Exploring the disconnect between humans and the ocean

Unseen associations

We are all connected to the ocean, and organisms living in the ocean are an integral – if often unseen – part of our lives. You might be more connected to the ocean than you think. For example, fertilizer used to grow vegetables is often made from fish, and ingredients derived from fish are often added to processed foods. And amazingly, the ocean produces more than half of the oxygen on the planet, while also being responsible for storing 50 times more carbon dioxide than is found in the atmosphere.

The impact of human activity can be observed in a variety of ways. Run-off from agriculture empties into fragile marine ecosystems, and plastic accumulates in the ocean and cycles back into our food supply, for example. Consequences of human activity disturb a precarious balance that is not fully understood. Within the American mind, there is a fractured connection to the ocean, and it is this disconnect that Samm Newton is studying. As a 3rd year Master’s student in the Environmental Arts and Humanities program in the College of Liberal Arts, she is exploring multiple questions as part of her thesis. What has been the role of science and technology in how we have known the ocean? What has been the relationship between that knowledge and how we have valued and made decisions about marine systems? And, how can scholars approach the study of these relationships in new ways?

Scientific inquiry is a tangled knot: the direction of research is often decided based on narrow criteria

Scientific funding agencies have often determined the direction of research based on the priorities of a moment in time. Some priorities arose from crises, while others might have been derived from a perceived risk to lives in human or animal communities. Other priorities were influenced by what types of technology and datasets were available. Within that structure, it has been difficult for science to be innovative if it doesn’t address a problem that has been classified as relevant by funding authorities. Samm explains further, “we have taken the environment, deconstructed its components, and focused only on certain aspects that we deemed interesting at a given moment, while the rest of the pieces slid into the background.”

Samm studies the ocean using methods traditionally associated with the humanities. She describes her method as an interdisciplinary approach to unpack how we have generated knowledge about the ocean through science. Her approach includes extracting information from scientific history and papers, archives, oral histories, as well as popular literature from sources like National Geographic and the Washington Post.

Different ways to think about our connection with the ocean

How can we encourage people to recognize their connection to the ocean, and direct their attention to how their lives are impacted by ocean issues? Samm indicates how advancements in technology and media have created new ways for people to access scientific knowledge about the ocean. With outlets such as Nautilus live, people can learn about ocean ecosystems by watching videos of organisms living in the sea. They can also interact with scientists in real time (check out this one about a large number of octopus brooding near Monterey Bay, CA. Science videos on the internet have become an engaging and popular way to share knowledge of the ocean and science with a broad audience.

“The ocean is very special to me.”

Samm grew up in the “shadow of the petrochemical industry” in Freeport, Texas, where the sea is brown, and air and water pollution are an everyday reality. Observing these anthropogenic forces impacting her coast and community, and how disconnected people seem to be from the ocean, led her to question the relationship between humans and marine environments. She found that science and technology have played a dominant role in how we have known the ocean—and possibly how we have valued it. Samm also found that methods from the humanities, particularly marine environmental history, as well as science and technology studies, provide a meaningful framework to examine that relationship further.

During her undergrad, Samm studied psychology and behavioral neuroendocrinology, with a focus toward consciousness and philosophy of the mind. She spent 10 years working outside of academia before pursuing a Master’s degree at OSU. Samm credits the Environmental Arts and Humanities program at OSU with providing a flexible framework for people from different backgrounds – including art and science – to decide how they want to study a topic of interest.

After finishing her Master’s degree, Samm plans to pursue a PhD in an interdisciplinary field studying environmental issues. As a graduate student at OSU, Samm has enjoyed working in a “scholarly space, and getting the opportunity to do research.” Beyond grad school, Samm’s goal is to be involved in work that transforms the world, and to contribute to projects that strengthen interdisciplinary associations between diverse, yet interconnected, academic fields.

Check out Samm’s exhibit at Autzen House on the OSU campus:The Need to Know Comes in Waves: Paintings by Samm Newton

On view from Sept. 20th – Dec. 15th, 10 AM – 4 PM at Autzen House (811 SW Jefferson)

Reception Oct. 18th, 4 – 6 PM; mini artist talks at 4:30 and 5:30

Samm will also be the Featured Artist at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR in January 2019. Check out this page for more details!

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