Betting on the Blue Economy

Below is an article I wrote on the Blue economy in Rhode Island.  Actually you have two articles.  The first is the edited version that Richard Asinof, editor of Convergence edited before publishing in today’s edition.  I really like and appreciate the job Richard did editing it.  But the original included references, sources, and some additional comments that some of you may also appreciate, so I offer up both versions.  greg

http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/what-are-you-willing-to-bet-on-the-blue-economy,7275   

What are you willing to bet on the Blue Economy?

An exploration into the depths of efforts to develop the Blue Economy in Rhode Island by an iconoclastic ecologist

A family at land's end at India Point Park in Providence, at the convergence of Narragansett Bay.

Photo by Richard Asinof

A family at land’s end at India Point Park in Providence, at the convergence of Narragansett Bay.

By Greg Gerritt

Posted 5/16/22

Editor’s Note: The lush promise of summer hangs in the air of an early May evening, with its salty fragrance perfuming the waterfront around us. Two children are exploring the water’s edge, under the watchful eyes of parents, as a young girl in pigtails throws a stone into the dark, blue-green water, proud of the big splash that it makes. In the background, a steady stream of traffic traverses the highways that define the city’s boundaries, separating the land from the sea, with a cluster of wind turbines seeming to provide a distant hum: I must go down to the sea again.


But for the two young children, barefoot, at the edge of Narragansett Bay at India Point Park, the early evening is an alluring escape into the local seascape, where their dreams and adventures can find a moment of pure joy in discovery. Splash!

Of course, if you peer more closely into that urban seascape at land’s end, you can discern the rotted wooden piers yards from the shoreline, with the tall smokestacks on the horizon, and acres and acres of waste metal disposal sites and industrial storage tanks, an homage to our fossil fuel infrastructure. It is an image far, far removed from the tourist playground fantasies of sandy beaches and rolling waves and pastel-colored lighthouses on special license plates: Cooler and warmer?

This is where the once and future economies of Rhode Island are on a collision course, according to Greg Gerritt, one of Rhode Island’s iconoclastic commentators with an ecological bent.

India Point Park in Providence, which once served as the landing point for slave ships, now serves as a popular late afternoon excursion point for families with young children, a refuge that serves as a place of convergence of river and sea. Why isn’t there a marker, or a bench by the side of the road, telling the story of the slave trade in Rhode Island, as Toni Morrison asked.

Here is the place where indigenous cultures once thrived, where herring returned to spawn, before European settlers arrived, and imposed their own version of commerce and religion and conquest. God save the King!

In a thoughtful exploration of the new, Blue Economy, Gerritt provides readers of ConvergenceRI with a sounding board, call it a rudder to steer with, through an “uncomfortable conversation” about how the recent plans to harvest what economic developers are calling the “Blue Economy” resembles the old-fashioned equation of the economic colonialism of the past.

The goal in publishing the op-ed is not to get you to agree, or to disagree – but to begin to have the conversation. Here we are, three years into the coronavirus pandemic and counting, on the verge of summertime in Rhode Island. …And the living is not easy…

The story is meant to serve as a spark, a starting point, for an exchange of ideas, particularly as Rhode Island finds itself at a crossroads for how it wants to define its future path toward economic prosperity – that place where  innovation, health, research, technology and community converge – a place where, as poet Langston Hughes described it, “Where the number not only/Comes out – but repeats!

For Gerritt, it begins with the strongly articulated belief: “Expectations of economic growth in an age of ecosystem collapse create more problems than it can solve, including the rolling climate catastrophe.” The more we want, Gerritt continues, “The bigger the deficit each year, and the closer we are to surpassing ever more planetary boundaries that threatens life on Earth.”

My guess is that Gerritt and I could argue about long into the night about this, and maybe find common ground, and maybe not. But it is an argument worth having. 

The children playing at the water’s edge at India Point Park may at first appear to be far removed the conversation, a postcard from the edge of the debate, not fully aware of the drama being played out in front of them about the future. But they are Rhode Island’s future.

PART One

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself.
— Rachel Carson

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island is called the Ocean State, so it is safe to say that the ocean has always played a big role in our economy and our culture. Shellfish have been a food staple since the end of the Ice Ages. Purple shells were an important trade good well before the European colonial invasion. Herring were not only a valuable food source but served as a key component of agriculture. 

Post European invasion, Rhode Island was active in ocean trade routes, beginning with the slave trade and the Triangle Trade [slaves, sugar cane, rum]. India Point was named for the destination of many of its ships. 

Until there were paved roads, coastal shipping and ferries were often the main modes of commerce, even after the railroads were built. Waterfalls that were used to power industrial mills came right up next to the tidewater, helping Rhode Island to become an industrial giant in the 19th-century America.

You get the picture: ocean-related sectors of the state’s economy and our evolving workplace culture were defined by their long-standing economic value.

Roots, mills, and robots
The ocean-oriented economic sectors never went away, but the sectors have evolved. We no longer send out slave ships and whalers – though we do have a whale-watching industry. 

But today there is a greater push to increase the size of the ocean-oriented economy, and to broaden its definition. Mining metal nodules on the “abyssal” plains hundreds of feet deep on the seafloor bed, with new-fangled submersible robots, may seem like it will be the next big thing to place bets on, despite the potential to cause great harm and disruption to the sea’s ecosystem. 

