Cristina Mittermeier: Blue economies can replace exploitative economies

Adventurer, conservationist, writer and photographer Cristina Mittermeier discusses storytelling's role in the protection of the oceans with COP25 High Level Champion for Chile, Gonzalo Muñoz. By Climate Champions | June 8, 2021

Gonzalo Munoz: The ocean is both a victim and a solution – how do these two words resonate with you and connect to the amazing work that you’ve done, for example through your photography?

Cristina Mittermeier: If I invite you to close your eyes for a minute and think about our planet, what do you see? You see a little blue marble floating in the big universe. And the reason it’s blue is because it’s covered in ocean and this ocean is not just water, it’s a living broth; it’s alive. If you look with a microscope, you can find a microscopic rainforest but you can also find the largest animals on our planet.

It is the most important ecosystem on the planet. One that generates the most oxygen, that sequesters the most carbon. It moderates temperature, provides rain precipitation, the currents and wind.

But it’s a victim because we have abused it. We have taken too much away and we have dumped too much into it. But we also need to see it as the solution and all we have to do is protect it.

From your experience of exploring the ocean, can you highlight to us both negative impacts on the ocean and the solutions that are emerging?

I’d like to start by talking about this idea of cognitive blindness. For instance – when you’re in a theatre, and somebody is having a heart attack, but nobody moves, because we are all kind of paralysed. I feel like we’re experiencing something similar when it comes to the climate catastrophe.

For the last 30 years, we’ve been talking about the degradation of the ocean. But we haven’t really communicated this to the public. It’s happening at the policy level; in the UN, in these big conferences. But to the regular citizen, we haven’t given them an opportunity to learn and understand the vital role that the ocean plays in our daily lives, and how they can have a huge impact every day.

So, I have made that my life’s mission. And I discovered that when we lead the conversation with science, when we talk to people about graphs and scientific data, most people don’t speak that language, so they reject it. Nobody likes to feel stupid or incompetent. But when you show somebody a photograph or a video, we all feel competent, we all are very good at stories and at visual interpretation. So people actually feel like they are invited into the conversation. Because of this I started building a very large social media following just by sharing little stories with people.

And then I made a massive discovery. In 2017, we published this video of a polar bear that was starving in the Arctic, and it went viral. People were really upset and I couldn’t understand why. And then I realised that when you show people something that’s very disturbing and depressing, but you don’t give them an opportunity to take action, it’s worse. So, I came to the realisation that we need to involve everyday citizens in learning and becoming ocean citizens. We need to lower the price of entry. And then we need to build technology platforms and tools that allow every citizen to be part of it. And so that’s what I’ve been doing: creating technology tools that allow people to take digital actions wherever they are to help the ocean.

What happens in that moment between you and the camera?

I love photography because I feel I can facilitate a conversation that otherwise would not happen. I love making photographs that stop people in their tracks and make us think. Photographs have that ability of permeating into our subconscious in a way that makes us remember.

What’s the latest challenge that our oceans are facing? And what does the next generation of ocean conservationists need to do in order to overcome them?

The biggest challenge the ocean faces is that we know so little about it. And we are attacking it in so many fronts. It’s death by a million wounds. We already have collapsed over 80% of the big fisheries; we have taken too much out. We have failed to understand that the animals that we’re capturing are not limitless, their populations are collapsing, and that every time you take a piece of the puzzle out of the food chain, something else crumbles.

I am really worried about the continued efforts of industrial fisheries. I think in the interest of supporting climate change resiliency, we should ban industrial fishing. That is not the same as banning artisanal fishing people in coastal communities, which need this to survive. And how good would it be if we all knew who caught the fish on our plate, and if we knew it was from a family business that supports the local economy.

We already have collapsed over 80% of the big fisheries. Image: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

The second thing is that we altering the chemistry of our planet. The ocean plays a huge role in mitigating the amount of gas in the atmosphere, it absorbs so much of it, but it’s already becoming very acidic. Because when CO2 enters the ocean, it becomes an acid. And because it’s hard to quantify, we don’t know what the effect of acidification is having. Many things are irreversible.

The biggest challenge the ocean faces is that we know so little about it. And we are attacking it in so many fronts. It’s death by a million wounds

We have issues that are possibly solved with technology and with circular economy thinking. But there are other issues, like the loss of biodiversity and the loss of sea ice that are irreversible: once we lose them, we will never get them back.

The loss of polar ice is very worrisome. I like to tell people that this is the air conditioning of our planet, and every year we have less and less and less. When the sea ice disappears, as well as polar bears going extinct, it will affect currents, fisheries, the jet stream – the big rivers of air that circulate around our planet.

I worry about those big things that are difficult to understand and difficult to quantify. But I am an optimist. And I like to think because of our ingenuity, we have an ability to turn things around. We have an army of people who care and who are giving you their everything, every day. So, I’m hopeful.

