Case study: Chris Armstrong

Photo of Chris Armstrong

Programme: Senior Research Fellowship

Name of PI: Chris Armstrong

Title of project: Ocean Justice

Start and end dates: 2018 – 2019

Award amount: £42,149.00

Institution: University of Southampton

About the project

The world’s oceans are key to the survival of humans and wider ecosystems. As the land comes under intense pressure for food production and resource extraction, humans are increasingly exploiting the ocean instead, in what scientists have called a ‘Blue Acceleration.’ But we now face two major challenges at sea. The first is a multifaceted environmental crisis, driven by ocean warming and acidification, plastic pollution, and overfishing. The second is a crisis of inequality, as the proceeds of the Blue Acceleration go to the few rather than the many. It is not clear that existing forms of ocean governance are adequate to the task of tackling these two overlapping challenges. This project developed the first systematic theory of ocean justice, in order to assess how the two challenges can be met fairly and effectively. It provided much-needed guidance on the exploitation, and conservation, of the world’s oceans.

Scientists – including oceanographers, climate scientists, and marine biologists – have done much to raise awareness of the environmental challenges facing the ocean today. Social scientists have also drawn our attention to patterns of dependency on, and vulnerability to, the ocean, and to inequalities in the marine economy. Armstrong’s contribution has been to provide an ethical framework for dealing with these challenges fairly. He worked up a set of seven key principles of ocean justice, capable of guiding vital reforms to ocean governance. In recent decades, political theorists and philosophers have had relatively little to say about how the ocean should be governed. This project sought to remedy that gap.

Impacts and value

The fellowship allowed Armstrong to publish several articles, and a book entitled A Blue New Deal: Why We Need A New Politics for the Ocean. This came out with Yale University Press in February 2022 and has since generated great interest. Subsequently, Armstrong has been invited to present work based on the project at a great number of universities in the UK, China, Denmark, France, Italy, Canada, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere. A symposium is being planned on the book, which will appear in a law and politics journal. One of the aims was to spur greater reflection on oceanic challenges within the social sciences, and the early signs are very pleasing. It is already generating interest not only within Politics as a discipline, but also within the fields of Law, Philosophy, Public Policy, Ocean Sciences and elsewhere.

The last few chapters of the book are very much aimed at connecting with policy and practice, discussing applied issues such as the fate of people facing sea level rise on small island states, the mistreatment of workers in the fishing industry, and the prospects for sustainable and regenerative coastal industries. Since its recent publication, Armstrong has already been contacted by organisations from the charitable sector (ocean advocacy groups), from the private sector (specifically, an ethical investing organisation interested in blue carbon), and politics (a Labour Party group working on community wealth building in coastal areas). He will now explore any opportunities to communicate the key ideas behind the project to these wider audiences.

The book has already attracted excellent reviews in publications including The Guardian, The Independent, New Scientist, and Country Life. It has been called one of five key books on the climate crisis by National Geographic, and one of the books to read in 2022 by The Financial Times. Following the book’s publication, Armstrong has also participated in a number of podcasts and radio interviews in the UK, Ireland, and the US, which is raising the profile of the project still further. Responses to the book are helping to reach a wide audience and enhance public awareness and engagement with the challenges of ocean governance.

Benefits of the award

“I was already a full professor, but the award, and the work it enabled me to carry out, has undoubtedly raised my international profile. This has led to a good number of speaking invitations, and opened up new opportunities. It has also allowed me to build on my international networks, which will then open up options for collaborative work in future. One of my goals was to open up issues of ocean governance to other academics working within political theory and philosophy, in part by filling in the necessary scientific, historical and legal background to ocean politics as it stands today. The early signs are that this will be successful, and that colleagues in the discipline will work on these important issues in the future.”

As a result of the project, Armstrong was Principal Investigator on a small application for a research stimulus award from the University of Southampton’s Marine and Maritime Institute. They gained £5,000 in funding, which was used to carry out initial scoping research for a possible project on the challenge sea level rise poses for small island states. The award ran from 2020 to 2021.

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