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Submarino JAGO, GEOMAR

The End of the Oceans?

Interview with Prof. Mojib Latif (61) GEOMAR, Kiel in Germany


Professor Mojib Latif
Professor Mojib Latif

ECO123: We produce a magazine in which we always try to bring economics and ecology together. Do you think that can work?
Mojib Latif: Yes, I am sure that can work. People talk a lot today about sustainability, an expression that is already very overused. I think the expression should rather be interpreted by the media as future viability. If it is understood in this way, then you can see straight away that economics and ecology are not opposites, rather they can only function together. Unfortunately we are currently in the process of squandering our future because we burden the ecosystems to such an extent that, in the long term, living conditions on our planet will get worse. For that reason, ecology and economy belong together quite simply.

Would you like to explain that in greater detail?
Right, let’s take two examples. One is biodiversity. Biologists say that we humans depend on biodiversity to a certain extent. The prime examples of this are the tropical rain forests and the loss of biodiversity because the region’s naturalness is being completely destroyed. The second example is the way in which we generate energy. Here too, we subject the ecosystems to extreme strain. In my book, I have described how we discharge a lot of oil into the sea, which then endangers life. This happens day in day out. This has become a quite normal procedure, that oil flows uninterrupted into the sea. We only ever become aware of it when there are major accidents. The same applies to radioactivity and other poisons.

At some stage, the ecosystems will reach a tipping point, that is if we don’t completely destroy them anyway, like the rain forests. The ecosystems may be able to adapt to some extent, but at some stage they will reach a tipping point, and mostly without warning. That is what is so dangerous. Because, if you have the feeling that everything is fine, nature can adapt, but at some stage we simply reach the point of no return. And we will sleep through it because we don’t even notice it.

How can we bring the economy and ecology together in such a way that they are in harmony with each other? Have you got a master plan?
This is connected with the way in which we run the economy. Short term thinking and acting permeates the whole global economy. That is what is fatal for the environment. It’s just about maximising profits as quickly as possible and everything that happens in the long term is simply blanked out. With students, we have to start with the idea of reforming the traditional notion of growth that is common to almost all economists.

So you should actually teach economics rather than oceanography.
In principle, yes. You can’t imagine the sort of battles I have with colleagues from the faculties of economics. But there’s no alternative. Let’s take overfishing. If you take too many fish out of the sea, you see the result. We have published studies that show that, if you leave fish stocks in peace for a few years, in other words don’t fish so much, they can recover again. Then you can catch all the more fish afterwards. But this business of “allowing time”, of going easy for a few years to then have more profit, that just doesn’t happen.

So “Less is More” would be the motto that we could also apply to sardine fishing?

So, how can we solve the problem of a global economy that has a fleet of 53,000 freighters – and counting – and that transports over nine billion tonnes of goods per year by sea? It can’t just be abolished from one day to the next?
We don’t have to view everything globally, we can start with ourselves here in Europe, in Germany, in Portugal…

Mojib Latif…someone always has to start…
Yes. I wonder whether it is necessary to have a product such as yoghurt or eggs transported from north to south, and vice versa. We produce growth that only appears to be growth, that actually serves no one, except that profit is made. The reason it all functions is that transport costs almost nothing at all. We pay for transport out of the petty cash. If you have something transported in a container ship from Australia or China, it costs almost nothing. It almost doesn’t appear in the calculations. Transport is very cheap. That’s where you have to start.

I can see straight away that you are a friend of the new transatlantic free trade agreement TTIP.
If that is meant ironically, yes. That is exactly the wrong direction for us to be heading.

And the right direction would be transition and frugality?
Yes. Transformation. Of course. That is the solution in many respects. This is also linked to a debate about values of course. We surrender to illusions. When you look out on to the streets, be it in Europe or the USA, you can see off-road vehicles. Who needs an off-road vehicle – and there are increasing numbers of them – in our cities? There is no good reason for having one. We come back to “less is more”. An off-road vehicle is not a value. Family and children, friendships, and good food, eating and having long conversations with each other, those are values.

Are you still an optimist, or have you become a pessimist?
I am a hopeless optimist. There are many reasons for that. At the end of the day, I believe that we have no other choice than to follow this new path, which is actually an old one, but one that we have just forgotten how to follow. Because in principle, no one is against the idea of following the path of harmony. We will learn to think differently. Because if we continue with what we are doing at the moment our problems will get worse and worse. I am absolutely convinced that this realisation will grow. One indication for this is that Barack Obama has now introduced his climate package, just in time for Paris.

When you see the floods of refugees, it would be fantastic to believe that the problem will solve itself. There will be more and more. And you have to ask yourself at some point and the first people are starting to do so, why it is like that? Why are they coming here? Because there is just this exploitation between north and south, and because we here live at other people’s expense. For that reason I am sure that this realisation will grow. Of course, this hurts to start off with. We have to grasp the problems at their roots and solve them there.

How do we solve the problem of CO2?
Quite simply. With renewable energies. In Portugal, that is no problem at all. Not even in northern Europe. On our earth, we are surrounded by sun, wind and water. Why don’t we use them? Because there are apparently a few people in a few countries who make us dependent on fossil fuels. Viewed objectively, this way of running the economy is undemocratic. The economy must be guided by people’s needs. I don’t think that humanity has a need to be dependent on oil, gas and coal. We must reach a point where the economy is there for the people and not the people for the economy.

How do you deal with that yourself?
I have a small car and only drive at 100 kilometres per hour on the motorway, and I cycle a lot. Unfortunately I fly too much.