I recently wrote a paper exploring what I believe to be the misguided economic development strategy found in “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0,” a report produced on behalf of CommerceRI, the state’s economic development agency, written by consultant Bruce Katz.

If you read my essay, “CommerceRI innovates towards inequality, unaffordable health care and ecological collapse,” you will note that I spent relatively little verbiage on the “Blue Economy,” despite that being one of the areas that CommerceRI believes is ripe for innovation and growth. 

To be honest, the “Blue Economy” is a mixed bag, from fisheries to submarines with nuclear weapons, from life affirming to planet destroying investments and technologies.

I was asked to delve deeper into the subject by the editor of ConvergenceRI, Richard Asinof, and I agreed to give it a whirl, knowing it was not really my area of expertise.

Asinof also sent me the introduction to a book by Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism, which focuses on the differences between the modern exploitive methodology of science, specifically the study of plastic pollution in fish, and contrasts it with how the lab she works in at a university in Newfoundland tries to practice non-exploitive science.

This underlying approach that Liboiron offers directly relates to a decent-sized chunk of the Rhode Island’s “Blue Economy,” the part that scientific research that plays in the local economy. 

But it also offers us an opportunity to rethink an economy based on exploitation – and our willingness to surpass safe limits when our activities for profit threaten planetary health. 

Framing the discussion
In my activism around the ocean and ocean industries, I have learned to color outside the lines. 

I begin with the understanding that the expectations of economic growth in an age of ecosystem collapse create more problems than such growth solves, including the rolling climate catastrophe. 

Translated, the more we want, the bigger the deficit each year, and the closer we come to surpassing ever more planetary boundaries that threatens life on Earth. 

The exploitation of the planet is matched by the exploitation of other people by whomever can manipulate the economic system to their own advantage, in my opinion. There is enough for all of our needs, but feeding the greed wreaks havoc.

What we really need is an economy geared not toward scarcity, but toward the concept of enough – that we can meet the needs of everyone quite well, while ensuring the genetic materials we need to continue the evolutionary journey have room to diversify, eventually reaching a steady state of economic equilibrium. 

I admit ii is perhaps not a very popular concept, but if you look at what is going on, our resources are disappearing. The planetary boundaries for the renewal of key nutrients are being surpassed. [For instance, phosphorus is ending up at the bottom of the ocean, not to be available for the next few hundred million years, and a body cannot process food without phosphorus.]

In other words, to repeat the popular slogan, “There is no Planet B.” So Plan B has to be a based upon a very different kind of economy.

It is that understanding that I bring to the public discussions of economic development in Rhode Island and New England. I have viewed the efforts to continue to grow the economy faster and faster as a death spiral, what I call an inebriated dance. Because we have not really produced any good ideas for growing the economy faster, in a way that actually benefits our communities, in a world with ever-diminishing natural resources, except for creating ever-bigger piles of trash, and growing inequality. 

I believe that it is as a rather similar approach to community economics that the Clear Laboratory in Newfoundland is taking to the study of pollution.

• “Betting on the Blue Economy” is a decision to smartly flog the horse to go faster, and mostly for things that either harm people directly or diminish the natural world and our communities. 

I admit that this is sweeping generalization that is not truly 100 percent accurate, given that a fair bit of Rhode Island’s “Blue Economy” is focused on wind power and scientific research – and much of that research is focused on looking at how Narragansett Bay and the coastal waters along its southern coast are changing in response to climate change. 

So, the Blue Economy is not completely harmful, even if it is embedded in a culture in which economic growth is supposed to be as normal as schools of fish swimming in Narragansett Bay – even if it kills both fish and humans with microplastics.

Tourism is very clearly an industry that uses a low-paid, often severely abused, labor force to cater to those who have more. Boat building today, it seems, is something that only the rich can afford to keep afloat. Advanced materials for racing boats is, by definition, money to burn.

Shellfish are no longer part of a basic diet ingredient but a luxury, as is aquaculture as practiced in the limited spaces available in Rhode Island. 

Managing fisheries also becomes a rather strange science in an age in which fishing technologies can wipe out species almost overnight, at depths we could never have imagined fishing in the past. And, with ocean managers who are trying to “square the circle” between science and the power of money in the political process.

Complicating the “Blue Economy” further is the fact that fish and human populations are being forced to migrate, moving around the seas and the planet’s land masses, due to carbon pollution resulting in hotter water temperatures, drought, and inhabitable climates.

Then we have all of the military institutions and contractors, merging big money, violence, and easy corruption. The stoking of the war machine is among the biggest threats to democracy, the oceans, and life on earth. Nuclear madness has reared its ugly head in Ukraine. It reminds us that we will not have a healthy ocean if we do not ban nuclear weapons and quit building the vehicles such as nuclear submarines for their delivery.

Finally, do not forget the nodules of metal paving the bottom of the ocean deep that the submersibles being worked on around the Bay will facilitate the exploitation of, no matter what the cost to the planet.

The big picture
The big picture is that just about every sector of the “Blue Economy” in Rhode Island is geared toward growing the inequality of our economy. 

Even the parts of the economy providing good working-class jobs in construction, fishing, aquaculture, boat building, materials innovation, and the war machine feed the coffers of the wealthiest among us more than the pockets of the hungry populace, and provide for the rich much more than the poor, while the low-wage work of the tourism, food, and recreation industries also mostly serves those who have more money.

