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A note from Panama: Why I obsess about the world's oceans

Posted by Rob Anderson  September 19, 2012 06:24 PM

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Panama — For commentators, columnists, and policy thinkers, there is a certain appeal to coming up with a catchy phrase that helps put the world in perspective and has immediate appeal to readers. It can also help sell books. People seem to embrace these turn of phrases, like Tom Friedman's "The World is Flat" to describe globalization or Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations," which has the benefit of being both wrong and right 100 percent of the time, depending on your worldview.

I am in Panama, doing a couple of columns on my never-ending obsession with water and water infrastructure. I didn't know it was an obsession until various friends and readers made it clear that they may have that catchy phrase for me, those few words that will define what I view as just random interests in the global supply chain: The World is Wet.

This shouldn't be a shock. Seventy percent of the earth's surface is water. And yet as a theme, as an animating way to look at how people live and why nations fight (think Suez Canal), water is given little ink. But that may be changing.

As the New York Times highlighted today, climate change has caused significant interest in what lies beneath the Arctic Ocean. When I was in Alaska and the Arctic this spring, I wrote about this phenomenon in two columns looking at what was essentially an ungoverned new ocean that surrounded our shores in Alaska and our interests in exploration. The first, "Under Melting Ice, A Jackpot," looked at how Arctic drilling was likely to alter our access to domestic oil sources and the nature of once isolated towns like Barrow, where I survived a minus-30-degree morning wake up call. Since then, indeed this week, Shell Oil has abandoned its attempts this year to move forward on drilling, having lost its window of melted ice to the oncoming winter climate and some mechanical breakdowns. The other was more geopolitical in nature; as more and more countries traverse the northern ocean, it has become clear that there is no governing law to control traffic, avoid potential accidents, or manage the exploration of resources. "A New Ocean Passage, With Not Enough Rules" was a call for US ratification of the Convention of the Seas, a treaty that has since died a slow death in the Senate by Republicans who seem to view any international agreement as a form of socialism.

But the oceans are changing, and whether it is this or next or the following year, the dynamics of the Arctic will forever alter access to valuable commodities, movement across the globe, and the competition for the Arctic's spoils.

In Panama, that same theme emerges, though it is not Mother Nature that has the oceans moving again. As I write in Thursday's column, the canal had become a bit old-school as ships got bigger, trade got faster, and just in time economies viewed the Canal's quaint system, narrow passageways, and long waits as unnecessary expenses. And so Panama responded, launching a multi-billion dollar effort to lure commerce back, make the Canal bigger and wider, and offer a haven for these new post-Panamax ships that are too big to get through now. With the vast majority of our global supply system traversing through water, those who can manage the oceans have much to gain. My column for Monday will look at whether US ports, including Boston, are ready for these changes.

I am a water person; having grown up in California, I often miss the beach and am an amateur surfer and frequent paddle-boarder. New England may be home, but it isn't in my blood yet. But from Cuba's attempts for off-shore drilling, to the regulation of the Mediterranean Sea as the Arab Spring unfolded and fears of refugees haunted Europe, to the drowning of the island of Kirabati because of the the warming ocean, I have now been alerted to my unacknowledged obsession and the reality that water — access to it, management of it, exploration in it — drives so much of policy. The world is neither round, nor flat.

It is wet.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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