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The Empty Sea The Future of the Blue Economy

Popular Science
By: Ilaria Perissi(Author), Ugo Bardi(Author)
203 pages, 87 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Springer Nature
The Empty Sea takes a hard-nosed look at the blue economy, showing there is something fishy about its promises of prosperity and abundance to be had from the sea.
The Empty Sea
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  • The Empty Sea ISBN: 9783030519001 Paperback Feb 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
  • The Empty Sea ISBN: 9783030518974 Hardback Feb 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
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About this book

The "Blue Economy" is used to describe all of the economic activities related to the sea, with a special emphasis on sustainability. Traditional activities such as fisheries, but also undersea mining, tourism, and scientific research are included, as well as the phenomenal growth of aquaculture during the past decade. All of these activities, and the irresistible prospect of another new frontier, has led to enthusiastic and, most likely, overenthusiastic assessments of the possibilities to exploit the sea to feed the world, provide low-cost energy, become a new source of minerals, and other future miracles. The Empty Sea makes sense of these trends and of the future of the blue economy by following our remote ancestors who gradually discovered the sea and its resources, describing the so-called fisherman's curse – or why fishermen have always been poor, explaining why humans tend to destroy the resources on which we depend, and assessing the realistic expectations for extracting resources from the sea. Although the sea is not so badly overexploited as the land, our demands on ecosystem services are already above the oceans' sustainability limits. Some new ideas, including "fishing down" for untapped resources such as plankton, could lead to the collapse of the entire marine ecosystem.

How Neanderthals crossed the sea in canoes, how it was possible for five men on a small boat to kill a giant whale, what kind of oil the virgins of the Gospel put into their lamps, how a professor of mathematics, Vito Volterra, discovered the "equations of fishing", why it has become so easy to be stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the sea, and how to play "Moby Dick", a simple board game that simulates the overexploitation of natural resources are just some of the questions that you will be able to answer after reading this engaging and insightful book about the rapidly expanding relationship between humanity and the sea.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A hard-nosed look at the blue economy
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 30 Sep 2021 Written for Hardback

    By now, most people are aware of greenwashing; the marketing spin used by companies and organisations to convince you that their products and practices and environmentally friendly when in reality they are not. In The Empty Sea, physical chemist Ilaria Perissi joins forces with her colleague, self-styled "collapsologist" Ugo Bardi, to take a hard-nosed look at the blue economy. This is the collective term for economic activities related to the sea, and there is something decidedly fishy about its promises of prosperity and abundance.

    This book was originally published in Italian as Il Mare Svuotato by Editori Riuniti. The English translation is published by Springer and is branded as A Report to the Club of Rome, the international think tank promoting the understanding of long-term challenges to humanity. It is the third report from Bardi after Extracted and The Seneca Effect. A foreword by two co-presidents of the Club of Rome calls the book a brainchild of the Club's first report for applying similar models to the marine economy. A second foreword by famous fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly praises it as an accessible book for a broad audience on overfishing.

    Indeed, The Empty Sea mostly deals with one facet of the blue economy, fishing, in five of its six chapters. When discussing the early history of fishing, Perissi & Bardi's narrative largely agrees with that of Brian Fagan's Fishing of it being a subsistence activity until the rise of civilizations allowed it to become a trade. They claim that a big problem of fishing was preserving the catch, something only the Norwegians successfully managed to do with stockfish as ambient temperatures in Norway were ideal for this. Salting was used, but salt was an expensive commodity. Those claims appear hasty in light of the archaeological research described by Fagan. There is evidence to suggest that ancient Egyptians were smoking catfish and handing it out as rations to the workers constructing the Giza pyramids. Fagan similarly discussed the existence of Roman fish-salting facilities, with Sicily being a major centre and other salting workshops found around the Mediterranean.

    What is without a doubt is that industrial fishing as we know it required numerous technical inventions regarding boats, engines, canning, and (later) on-board refrigeration, plus relentless funding by governments. Perissi & Bardi walk the reader through four examples of overexploitation of marine animals: whaling, Caspian Sea sturgeon to produce caviar, Atlantic cod, and Peruvian anchovy.