Maybe the part of the “Blue Economy” directly tied to scientific research, monitoring temperatures and chemicals and the like in the Bay, looking at sea-level rise or the health of fish populations could be considered as relatively benign, but according to Liboiron, the very structure of science as practiced upholds a power structure based on exploitation, and creates the tools to do the exploiting. 

A series of question to answer before delving deeper into the “Blue Economy” are:Does it help us solve the real problems we face today beyond our desire for more money? Does it help us undo the climate catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels? Does it help us live healthier lives, free from polluted environments? Does it reduce inequality? 

Too often, it appears that the government wishes to make people subservient to the economy, to force us to do what the most rich and powerful would have us do to satisfy their insatiable appetite for more money and more tax revenue rather than design the economy to serve the community, including those with the least power.

Many of these issues are showing up in all the discussions and hearings around what is to be allowed in the Port of Providence. 

The mainstream lens
Bruce Katz helped to lead the work on some of the economic development plans that Rhode Island has produced in the last 25 years. His perspective on the Blue Economy [from a previous interview with ConvergenceRI] is probably as mainstream as it gets and is included here to show how far away from an economy based on justice and ecological healing Rhode Island has strayed, and how far into jargon we have stumbled as the rich and powerful attempt to control the messaging. 

“The Ocean State, for our perspective,” Katz said, “is not just a brand; it’s a platform for broader, innovative growth. The blue economy covers multiple sectors. It obviously covers what the Navy is doing at Naval Undersea Warfare Center, it covers the Naval War College, it covers off-shore wind near Block Island, it covers tourism, it covers aquaculture, it covers coastal resiliency and resiliency along rivers to prevent flooding or mitigate flooding, it covers environmental remediation.”

Katz continued: “So, this is a very broad super sector of the economy, which is essentially like the green economy was 25 years ago, it’s coming into its own, particularly as the U.N. has designated the next decade as the decade of ocean science, oceans writ large.”

Further, Katz elaborated on the players in this space. “I think there are going to be multiple players in this space. And, I think the University of Rhode Island has a particular role to play because it is one of the top centers of oceanography in the world. I could definitely see that the Providence Innovation District could have a portion of its focus be around the blue economy. You already have some movement in that direction. I think this is an evolution of an understanding of what makes the Rhode Island economy distinctive and special, and how to build on it over time.”

That Katz views this sector as poised for growth with no measuring stick looking at the results of the growth says much. And, as we know, while the Green Economy is much touted, and much larger, it has done nothing to change the fundamental approach in economic development or the power dynamics in our communities.

We may not poison as overtly, we may pay homage to good ecological management, we may even include more of the community in the discussion about what we should do, but the Earth and the ocean and our communities are still much diminished and being harmed ever more every day. 

Diving deeper
After reading “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0,” I read “The Value of Rhode Island’s Blue Economy,” which was produced by the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI, in partnership with the RI Coastal Resources Center and RI Sea Grant.

The authors list seven major sub-sectors of the Blue Economy. They include: Defense, Marine Trades, Ports and Shipping, Tourism and Recreation, Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Offshore Renewable Energy. 

Here is a very quick and dirty take on the seven sub-sectors:

• Tourism and Recreation provides by far the most jobs, though most of those are relatively low paid.

• The Defense industry has the highest wages. There is plenty of money to be made supplying the Navy with the tools of the trade. It offers us new and better ways to build weapons or training members of the military, including Americans and military officers from around the world. 

And while the defense industry has shed a few jobs in Rhode Island over the last 10 years, the war in Ukraine is likely to increase the unbelievably huge budget for “killing” passed by Congress, and some of that will end up in Rhode Island.

So, expect the defense industry to grow as the business of killing increases.

• Marine Trades is ship building and related tasks. We are small potatoes, building yachts, and now boats to service the offshore wind industry. 

Included in this is also a sector of the industry that focuses on developing new materials for boat building, something that was spurred by yacht racing. Aquidneck Island has been home to very prestigious yacht races for many years, and the industry has continued to grow in that area. 

• Ports and shipping is focused on transforming shipping into a Green
Industry by reducing emissions and pollution. Shipping is responsible for about 3 percent of global emissions], but in a state in which the landings are dominated by fossil fuels and automobiles, with some road salt throw in for good measure, and exports are
primarily scrap metal and used cars, one has to wonder how “green” Rhode Island’s ports will ever be, and if they will be able to survive the end of fossil fuels.

The Port of Providence deserves its own discussion as an economic justice zone and I will talk about that in another section.

It will take considerable resources to make our docks capable of handling a four-foot sea level rise. In a world with out of control carbon emissions, an offshore wind industry is very welcome.

But progress has been slow for a variety of reasons. The former President and the
fossil fuel industries have tried to kill or slow walk the wind industry.

Rhode Island also has a limited number of large parcels to convert into facilities capable of handling the huge structures of the wind industry. We may generate lots of the electricity we need offshore eventually, but we shall only be home to a limited percentage of the associated industries.

• Aquaculture is a growth industry, pun intended. With cleaner water, it appears to be a fit, but there are limits to where it is acceptable. Communities are fighting back to prevent the overrunning of the neighborhood recreation hot spots, and it will remain an industry primarily serving the wealthiest among us. 

It also remains to be seen how climate change will affect it. The next big thing appears to be kelp, and again it will be as a smallish scale specialty crop.