Can you imagine personally that you will manage with 3,000 kg of CO2 emissions a year? With Kyoto in mind.
In principle, it can be done of course. I would have to stop flying and would not be able to speak at conferences any more. But you have to adapt the world around you a bit, otherwise it won’t work. Video conferences, if you want to talk to each other, for example. Of course, I don’t buy Spanish apples in Germany or strawberries at Christmas time. Do we really need salt mills with a built-in light from China? How much more rubbish does our consumer society need? We live very wastefully, and throw half of our foodstuffs away.

Why is your book entitled “The End of the Oceans”?
I tried to write a book about the fascination of the seas. Especially in the deep sea there are lots of undiscovered animals, fish too, that look like monsters. There is still a lot to be discovered and understood there.

On the other hand, I wanted to make it clear that we are putting increasing strain on the seas, discharging poisons like oil and radioactivity, but also the way we use the sea, overfishing, also the sins we commit on land and in estuaries, for example aquaculture with antibiotics.

There were two events that induced me to write this book: the first was the biggest oil spill of all time in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The people and the sea are still suffering from that today, especially from the dispersant Corexit, the poison that was sprayed on to the oil slick to disperse the oil in the water. That in turn led to the oil-degrading bacteria being poisoned, as well as fish larvae and microorganisms. The toxicity of crude oil is increased about fiftyfold. A method of manipulating the press and politics. The oil had to be removed from the public gaze. Greenwashing.

The other was the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the huge volume of radioactive sea water that was supposed to cool the meltdown of the damaged nuclear power stations and was then discharged into the Pacific again.

I also wrote the book to document the way in which the specific interests of companies like BP and TEPCO dominate politics at the expense of the fundamental interests of the common good.

How do you see the relationship between science and economics? You research and publish. Does it not happen that science, with its research findings, actually prompts business to exploit the sea and its raw materials?
Yes, there is always the danger that we are taken advantage of. But it is certainly no solution to forego science or to stop publishing. We are trying to understand the world around us, and that is also one of humanity’s great achievements. But it’s true that it can be taken advantage of. As a meteorologist and marine scientist, I started researching the phenomenon of El Niño, and hence the warming of the Pacific Ocean and the effects of this warming on the global climate, e.g. drought in Asia, Namibia and California. Some people used this as a reason for setting fire to forests.

There have to be rules about how we are to behave. I once asked the question why do we, the state or whoever, have to prove that what a company does is harmful for the environment? Why doesn’t the company have to prove that it works in a way that is not harmful? The burden of proof needs to be reversed and the “polluter pays principle” needs to be applied. The regulations are outdated and they are no longer correct. We see the same thing in the financial sector. A whole new ethic is required that anchors our economy in ecology.

1. The Helmholtz Association has been in existence as a registered charity since 1995. It is headquartered in Bonn, and has offices in Bonn and Berlin. The association has 15 centres in Germany, including the Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, and three offices abroad, in Brussels, Moscow and Beijing. The association’s total budget for 2015 is close to four billion euros. The Helmholtz Association has a staff of 37,939, including 14,734 scientists, 6,171 doctoral students and 1,657 trainees. According to its statutes, it carries out cutting-edge research in six fields: energy, earth and environment, health, aeronautics, space and transport as well as key technologies and matter.
2. The GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel is one of the leading establishments in the field of marine research in Europe. The institute investigates the chemical, physical, biological and geological processes in the oceans and their interaction with the seafloor and the atmosphere. Research focuses mainly on four key areas: ocean circulation and climate dynamics, marine biogeochemistry, marine ecology and dynamics of the ocean floor. GEOMAR conducts marine research. The institute makes an active contribution to the training of future marine scientists through several internationally oriented courses. It operates four research ships, long-term observatories, a small submersible and a deep-sea robot that can dive to a depth of up to 6,000 metres. GEOMAR is a member of the Marine Board of the European Science Foundation. It has a staff of 850.
Mojib Latif 3. Professor Mojib Latif (61) studied economy for four semesters before being drawn to meteorology at the University of Hamburg. He did his doctorate and qualified as a professor in oceanography on the subject of “El Niño”. He spent many years working at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. Since 2003, Prof. Latif has been working at GEOMAR in Kiel, where he heads the “ocean circulation and climate dynamics” research area. ECO123 visited him there and talked to him about ecological and economic solutions for the oceans. His current book “Das Ende der Ozeane” (“The End of the Oceans”)(published by Herder Verlag) deals with the oceans as the basis for our existence, the origin of all life on earth.


About the author

Uwe Heitkamp, 53 years old, started working after university in daily newspapers and from 1984 on in public tv broadcasting companies such as WDR (Collogne), NDR (Hamburg), SDR (Stuttgart/Baden-Baden) in the ARD (first programme), wrote several books and directed the cinema movie about the anti nuclear movement in Germany in 1986 (Wackersdorf). After emigration in 1990 he founded 1995 the trilingual weekly printed newspaper “Algarve123” and later the online edition www.algarve123.com. Heitkamp lives for 25 year in Monchique, Portugal. He loves mountain hiking and swimming in streams and lakes, writes and tells stories of success from people and their sustainable relationship between ecology and economy. His actual film “Revolutionary Roads” tells the 60 minute story of a long walk crossing Portugal. 10 rural people paint a picture of their lives in the hills of the serra and the hinterland. The film captures profound impressions of natural beauty and human life. Along which path is the future of Portugal to be found? (subscribe to ECO123 und watch the documentary in the Mediatec)

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