What about coral reefs? We know of their rapid degradation but we also know about potential solutions, right?

The small country of East Timor was at war for 25 years so they never really developed a fishing fleet. The consequence of that is that their coral reefs are intact. When you submerge the water it’s like going into a time machine – you can descend into a reef that has all its beautiful, pristine corals and fish. And there’s not many reefs that we see around the world like that. We’ve already lost 50% of the reefs. Coral reefs are so important. Not just because they’re the nurseries and sanctuaries for so many species that humans need. But also because they create a barrier that shelters the coast from the fury of hurricanes and storms.

But beyond their vital necessity to the planet, we should protect them and love them just because they’re beautiful.

The good news is that we’re learning that some reef, some corals, are more resilient to higher temperatures, to higher acidification, than others. And there’s great science emerging, for example from people like Dr David Vaughan – who figured out how to grow corals 40 times faster. At Sea Legacy, we’re helping to mobilize a huge number of people to help us plant a million corals. As we restore coral reefs, abundance will come back, the fish will come back. And that drives tourism dollars that drives fisheries dollars: it’s good for the ocean and it’s good for us.

We’ve already lost 50% of the reefs. Image: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Can we reflect a bit now on sustainable tourism and the blue economy?

We have spent the last 100 years exploiting, over exploiting, and not thinking about circularity. All you have to do is observe nature to know that in nature, nothing is wasted. Everything is a part of a circular ecosystem of services. The fruit that falls from the tree is eaten by somebody else who then takes the seed elsewhere.

I think that tourism is one of those activities that has a lot of potential to become very circular, where nothing is wasted and nothing is over exploited. And I think there’s many examples where it happens already. We have to be careful as tourism is a double-edged sword. We have a tendency to have too many tourists in some places and destroy them, which takes away the magic.

But I think all of these things can be overcome. I think that blue economies can replace exploitative economies. I think we can make more money from tourism than we can from fisheries. We can make more money from carbon credits than we can from oil. I just think we have to have the courage to reimagine our economic models and engines. It will take a generation of young leaders like yourself to say the way that we’ve been doing things – it worked for a while, but it doesn’t work anymore. And we need to have the innovation and the spirit of ambition to change it.

Yes, I absolutely agree. Have you been diving in different places and seeing some signs of recovery?

I think the ocean has a tremendous ability to recover, it has a lot of resilience. I have been lucky to spend most of the pandemic on a boat in the Bahamas so we’ve been diving every day. We have seen extraordinary things. We have seen big populations of wildlife: sharks, dolphins, stingrays. The day before yesterday, I was swimming with sea turtles and I actually found it hard to take photographs because they wanted to come so close to me!

Animals need space, and they need a break from economic activity, from humans making noise, from humans creating chaos. I hope that we have learned some lessons during this pandemic. I hope that we understand that the economic systems that have taken us to this moment are the wrong ones for the future. And that we really need to make room for different kinds of thinking. We have a sliver a small window of opportunity to change it all. And we have to have the courage to say we want this change.

A turtle off the Galapagos Islands. Image: Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

We know that some of that is dependent on political willingness, some on financial mechanisms and incentives, some on using the right type of technology. But we can also encourage citizens action, right? So how much of that, do you think, relies on ourselves: our attitude and our behaviour?

I think a lot of it actually hinges on seeing success. When citizens take action, and we see that something changes, we go home and we want to do more of that. We want more change.

I actually am very grateful to the presidency of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for taking leadership for Americans. Because the United States, for better or for worse, continues to be a leader in how we think about these things, and how other countries adopt solutions. And seeing the bold and courageous mechanisms, investments, incentives; how they are tackling this issue, to me is really inspiring. I hope that it’s going to cause a domino effect, where governments of other countries start to take courageous decisions.

We also need to tackle cynicism. For that we need people need to feel inspired, hopeful, energised and activated because who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful planet? I want to live in a planet where there’s old growth forest, where there’s coral reefs and dolphins and whales. I think we all do. So, I think we need citizen actions for political action.

Christina, I wouldn’t spend like 10 years speaking to you, hopefully someday even diving with you. Thanks so much, not only for this conversation, thank you for everything that you’re doing.

Before we go, I want to paint the picture in your mind, and in the mind of everyone who’s listening. Let’s just for a moment imagine that we are able to turn this ship around and we are able to achieve a fossil fuel free energy future, we are able to embrace the culture of circular economy, that we are able to make peace with nature and to learn to respect and revere every single piece of the puzzle that makes this living planet the beautiful planet it is. And so, with that beautiful image in mind, I’m going say thank you for the opportunity. Gonzalo, gracias, and best of luck. I hope to see you in person soon.

For more information on Christina and her work, please visit:




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