For all the noise it generates, Rhode Island only has about 350 acres in aquaculture and new leases are struggling more and more against community opposition. [The archaic nature of the Coastal Resources Management Council is not helping much.] 

Fishing is as old as settlements along the coast, but it is an industry in trouble. The ability to over-fish species after species means that there is a constant struggle between regulation of take and what the people who fish need to keep them on the water.

Complicating this is the fact that climate change is causing fish and shellfish to move north to escape the heat, and be replaced by species moving up from the south. 

It also turns out that wind turbine bases enhance recreational fishing while making life more difficult for commercial fishers, so the siting the ocean leases has also become more problematic. Almost as problematic as how to protect the right whales.

Underlying all of this economic activity is a research component, mostly based at universities like URI and Roger Williams University, that are monitoring the bay, studying the fish, creating new tools to study the Bay and fish as well as providing tools and expertise to places around the world, and developing new technologies and weapons for the industrial sectors. 

The people in charge of economic development policy and the people pulling the levers in the private sector are not asking the questions about where we are going, in my opinion. They are not asking if the industry in question leads to more justice, a more equitable economy, progress on climate change, and healthier communities, and yes, and world peace. 

Right now, you could not say the “Blue Economy” as described by Bruce Katz and the Rhode Island ruling elite is going to move us in the right direction.

Why is this story important?

An ecological treatise looking at the problems with efforts to develop the Blue Economy in Rhode Island.

The questions that need to be asked

What are the remedies available to halt the overproduction of plastics from fossil fuels? Will the R.I. General Assembly take steps this year to regulate PFAs in our water supplies? Is there a diagnosis code for “long CVOID?” How will the R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha continue to serve as the state’s public health advocate in opposing the plans for National Grid to sell off its holdings to PPL? What is the current value of the squid fishery projected to be over the next decade? How are efforts to develop long-term health and education plans for the state connected to the need to develop economic strategies that promote the end of the state’s dependence on fossil fuels?

Under the radar screen

For all the noise and uproar about critical race theory and replacement theory spewed by – there is no other way to describe them but as bigots,, a critical component of the latest Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook, released on Monday, May 16, in a virtual event, are what the demographics tell us about ourselves, if we are willing to listen,
In Rhode Island, in 2022, minority children have become the majority, comprising 53 percent of the population of the state’s children. No talk radio show host, no nasty troll on Twitter, no FOX News commentator can deny that basic truth about Rhode Island: the Ocean State will soon emerge as a minority majority state, something all the planning and projections looking at the next decade do not ever seem to account for.
Armed with that knowledge, the next big question – often unasked and swept under the rug by the dominant business forces in Rhode Island – is how the efforts of diverse communities such as South Providence, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Newport, West Warwick and even Cranston – can reclaim ownership of and access to their riverfronts and waterfronts.

……..,.”It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself.”

— Rachel Carson

Betting on the Blue Economy

Introduction

Rhode Island is called the Ocean State, so it is safe to say that the ocean has always had a big role in our economy and our culture.  Shellfish have been a staple since the end of the ice ages. Purple shells were an important trade good well before the European invasion.  Herring were not only food, but supported agriculture.  

Post invasion Rhode Island was active in ocean trade routes beginning with the slave trade and the triangle trade.  India Point is named for the destination of some of its ships.  Until paved roads coastal shipping and ferries was the main line of commerce, even after the railroads were built.  Waterfalls to power mills came right to the tidewater, helping Rhode Island become an industrial giant in the 19th century.  

You get the picture, ocean related sectors of the economy and our evolving culture are of long standing.

The ocean oriented economic sectors never went away, but they have changed. We no longer send out slave ships and whalers, though we have a whale watching industry. But there is now a greater push than any in recent times to increase the size of the ocean-oriented economy, and to broaden the definition. Mining metal nodules on the abyssal plains with new fangled submersible robots seems like it will be the next big thing despite the potential for great harm. 

I recently wrote a paper exploring the misguided economic development strategy found in Rhode Island Innovates 2.0 https://commerceri.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Rhode-Island-Innovates-2020.pdf   that was produced on behalf of CommercRI, the State of RI’s economic development agency.  If you read CommerceRI innovates towards inequality, unaffordable healthcare and ecological collapse  you might note that I spent relatively little verbiage on the Blue Economy despite that being one of the areas that CommerceRI believes is ripe for innovation and growth.  It’s a mixed bag, from fisheries to submarines with nuclear weapons. From life affirming to planet destroying.  But I was asked to delve deeper into it by the editor of Convergence and agreed to give it a whirl, knowing it was not really an area of expertise.  Richard Asinof also sent me the introduction to a book by Max Liboiron entitled “Pollution is Colonialism” which focuses on the difference between the modern exploitive methodology of science, specifically the study of plastic pollution in fish and contrasts it with how the lab she works in at a university in Newfoundland tries to practice non exploitive science.  This underlying approach that Liboiron offers us directly relates to a decent sized chunk of the RI Blue economy, the part that scientific research plays in a local economy, but also offers us an opportunity to rethink an economy based on exploitation and our willingness to surpass safe limits when our activities for profit threaten planetary health. 

My activism around the ocean and ocean industries colors outside the lines. I begin with the understanding that the expectations of economic growth in an age of ecosystem collapse creates more problems than it solves, including the rolling climate catastrophe.  The more we want, the bigger the deficit each year, and the closer we are to surpassing ever more planetary boundaries that threatens life on Earth.  The exploitation of the planet is matched by the exploitation of other people by whoever can manipulate the economic system to their own advantage.  

