The ocean has been a constant in my adult life. It's been the backdrop to some of my most joyous moments and has soothed me during the most traumatic times, such as the last year. It's hard and heartbreaking to imagine not being able to feel it's frothy edge splash against my bare ankles. But that nightmare isn't as far off as one might think.
In fact the ocean is now warmer than at any time since measurements began, more acidic than at any time in the last 14 million years, and is providing less oxygen, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The drastic rise in temperature means the delicate ecosystem, the environment that everything from tiny plankton to humongous whales call home, is out of balance.
While it's incredibly easy to be apathetic about ocean conservation -- for so long, I was too because the sheer magnitude of the problem overwhelmed me -- it's always grounding to be reassured that our collective efforts can in fact create change as Leah Thomas, founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, reminded me a few weeks ago.
The Ventura-based eco-creative and communicator has always been super passionate about going outdoors, but it wasn't until studying environmental science and policy as an undergrad that the St. Louis native decided to dedicate her career to exploring the intersections of social and environmental justice.
"For me, I feel like if you don't have access to those things [clean air, clean water, access to nature and green spaces], which should be the bare minimum how can you experience joy and these basic human rights," Thomas shared with me during a recent conversation.
One thing Thomas wants everyone to know for sure is that it's very possible for all us to take action against climate change, especially when it comes to the ocean. Keep reading for four practical tips we can all use.
Siraad Dirshe: If you could give folks one piece of information about environmental justice and the ways it impacts our daily lives what would you say?
Leah Thomas: "Step outside, take a deep breath you're breathing in air. Don't you want that air to be clean? I guess people don't really think about that too much which is a part of the privilege. If you can walk outside and breathe clean air and not have a respiratory illness, then you're not thinking about it really. But that having that shocking realization for a lot of people in the United States -- for a variety of different factors -- is a good place to start."
SD: Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with the water? What are some of your early memories of the ocean?
LT: "My dad, when he was a teenager, he was a lifeguard. So he was like you have to learn how to swim. It's a startling statistic that over 50% of African-Americans were never taught how to swim, and it comes to a place of trauma. If your parents know how to swim then you're more likely to know how to swim.
Coming to California, I loved going to the beach. Even if I didn't get into the water being there and smelling that ocean water. I currently live in a beach community in Ventura and I love everything about being next to the ocean."
SD: If we're being frank and honest, what will happen if things keep progressing the way that they do?
LT: "Starting at plastic production, which is usually in communities of color is very environmentally harmful and sends out a lot of pollutants into the air. Then, when you look at where those plastics end up and then who has to clean it up, it sometimes does end up in lower income communities.
For a lot of people there is a lot of uncertainty about the deep ocean. So they think they can dump whatever chemicals into waterways that end up in the ocean at some point. And it's not sustainable. We need the ocean, it's a really big carbon sink, and it can help mitigate climate change. So it's really scary if we continue to keep doing what we're doing."
SD: It's easy for someone to get overwhelmed by all of this but are there any steps we can do as individuals to help save the ocean?
- Use your voice.
- Hold brands accountable.
- Lean into culturally relevant sustainable practices.
- Start from a place of empowerment.
SD: Are there things we can be doing with our local and federal governments as well?
LT: "Sometimes it feels unfair when people say: ‘signing a petition isn't enough, posting on social media isn't enough, going to a protest isn't enough.' But you know what is enough? Each of us doing all of these different things because some people may not be able to go to a protest or a public hearing, especially during a pandemic. Each of these things are a piece of the whole to creating change."
SD: Any parting words or piece of advice for how folks can and should get involved to help change things?
LT: "If I had any ending note, I think it would be that many mainstream environmentalists talk about the climate crisis they talk about the very scary hypothetical future, far off in the future but it's really important to understand the climate crisis and environmental crisis is here now, and has been here."
Siraad Dirshe is a Los Angeles-based writer, producer and editor who fell in love with surfing on a recent trip to Ghana. To see more of her work follow her on Instagram @sdirshe. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can watch the entire conversation between Siraad and Leah here and learn more about the We Are One Ocean campaign here.