In the case of the ocean futures and the UN Law of the Sea, multiple sociotechnical imaginaries of ocean science and technology emerged from a more general re-imagining of the oceans during the mid-20th century. These sociotechnical imaginaries were used to proselytise underwater habitats, endless living and non-living resource extraction, and expanded uses of the deep seabed. Whilst in developed nations such as the United States these visions positively drove the evolution of ocean politics, in the less developed world these imaginaries and the policies they engendered a more cautious and often negative response.
Developing countries moved to assert their territorial rights on the continental shelf, in an attempt to avert a new ocean colonialism. Nations of the global south considered their lack of marine scientific and technical development as a barrier to their maritime economic development. Only by denying developed nations access to exploit other coastal nation’s marine resources did developing nations feel able to avoid a new age of ocean imperialism.
Environmental NGOs had an unexpected but significant role in bringing science into the Law of the Sea negotiations, infusing issues such as environmentalism into debates about resource use and distribution. Often, they worked together to advocate for causes that seemed very peripheral to the goals of industrial and developing nations regarding ocean boundary making.
Over time these NGOs did begin to foster their own visions – indeed imaginaries – of how global ocean governance could be organised. For example, the newly independent island state of Malta, through the work of Arvid Pardo and Elizabeth Mann Borgese, attempted to shift the focus towards a global imaginary of peace in the oceans, fearing that the competing imaginaries could be the basis for a new conflict centred on the ocean. But the oceans never became Borgese’s “laboratory for the making of a new world order.”
Divergent national imaginings of the uses, capabilities, and purposes of marine science and technology drove the south-north discord that deepened during the later Law of the Seas conferences. The catalyst for the Third Law of the Sea negotiations was the sociotechnical imaginaries of the nations of the world, and it was their politics that ultimately dominated the final legal settlement. Nations that could realistically envisage moving into the ocean space had the scientific capacity to create new underwater and surface-based ocean cities, and could conceive of the riches coming from deep-sea resource exploitation by companies based in and aligned to their nation states.
Learn from Sam Robinson, the author of this InsSciDe case study.
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM), University of Manchester
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