There is enough for all of our needs, but feeding the greed wreaks havoc.  What we really need is an economy geared towards enough, that can meet the needs of everyone quite well, while ensuring the genetic materials we need to continue the evolutionary journey have room to diversify, eventually reaching a steady state economy.  Not very popular, but if you look at what is going on, the key resources are disappearing, planetary boundaries for the renewability of key nutrients are being surpassed (the phosphorus is ending up at the bottom of the ocean, not to be available for the next few hundred million years, and a body cannot process food without phosphorus. In other words there is no Planet B, so Plan B has to be a very different economy.  

It is that understanding that I bring to the public discussions of economic development in Rhode Island and New England.  

I have watched the efforts to continue to grow the economy faster and faster as a death spiral inebriated dance since we have not really produced any good ideas for growing the economy faster in a way that actually benefits our communities in a world with ever diminishing natural resources, ever bigger piles of trash, and growing inequality.  I think it is as rather similar approach to community economics that the Clear Laboratory in Newfoundland is taking to the study of pollution.  

Betting on the Blue Economy is a decision to so called smartly flog the horse to go faster, and mostly for things that either harm people directly or diminish the natural world and our communities. That is not 100% true as a fair bit of RI’s blue economy is focused on wind power and scientific research, and much of the research is looking at how Narragansett Bay and the coastal waters along southern coast are changing in response to climate change.  So not completely harmful even if embedded in a culture in which economic growth is supposed to be as normal as a fish swimming in the sea, even if it kills both fish and humans with microplastics.

Tourism is very clearly an industry which uses a low paid, often severely abused, labor force to cater to those who have more. Boat building today is something that only the rich can keep afloat.  Advanced materials for racing boats is a definition of money to burn. Shellfish are no longer a basic diet ingredient but a luxury, as is aquaculture as practiced in the limited spaces available in Rhode Island.  Managing fisheries is also rather strange in an age in which fishing technologies can wipe out species almost overnight, at depths we could never have imagined fishing in the past, and the managers are trying the square the circle amongst science and the power of money in the political process. Complicating it further are fish and human populations moving around due carbon pollution resulting in hotter water. Then we have all of the military institutions and contractors, merging big money, violence, and easy corruption.  The stoking of the war machine is among the biggest threats to democracy, the oceans, and life on earth.  Nuclear madness has reared its ugly head in Ukraine, and reminds us that we will not have a healthy ocean if we do not ban nuclear weapons and quit building the vehicles for their delivery. Finally do not forget the nodules of metal paving the bottom of the ocean deeps that the submersibles being worked on around the bay will facilitate the exploitation of no matter what the cost to the planet.

The Big Picture

The big picture is that just about every sector of the Blue economy is Rhode Island is geared towards growing the inequality of our economy.  Even the parts of the economy providing good working-class jobs in construction, fishing, aquaculture, boat building, materials innovation, and the war machine feed the coffers of the wealthiest among us more than the pockets of the populace, and provide for the rich much more than the poor, while the low wage work of the tourism, food, and recreation industries also mostly serves those who have more money.   Maybe the part of the Blue economy directly tied to scientific research, monitoring temperatures and chemicals and the like in the Bay, looking at sea level rise or the health of fish populations could be considered as relatively benign, but according to Liboiron, the very structure of science as practiced upholds a power structure based on exploitation, and creates the tools to do the exploiting.  

A question to answer before delving deeper into the Blue Economy is does it help us solve the real problems we face today beyond our desire for more money?  Does it help us undo the climate catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels?  Does it help us live healthier lives, free from polluted environments?  Does it reduce inequality?  Too often it appears that the government wishes to make people subservient to the economy, to force us to do what the most rich and powerful would have us do to satisfy their insatiable appetite for more money and more tax revenue rather than design the economy to serve the community, including those with the least power.  Many of these issues are showing up in all the discussions and hearings around what is to be allowed in the Port of Providence.   

The Mainstream lens


Bruce Katz helped lead work on some of the economic development plans that Rhode Island has produced in the last 25 years.  His perspective on the Blue Economy (from a previous interview with Convergence) is probably as mainstream as it gets and is included here to show how far away from an economy based on justice and ecological healing Rhode Island has strayed, and how far into jargon we have stumbled as the rich and powerful attempt to control the message. 

http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/one-on-one-with-bruce-katz-of-new-localism-advisors,5528  

“The Ocean State, for our perspective, is not just a brand; it’s a platform for broader, innovative growth. The blue economy covers multiple sectors. It obviously covers what the Navy is doing at Naval Undersea Warfare Center, it covers the Naval War College, it covers off-shore wind near Block Island, it covers tourism, it covers aquaculture, it covers coastal resiliency and resiliency along rivers to prevent flooding or mitigate flooding, it covers environmental remediation.

So, this is a very broad super sector of the economy, which is essentially like the green economy was 25 years ago, it’s coming into its own, particularly as the U.N. has designated the next decade as the decade of ocean science, oceans writ large.

I think there are going to be multiple players in this space. And, I think the University of Rhode Island has a particular role to play because it is one of the top centers of oceanography in the world. 

I could definitely see that the Providence Innovation District could have a portion of its focus be around the blue economy. You already have some movement in that direction. I think this is an evolution of an understanding of what makes the Rhode Island economy distinctive and special, and how to build on it over time.”

