterion for just exploitation of the Area. The heritage in its entirety is subject to our providence, mandating a sustainable utilization of the whole.
In spite of these noble goals, their implementation has been plagued by hindrances. Challenges become particularly visible in the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) attempt to regulate activities in the Area. First, it is unclear which activities actually do further the benefit of humanity as a whole (Moses and Brigham 2021). Second, if certain activities are permitted and the fruits thus reaped are to be distributed, what is a just allocation, both spatially and temporally (Lodge et al. 2017)? International management of the marine environment thus raises deeply normative questions. But before answering the moral questions of how to manage this environment, one should ask the ontological question of what it actually consists of. We now turn to this question.
A fuzzy ontology
The many ontologies of the marine realm have been of repeated scientific concern. Understanding what we take the ocean to be is not merely an academic exercise for its own sake, but has immediate political and governmental implications (Yates et al. 2017). However, scholars have so far focused on the nature of such “wet” ontologies in contrast to terrestrial ones (Peters and Steinberg 2015), or confined the scope of their analysis to the national domain (Bear 2013). The essential characteristics of international waters, their resources, and the life therein, have eluded a concise account. In the following, it is argued that any attempt at providing such account will be prone to fuzziness for three reasons: political disagreement, contentual fluctuation, and epistemic uncertainty. In order to arrive at a functional understanding of the “common heritage” idea in the light of this fuzziness, holistic reasoning is required.
First, there currently is political disagreement among the nation states on what the resources in the Area comprise. The minimum extent, as specified by UNCLOS, denotes “all solid, liquid or gaseous mineral resources” (Art. 133 (a), emphasis added). Some nations, however, urge for an extension of this concept to marine genetic resources (Leary 2019), which would vastly increase the extent of the heritage to basically any living organism in the Area. Such an extension would also be in line with the ambitious vision of Pardo, a key figure in the establishment of UNCLOS. He called for an international agency “to administer in the interests of mankind the oceans and [not just] the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction” (United Nations 1967, p. 1). While such agency was established indeed (the ISA), its scope was limited to the seabed, excluding the water column above. To date, no consensus is reached towards broadening the extend of the heritage.
Second, consider particular concepts of extending the common heritage. These range from the abovementioned, rather narrow set—encompassing not only the seabed’s mineral resources, but also its genetic ones—over the more ambitious idea of including all fisheries in international waters (Sackel 2017) to Pardo’s bold vision of covering the high seas in their entirety. Each of these extensions would, however, increase the fluctuation of the heritage even further. Already now, the movement of “highly migratory species” between different zones of jurisdiction is of concern to UNCLOS (Art. 64). Applying the common heritage principle to sedentary species in the Area, or outright to all fish in the high seas, pushes the fluctuation to additional degrees. The border between nationally exploitable resources and humanity’s common heritage becomes increasingly blurred.
Third, and finally, let us assume that consensus was reached on the question which resources are part of the common heritage—only mineral resources, also genetic ones, or subsets thereof—and that the fluctuation of these resources—into and outside of the area beyond national jurisdiction—was accounted for. Even then, the extent of the heritage would be severely underspecified. This is due to the epistemic uncertainty surrounding the marine realm. For one, more than 90% of the marine species are believed to be not yet taxonomically classified (Mora et al. 2011). Furthermore, if the resources belonging to the common heritage are to be exploited, e.g., via deep sea mining, such activities will impact the heritage’s composition and value. To date, however, there is very limited information on these impacts (Levin et al. 2020, p. 787). Any use of the international marine resources in the Area, even if it is to the benefit of humanity as a whole, will thus affect these very resources in an uncertain way.
Characterizations of the international marine realm, particularly of the Area, are thus subject to a lack of consensus and information. For the three reasons above, the notion of a common heritage is a blurry one. Disagreement, fluctuation, and uncertainty cause any ontological description to be fuzzy. Yet, sharing an ontology of the heritage is vital for the concept to get off the ground. As long as we try to pinpoint the exact extent of the heritage by specifying its individual constituents, the idea will remain a potentially never-ending theoretical exercise. But in the light of humanity’s ever increasing impact on the maritime space, and with the relevance of this space for many ecosystems (including humans) in mind, we cannot wait to settle these three issues in every detail. Instead of aiming at a full characterization of the heritage’s composition, we must content ourselves with a holistic understanding of the international marine space, requiring wise governance of the whole.
This holism does not merely resemble an ecosystem service approach, preserving the integrity of biotopes for the sake of their total economic value. Instead, it assigns fundamental relational value to the marine ecosystem: relational by its designation to benefit humanity as a whole, and fundamental by this benefit not being reducible to economic profits, but instead contributing to “a meaningful human life” in different ways (Muraca 2011, p. 383). Facilitating “meaningful lives” internationally and intergenerationally obliges us to share the common heritage in a just manner. This, in turn, necessitates coordinated management of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction. To succeed on the international level despite the three hindrances, we must include ecocentric perspectives, shifting the focus from atomistic uncertainties and blurry boundaries to an ecological collectivity. Where individualistic approaches fail, holistic ones must rise.