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Deep Water: The World in the Ocean by James Bradley review – a compelling sea view of civilisation
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Deep Water: The World in the Ocean by James Bradley review – a compelling sea view of civilisation

The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once argued that our planet should not be called Earth. “Clearly it is Ocean,” he observed. And certainly it is hard to deny its aquatic nature when we see that distinguishing sea-blue globe hanging in space in satellite photographs. Ours is undoubtedly a watery world.

This birthright is explored in detail by Australian writer James Bradley in a distinctive investigation of the marine roots of life and civilisation: from the deep history of evolutionary time to the rise of modern capitalism. We are creatures of the riverbank and the seashore, he argues – a species that has been shaped by water in ways that provide revealing perspectives on what it means to be human.

Just consider how we move around in the stuff. Hieroglyphs show people enjoyed swimming in ancient Egypt; pearls were harvested from the seafloor in the Gulf 7,000 years ago; while studies of Maya reliefs depict individuals swimming stylishly 2,000 years ago.

But the 18th century brought a small but significant transition to these aquatic pleasures. Historical accounts reveal Africans, Indigenous Australians and Native Americans still routinely swam using the overarm crawl, but in Europe the breaststroke was now king. The crawl was disparaged as a style suitable only for primitive races while the breaststroke was hailed as scientific and civilised. It was simply referred to as “White swimming”.

This incipient racism was mild compared with other changes wrought through our changing relationship with the sea, however. “The felling of forests for fuel and to build ships to move enslaved people, the slaughter of whales to make oil for lamps, lubricant for the machines in the factories and nitroglycerine for explosives – none of this would have been possible without the oceans,” says Bradley.

And of all the world’s great bodies of water, it is the Atlantic Ocean that accounts for the worst offences. The increasing wealth of western Europe from 1500 onwards was almost entirely accumulated by nations with access to the Atlantic Ocean, in particular the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch. “This in turn is inseparable from the role of slavery,” Barclay states.

On one side of the ocean, more than 12 million non-Europeans were shipped west as enslaved people. The goods they were forced to harvest, mine or manufacture were then transported eastward across the Atlantic. “Capitalism, and the systems of colonial exploitation and violence that fuelled its rise, arose on the oceans,” we are told.

The seas will have the last word, however. Soaring global temperatures – triggered by unfettered capitalism set loose by marine trade – are now heating the planet dangerously, melting ice sheets and wrecking coral reefs as our factories and power plants belch out increasing amounts of carbon dioxide. As the oceans warm, marine animals are shifting polewards at an average of about four miles a year. Worse, rising sea levels will soon displace hundreds of millions of men, women and children who have homes near estuaries, bays or the seashore. An oceanic catastrophe awaits us.

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“As sea levels rise, they bring with them the legacy of centuries of extraction and colonial violence,” Bradley tells us. “To survive that future we will all need to be swimmers.”

As you will have gathered, this is a book with an apocalyptic message at its core. We face a global crisis and the seas provide us with an effective way to examine its causes and likely outcomes, says Bradley. “The ocean reveals that the roots of the crisis we inhabit lie deep in the patterns of violent exploitation and extraction that have shaped the modern world.”

It is an intriguing argument – though it is unlikely the seas will provide the only narrative that will help us understand the crisis we face. Nevertheless, they make an important focus for debate, and Bradley, in pursuing his thesis, has produced an impressive body of research and analysis. His relentless pursuit of every nuance and implication of his ideas leaves the book a little too fragmented. On the other hand, Deep Water is written with panache and argued with compelling clarity. The result is a provocative, engrossing read.

Source: theguardian.com