That Katz views this sector as poised for growth with no measuring stick looking at the results of the growth says much.  And as we know, while the Green Economy is much touted, and much larger, it has done nothing to change the fundamental approach in economic development or the power dynamics in our communities.  We may not poison as overtly, we may pay homage to good ecological management, we may even include more of the community in the discussion about what we should do, but the Earth and the ocean and our communities are still much diminished and being harmed ever more every day.  Here is a perfect example :  U.S. NAVY PRIZE CHALLENGE: AUTONOMOUS DETECTION OF MARINE MAMMALS  The Navy does massive damage to marine mammals. Now it is trying to undo a bit of the damage it does with some new fangled technology rather than just stopping the activities it undertakes that cause the harm.  

Subsectors

After reading Rhode Island Innovates 2.0 I read “The Value of Rhode Island’s Blue Economy” which was produced by the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI in partnership with the RI Coastal Resources Center and RI Sea Grant.  https://web.uri.edu/gso/files/ri-blue-economy-report-2020.pdf  

The authors list 7 major subsectors of the Blue economy. 

The Blue Economy Subsectors

Defense, Marine Trades, Ports and Shipping, Tourism and Recreation, Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Offshore Renewable Energy 

Here is a very quick and dirty take on the seven subsectors.

Tourism and Recreation provides by far the most jobs, though most of those are relatively low paid.  The Defense industry has the highest wages (Plenty of money to be made supplying the navy with the tools of the trade just as Country Joe noted at Woodstock) but offers us nothing but new and better ways to kill, either by building weapons or training members of the military, Americans and military officers from around the world. While the Naval War College and the Undersea Warfare Center may not have the reputation for torture that the School of the Americas earned, we can be sure that many of the people who have passed through have gone on to commit war crimes and atrocities. And while the defense industry has shed a few jobs in RI over the last 10 years, the war in Ukraine is likely to increase the unbelievably huge budget for killing passed by Congress, and some of that will end up in RI. So expect the industry to grow as the killing increases.   Marine Trades is ship building and related tasks. We are small potatoes, building yachts, and now boats to service the offshore wind industry.  Included in this is also a sector of the industry that focuses on developing new materials for boat building, something that was spurred by yacht racing.  Aquidneck Island has been home to very prestigious yacht races for many years, and the industry has continued in the area. Ports and shipping is focused on transforming shipping into a Green Industry by reducing emissions and pollution, (shipping is responsible for about 3% of global emissions), but in a state in which the landings are dominated by fossil fuels and automobiles, with some road salt throw in for good measure, and exports are primarily scrap metal and used cars, one has to wonder how green RI’s ports will ever be, and if they will be able to survive the end of fossil fuels. The Port of Providence deserves its own discussion as an economic justice zone and I will offer that in another section. 

It will take considerable resources to make our docks capable of handling a 4 foot sea level rise.  In a world with out of control carbon emissions an offshore wind industry is very welcome.  But progress has been slow for a variety of reasons.  Trump and the fossil fuel industries have tried to kill or slow walk the wind industry. Rhode Island also has a limited number of large parcels to convert into facilities capable of handling the huge structures of the wind industry.  We may generate lots of the electricity we need offshore eventually, but we shall only be home to a limited percentage of the associated industries.  Aquaculture is a growing industry, pun intended. With cleaner water, it appears to be a fit, but there are limits to where it is acceptable, communities are fighting back to prevent the overrunning of the neighborhood recreation hot spots, and it will remain an industry primarily serving the wealthiest among us. It also remains to be seen how climate change will affect it.  The next big thing appears to be kelp, and again it will be as a smallish scale specialty crop. For all the noise it generates, Rhode Island only has about 350 acres in aquaculture and new leases are struggling more and more against community opposition. (The archaic nature of the CRMC is not helping much) Fishing is as old as settlements along the coast, but it is an industry in trouble.  The ability to overfish species after species means that there is a constant struggle between regulation of take and what the people who fish need to keep them on the water.  Complicating this is the fact that climate change is causing fish and shellfish to move north to escape the heat, and be replaced by species moving up from the south.  It also turns out that Wind Turbine bases enhance recreational fishing while making life more difficult for commercial fishers, so siting the ocean leases has also become more problematic.  Almost as problematic as how to protect the Right Whales.  

Underlying all of this economic activity is a research component mostly based at universities like URI and Roger Williams University that are monitoring the bay, studying the fish, creating new tools to study the bay and fish as well as providing tools and expertise to places around the world, and developing new technologies and weapons for the industrial sectors. 

The people in charge of economic development policy and the people pulling the levers in the private sector are not asking the questions about where we are going.  They are not asking if the industry in question leads to more justice, a more equitable economy, progress on climate change, healthy communities, and world peace.  And they need to to create true prosperity. Right now you could not say the Blue Economy as perceived by Bruce Katz and the Rhode Island ruling elite is going to move us in the right direction. 

Thankfully I am not the only one offering such a perspective on this hot new economic engine.  Douglas MacCauley  of the University of California Santa Barbara and the director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative offers a similar perspective.

Here are a few excerpts from an interview in The Guardian that point out some of how this looks beyond Rhode Island.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/15/as-the-ocean-industrial-revolution-gains-pace-the-need-for-protection-is-urgent

“The ocean is often seen as the last wild frontier: a vast and empty blue wilderness where waves, whales and albatrosses rule. This is no longer true. Unnoticed by many, a new industrial revolution is unfolding in our seas.