    After this, they discuss their application of the Lotka-Volterra equations to industrial fishing. These are better known as the equations that describe fluctuations in population abundance of predator-prey dyads. This chapter hits many other relevant notes such as Garrett Hardin's tragedy of the commons and Elinor Ostrom's work in response, how economists continue to ignore ecological models, and how fisheries concepts such as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) and Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) have failed to halt overfishing.

    The frequently observed pattern of fish landings for a species peaking and then declining, followed by a peak and decline in fishing effort looks just like one predator-prey cycle that the Lotka-Volterra model would produce. From this, the authors argue that this model can more generally describe the dynamics of overexploitation of natural resources. As a limited application of this model, this seems true. However, as the name implies, non-renewable resources such as ores will not recover after the predator (read: human) population crashes, whereas renewable resources such as fish populations or forests could theoretically rebound. Worryingly, as shown here, global fishing effort seems to have peaked lately, despite using bigger and more powerful vessels, suggesting we might be approaching a larger collapse.

    A brief section on other problems (plastic pollution and sea-level rise) leaves unmentioned many other issues. This incomplete detour could have been left out and is emblematic of what troubles this book. Though the chapters are individually interesting and accessibly written, the book meanders somewhat aimlessly, lacking an overarching structure or narrative, instead dipping into a few topics here and a few topics there. And despite the friendly price for a Springer book and Pauly's praise, the authors have stiff competition – there is no shortage of well-written popular books documenting overfishing or the history of whaling.

    What keeps me coming back to Bardi's writing, both online and in print, is that he never ceases to be a thorn in the side of optimists and relentlessly skewers overblown claims with a healthy dose of realism. Economic growth and technological development have created "many [problems] for which we can't find solutions, except the unnameable ones that would involve stopping, or even reducing, economic growth" (p. 88). Especially the last chapter pulls no punches. It covers other facets of the blue economy, described here as "a true fish soup of various activities, seasoned with fashionable words like "sustainable", [and] "smart"" (p. 131). I wish the authors had been briefer on the history of overfishing and developed this part more fully, as they make some really interesting observations.

    For instance, estimates of how much energy we could generate from the sea's tides, currents, or waves are not particularly impressive compared to current consumption, and the diffuse nature of the sea makes it very hard to harness them. Harvesting dissolved minerals from seawater is shown to be completely uneconomical and, for something like uranium, might cost more energy than it would generate. Deep-sea mining is put down as senseless as there is nothing of value down there, though in The Brilliant Abyss, Helen Scales showed that companies are exploring it and obtaining mining concessions, which suggests otherwise. Enthusiasm for the blue economy has been predominantly driven by the staggering economic growth seen in aquaculture. As discussed here, it is far from the success story of human ingenuity that it is made out to be and has many serious drawbacks.

    Despite the somewhat hit-and-miss character of this book, its central message is important and comes through loud and clear. As long as we keep talking of the world in terms of natural resources, as a larder to be plundered, the blue economy is just one more case of greenwashing what is business as usual. This concept has nothing new to offer us and will become one more chapter in the continuing saga of humans overexploiting their environment.
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Ilaria Perissi has a doctorate in physical chemistry and she is engaged in research on mitigating the effects of climate change at the University of Florence, Italy. She is a member of the scientific board of the "Transport and Environment" association and is the author of several articles on the use of systems dynamics models in the study of resource exploitation, particularly in fishing.

Ugo Bardi is a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. Member of the Club of Rome and author of many studies and books dealing with the economics of resource exploitation. He is also editor of the journal Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality (Springer). He writes about sustainability on his blog Cassandra’s Legacy and on the Italian Newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Popular Science
By: Ilaria Perissi(Author), Ugo Bardi(Author)
203 pages, 87 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Springer Nature
The Empty Sea takes a hard-nosed look at the blue economy, showing there is something fishy about its promises of prosperity and abundance to be had from the sea.
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