The ocean covers most of our planet’s surface, accounts for the majority of our oxygen production, and provides a significant amount of resources by way of food, minerals, and energy. Yet our oceans are shockingly underrepresented when it comes to environmental conventions on an international scale.

The deep blue yonder is often reduced to footnotes and passing mentions in international accords that aim to unite our world in sustainable practices.

To move beyond token efforts and develop guidelines, that truly ensure future generations can continue to reap the benefits of functioning marine systems, our relationship with the ocean needs to change on a fundamental level.

In a recent editorial published in PLOS Biology, a team of researchers lays out their argument for a new framework that aims to do just that: “Maintaining the status quo of environmental law equates to the legalised destruction of Nature,” states the commentary, written by ocean policy researchers Michelle Bender and Rachel Bustamante from the US-based Earth Law Center, and water scientist Kelsey Leonard from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

“International law needs to evolve to reflect the Ocean’s inherent rights to exist, flourish, and regenerate. Ocean health is human health.”

That capitalisation of Ocean is no typo, reflecting a philosophical approach that elevates our natural environment to a position of equality with humanity rather than a separate domain of exploitation.

This “mutual enhancement” is a key part of a set of principles encompassed by the emerging field of Earth law – an umbrella term for initiatives that aim to recognise the interdependence that exists between humans and their environment via our institutions and laws.

One such legal framework that’s immediately recognisable to most is the right to exist. For most humans, it’s an ethical principle that underpins the development of laws around the world.

According to Earth law, Rights of Nature (one legal framework within the body of Earth law) recognise nature as having value simply because of its own intrinsic worth – not by virtue of what it can provide as property or a resource ripe for exploitation, but simply as a “living being” in its own right.

“Building upon Earth law and Rights of Nature understandings, Ocean-centered governance recognises the Ocean as a living entity, advancing law, policy, and institutional action that centres the needs of the Ocean in decision-making,” the authors write.

In December 2017, the UN General Assembly declared 2021 to 2030 would be the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

The decision came in the wake of the first World Ocean Assessment in 2015, a sobering report that assessed our reliance and impact on marine ecosystems based around themes that included climate change, food security, pollution, and exploitation of resources.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission was subsequently charged with developing a plan to improve the sustainability of marine activities. As a result, the commission proposed a number of challenges and optimistic outcomes to work on in coming years, such as expanding the Global Ocean Observing System, and changing humanity’s relationship with the ocean.

Some of those challenges are bound to be a little more imposing than others, thanks to the patchwork of existing conventions and tensions that currently exist regarding existing definitions and frameworks over sustainable practices.

Before we can even begin to take action on a global level, we need shared values and expectations on what a healthy relationship with the ocean looks like.

It’s clear whatever we’re doing now isn’t exactly working. Our oceans are changing in ways that won’t serve future generations well, with expectations of widespread loss in ocean resources predicted for our children’s lifetimes.

Seeing the decade as an opportunity for fundamental change, Bender, Bustamente, and Leonard argue we need to transform our thinking from “ownership and separateness” to one of “loving interdependence”.

Which means treating the ocean as an entity deserving of the kinds of rights, respect, and even reverence most of us as individuals take for granted.

This commentary was published in PLOS Biology.