The last several decades have seen exponential growth in new marine industries. This includes expansion of offshore oil and gas, but also exponential growth of offshore renewables, such as wind and tidal energy.

Aquaculture, or farming underwater, is one of the world’s fastest growing food sectors. Fishing occurs across more than half of our ocean. More than 1m km of undersea data cables crisscross the high seas. And our ocean highways carry about 1,600% more cargo on ships than they did in the 1980s.

New industries are also lining up to join this booming ocean economy: companies are jockeying to start ocean mining in the Pacific; new experimental fisheries are targeting deep ocean life previously thought impossible to catch (and even easier to wipe out as in those cold low light regions animals breed very slowly); and geoengineering ventures are looking to operate in the ocean.

The onset of this marine industrial revolution puts into context the urgency of a new UN treaty being finalised this week that will dictate the future of the single biggest piece of our ocean and our planet: the high seas.

Encompassing all waters 200 nautical miles beyond nations’ shorelines, the high seas cover two-thirds of the ocean. Uniquely, this vast expanse belongs to us all.”

And a little more on the potential mining of the deep sea floor for mineral nodules. 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/29/is-deep-sea-mining-a-cure-for-the-climate-crisis-or-a-curse

Trillions of metallic nodules on the sea floor could help stop global heating, but mining them may damage ocean ecology

by Robin McKie

Sun 29 Aug 2021 05.00 EDT 


“I
n a display cabinet in the recently opened Our Broken Planet exhibition in London’s Natural History Museum, curators have placed a small nugget of dark material covered with faint indentations. The blackened lump could easily be mistaken for coal. Its true nature is much more intriguing, however.

The nugget is a polymetallic nodule and oceanographers have discovered trillions of them litter Earth’s ocean floors. Each is rich in manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper, some of the most important ingredients for making the electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels that we need to replace the carbon-emitting lorries, power plants and factories now 

They say mining deep-sea nodules would be catastrophic for our already stressed, plastic-ridden, overheated oceans. Delicate, long-living denizens of the deep – polychaete worms, sea cucumbers, corals and squid – would be obliterated by dredging. At the same time, plumes of sediments, laced with toxic metals, would be sent spiralling upwards to poison marine food-chains.

Not everyone agrees with the claim that cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper are necessarily vitally important, however. “There are a whole range of viable alternative battery technologies that could avoid using these metals,” says Matthew Gianni, of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, a Dutch-based alliance of international green groups. For example, lithium iron phosphate batteries are now looking very promising.”

“Unfortunately, sharing hasn’t worked out well. Fishery resources are monopolised by a few wealthy actors. Approximately 97% of the trackable industrial fishing on the high seas is controlled by wealthy nations, with 86% of this fishing attributable to just five countries. Some of our most lucrative and nutritionally important high seas fish populations are in decline.”

This comes from “The Value of the Blue Economy

“The RI BETC aims for ambitious but achievable targets, based on international Blue Economy benchmarks from jurisdictions such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Namely we aim over the next 10 years to reach up to 5X growth in Gross Regional Product (GRP) and up to 6X- 8X faster job growth in jobs in this sector over the economy-wide baseline.

The Component Projects have the potential to transform RI’s Blue Economy and nearly double its size, with up to 54,000 additional Blue Economy jobs with a projected annual Blue Economy GRP of $15-25 billion within 10 years. In addition, the growth of Blue Economy in RI will create additional multiplier jobs in related industries across Southern New England.

Current State of Rhode Island’s Blue Economy: Rhode Island’s Blue Economy supports approximately $5.0 billion in sectoral output, ~9% of RI’s total GRP and employs approximately 67,600 people (12% of the workforce). Between 2010-2019, Rhode Island’s Blue Economy grew 2X faster than the economy at large, registering the largest Blue Economy growth over the Statewide baseline in the US. Similarly, RI’s Blue Economy jobs grew 3X faster over total employment growth baseline. While the Blue Economy is already an important driver of economic development for Rhode Island, nevertheless it registers the lowest average employee productivity across the peer Blue Economy regions in the US, primarily because the majority of RI’s Blue Economy jobs are supported by Tourism & Recreation (81%).”

A few comments

As they say, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.  The expectation that the Blue Economy will be a $20 billion sector in 10 years is a bit unrealistic.  The hot high wage growth sectors make up no more than 2.4% of employment in RI, while tourism, with limited room for expansion (there is only so much coastline and nearly everything is already developed or preserved) is nearly 10% of employment.  I would also point out that according to Commerce RI’s Innovation 2.0, these same ocean oriented high tech sectors increased employment slower than the rest of the economy between 2014 and 2019.  

Maybe the wind turbine business will go nuts, if the Democrats win the next set of elections.  The Republican win and offshore wind goes into a slump.  Do we really think we get good value building more over priced navy ships and nuclear submarines?  What happens to the economy if they actually get used?  If we get smart and realize that deep sea nodule mining is a death spiral for the planet the 2.6% of RI employment in the non-tourist Blue economy is not going to be growing by 6% a year (the RI economy grows on average about 70% of the national average, or less than 2% a year over the long term).  Actually if tourism grows slower than the other parts of the Blue Economy, the high tech stuff has to grow 10% a year to match the employment projections and considerably faster than that to create a $14 Billion dollar sector from the $1 – 2 billion dollar sector that it is today.   Growing the high tech sectors of the Blue Economy 10% a year for the next 10 years gives us a $5 billion Blue Economy high tech sector, meaning tourism would have to grow from $4 billion to $15 billion in 10 years for the numbers to add up.  

