News

March 8, 2018

Wealthy individuals are now funding the push for healthier oceans

News Source: The Economist

PLASTIC, carbon dioxide and farmyard effluent all end up in the oceans. If anyone bears responsibility for them, it is generally believed to be those who put them into the seas, or governments.

Now a growing number of wealthy individuals are putting the oceans at the centre of their giving. One of those is Wendy Schmidt, wife of Eric Schmidt, an ex-chairman of Google. The philanthropic foundation she and her husband started in 2006 focuses on environmental issues of all kinds, with the ocean holding a special place in Ms Schmidt’s estimation. “The world is composed of living systems that are interconnected, and the ocean is the biggest,” she says.

Her passion for the oceans has not been lifelong. She grew up in suburban New Jersey, where she says watching Jacques Cousteau on the television was her closest encounter with the deep. It was only a year after starting the Schmidt Family Foundation that she learned to sail and became hooked on the seas.

A range of oceanic initiatives followed. In 2009 she and her husband launched the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a separate organisation with its own research vessel, the R/V Falkor, aiming to boost research. Ocean scientists may use the ship for free, as long as they commit to sharing their data publicly within two months of their voyage. Ms Schmidt has, since then, sponsored competitions aimed at improving the lot of the oceans. The first, in 2010, offered $1.4m for new solutions to clean up oil spills in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The second, in 2015, offered $2m for new kinds of sensors to measure accurately the acidification of the oceans—a consequence of increasing carbon-dioxide emissions. The foundation recently launched a “philanthropic venture” arm, which focuses exclusively on funding technology that can be used for ocean conservation.

The pollution of the ocean with plastics is the latest oceanic issue to attract her attention. Lisa Svensson, the UN’s oceans chief, declared plastic pollution to be a planetary crisis in December. “I say the oceans are under attack when I talk to people,” says Ms Schmidt. “There are microfibres in phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain. It is alarming.”

She sees her role in answering these challenges having two fronts: promoting proper management and increasing public awareness. To the second end, the Falkor also has a berth for a resident artist, the better to communicate the wonder of the ocean, and its challenges, to the public. “At the end of my life, I’ll feel successful if people who live in Midwest states feel connected to the ocean,” she says.

In a plea for better management of the oceans, Ms Schmidt points to fisheries such as the Newfoundland cod and mid-Atlantic bluefish which, after going through crises of depletion in the 1980s, have rebounded once attention was paid to improving their sustainability. Doing the same for the whole ocean will require that it be managed on a global scale. When she says “we’ve got to figure out how to listen to the Earth”, she means it literally.

This kind of global, digital listening turns out to be a speciality in Silicon Valley. Ms Schmidt is optimistic it can give policymakers the help they need to fix the oceans, in spite of the challenges. Technologies that have languished in laboratories for decades (contributing to the widely held truth that maritime technology is always ten years behind) can help measure and manage the oceans. Unleashing those technologies, says Ms Schmidt, is one of the thrills of philanthropy.