During the stay-at-home order in Spain issued as part of the government response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we all learned about the Spanish military mission called operation Balmis. The mission was named after Spanish military doctor Francisco Javier de Balmis, who at the turn of the 19th century was responsible for an expedition that brought the smallpox vaccine from the Iberian peninsula to then-Spanish territories in the Americas and the Philippines.
This 1803 public health operation was one of many scientific expeditions that began in the first quarter of the 18th century as of the establishment of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain, inspired by other Habsburg dynasties. Throughout that century, ships that sailed with different missions – including numerous specifically scientific expeditions – became floating laboratories where experiments were run ranging from the then-novel systems of astronomical measurement to improve geodesy to the creation of naturalist catalogs that, along with other Portuguese, French, and English expeditions, revealed the existence of previously unknown plant and animal species to European scientists. All of this coincided with the Enlightenment and the birth of modern natural history.
At the same time as these expeditions, during the first third of the 18th century, naturalist, botanist, and zoologist Carlos Linneo created modern binomial nomenclature, which has served ever since to precisely name organisms around the world. This nomenclature became essential as these scientific expeditions encountered a huge amount of diversity in plant and animal species. In response to this avalanche of discoveries, the vernacular names of these species seemed too imprecise for the structured, scientific knowledge of ever-expanding phyla of species.
Since then, knowledge on the species inhabiting the planet has been structured this way. A 2011 count put the number of species at 1,200,000, although the most deterministic studies (Joppa, 2014) say this number may reach 8,700,000. These calculations have been refuted by other studies that estimate that the total number of species may be even higher. That explains the news of new discoveries of species in all areas of the planet. This news, however, is juxtaposed with the news that spreads at an even faster clip announcing the unfortunate demise of an endangered species.
Although new discoveries are shared, the sad news of the statistical disappearance of a number of species spreads much faster. As occurs with fossil fuels, the truth is that more species are lost than are discovered and we are therefore facing a net loss of biodiversity.
All of us, in some way or another, have played a part in it. Our rate of consumption and forceful readaptation of systems beyond the pace of nature in all terrains – seasonal fruit available year-round at stores is a perfect example – has reached a speed that is simply and totally environmentally unsustainable. Even beyond the limits of land lies a frontier of biodiversity knowledge: the surface of the ocean.
Seas and oceans cover 72% of the Earth’s surface and contain 97% of the planet’s water. They have an average depth of 4,000 meters and oceanic trenches in which Everest itself could be submerged, and there would still be 3,000 meters left between its peak and the surface. In addition to the oxygen and nitrogen of the atmosphere, these enormous masses of water – which need to be measured in cubic kilometers – are responsible for life on Earth.
However, unfortunately, the immensity of the ocean is being literally affected by the relationship between it and cities. Today, in the year 2020, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, of which 40% are in coastal zones (UNESCO, IMO, UNDP, 2011) and a number of projections state that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas (UN-Habitat, 2009), entailing giant concentrations of people living on a very small portion of the Earth’s surface, between 4% and 11%, according to several indicators. Growth of coastal cities has more often than not harmed the ocean, expanding the space occupied by cities on coastal lands of great biological importance that have disappeared forever under public infrastructure projects like ports, boardwalks, beaches, roads, breakwaters, and seafront promenades. In short, waterfront works.
This concentration of global population in urban coastal territories (UCT) involves a huge amount of consumer goods and services putting direct pressure on the ocean – supply, transport, extraction, recreation – and coastal ecosystems, but most seriously involves continuous dumping of urban coastal waste (UCW). Given ocean dynamics of currents and tides, this waste is then distributed throughout the planet. This explains not only the different models of dispersion of microplastics, now embedded in food chains around the world, but also the cause of the appearance of floating garbage on all coastlines.
Different scientific ocean pollutant parametrization projects interpret the current situation as critical. While decontamination and other public volunteering projects to remove garbage from the ocean offer some, if not a great deal, of hope, the reality is recursive: the scale of the problem means it is no longer possible to clean the ocean. We must come to terms with this. Over the last few years, a number of projects – Ecoports on the Alboran Sea is the perfect example – are creating catalogs of garbage found in coastal and maritime seas, demonstrating the growing diversity of garbage in the ocean. When the garbage is exposed, so too is its source. The only solution is to act on this information. It is sadly illustrative of humanity that almost 300 years after the birth of the cataloging of species, we are now cataloging garbage.
Both in coastal and interior cities, this problem can only be reversed with education and raising awareness on the issue, active policies to correct the impact, reduced consumption of marine resources, and systematic wastewater treatment, as well as prevention of waste at the source, eliminating it before it is created. These measures are the least we can do to initiate a change of cycle in which the ocean will receives less waste than is taken out of it, to stop exchanging biodiversity for garbage. We can all work toward this paradigm shift in the relationship between cities and the sea.
Juan Diego López Arquillo is professor of Architecture in the Grado en Fundamentos de la Arquitectura and in the Máster Universitario en Arquitectura (habilitante) and waterfront relations expert