The Economic Development Game as currently played

More and more governments are taking on important roles in economic development, while constantly saying they are deferring to the private sector.  They square this circle by offloading the detail work and some of the planning and reporting to consultants and non profits.  The most powerful of the consultants is McKinsey, who just ended up in a bunch of hot water due to consulting for the pharmaceutical industry on how to increase opioid sales while at the same time advising the Federal government on related topics.  McKinsey also played an outsized role in RI in planning to contain the Covid pandemic, and has served in other roles and for Rhode Island big time pet projects.  

In the Blue economy Rhode Island uses the economic development non-profit 401 Tech Bridge to do a variety of things.  This is what they say on their website.  They are rather typical of the organizations in the business.  

“401 Tech Bridge, a non-profit economic development organization, serves as a super-connector for companies that are developing leading-edge advanced materials, technologies, and products, enabling business growth, and speeding the process of finding commercial and dual-use applications for technologies.

401 Tech Bridge was the first entity to partner with the NavalX Tech Bridge initiative, and our collaboration is now a national model. We are the hub for  NavalX North East Tech Bridge activities, building partnerships to innovate in the Navy’s focus areas: maritime composites and textiles, undersea vehicles, sensors, and technologies. It serves as a model for our relationships with other defense agencies, the federal labs and large companies innovating national defense, infrastructure, and healthcare.

Tech Bridge and MassChallenge partnered to create a Blue Tech startup accelerator program to expand the region’s ocean-based economy, particularly in the undersea, maritime, and offshore energy sectors. We identify high tech and high potential young companies that are developing products and technology with commercial, government and defense potential”

One of the problems with this approach to development is that no one is talking about unintended consequences.  There is no profit in exploring those, better to do the work and let someone else pick up the pieces, mostly the tax payers.  Example du jour is submersibles.  Mostly used for research, these are also a critical technology for the mining of nodules deep under the oceans.  So Tech Bridge sounds all cool with the statement we help folks develop submersibles, but never say a peep about the potential of the technology to destroy vast ecosystems we are just learning about.  

The Port of Providence

I have been watching Port issues in New England for a long time, and have participated in the discussions around what is happening along Allen’s Avenue for about 15 years.  When the City started on a new Comprehensive Plan, the usual suspects wanted to build condos along the waterfront.  Turns out there was a ship repair business where Sims metal is now, and it seemed like the right kind of things to anchor a waterfront.  So we held the line on condos.   As soon as we got the comp plan approved, the owners of the ship repair business retired and sold to Sims.  Sims is a grind it up and ship them out metal recycler, with vast noise and dust produced along with idling trucks waiting to unload.   

What mostly lines the Allen’s Ave waterfront are fossil fuel and scrap metal businesses along with and industry that has been associated with waterfronts for at least 8000 years, sex. The Port of Providence used to handle much more diverse products, especially the exports.  And if you go back long enough, it was a place immigrants came through as they sought to become Americans.  When a new business or expansion is currently being proposed it is often amongst the dirtiest things people can do, fossil fuels, trash, or scrap metal.  

As this unbalance grew more awkward, members of the lower income and BIPOC communities that live adjacent to the port became more obvious and vocal in their resistance to this type of development and developed their ability to fight back.  Prior to this organizing Save the Bay and DEM would occasionally make noise about some of the more obvious egregiousness, but with the political cover that politicians have given dirty businesses in Environmental Justice communities over the years, almost nothing got cleaned up.  

The one of the first battles the neighborhood took on was an expansion of one of the fuel oil terminals.  They were unsuccessful in stopping that project, but it laid a groundwork that has since stopped the building of a dump, forced changes in city ordinances, slowed down the potential expansion of another fossil fuel facility, and moved us much closer to Environmental Justice Zones in which the communities adjacent to the port will always have a seat at the table when the discussion turns to what to build next.   Currently organizing has an organizational home in the People’s Port Authority, and the city has supported its work, though the state is clearly still behind the curve even if beginning to trend in better directions.   

Conclusion

Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the US and Chicken Hawk war criminal once remarked that most people were looking at reality, but that he and his ilk were creating the reality that they wanted and leaving everyone else behind.  CommerceRI, and almost all of the other organizations involved in economic development planning in Rhode Island, and nationally, have decided they know where they are going and that they are going to grow the Blue Economy along specific lines that continue to uphold their power.  They believe that they should pay lip service to sustainability principles, but that growth uber alles along lines that protects the power of the rich and allows them to exploit natural resources and labor, is what they want and what they will get.  They refuse to see the context of their work and how it is depleting the planet, harming communities, and undermining the long-term prospects of humanity and the Ocean. Microplastics, climate catastrophe’s, the decline of fisheries, and the rise of communities standing up for healthier neighborhoods and more justice gives lie to their fancy reports written in the service of the established order.  The false god of growth is teetering in an age of catastrophe and the communities are demanding a new approach to economic development, one that includes the community from the start and creates a more perfect union. There are parts of the Blue Economy that will be successful, and move our communities forward, but much of what is proposed in all the reports will be a bad deal, and we can only organize and hope that the bad stuff is stopped before it does much more harm.