We are excited to announce our distinguished keynote speakers for the 12th MARE People and the Sea Conference. These experts in their respective fields will bring a wealth of knowledge and insight to our conference, and we are honored to have them join us. Please continue reading to learn more about them and their keynote speeches.

Liam Campling

Liam Campling is a political economist working on problems of corporate power, distribution and development in the global oceans. He is Professor of International Business and Development at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London, where he works collectively at the Centre on Labour, Sustainability and Global Production. He has published widely in academic journals in the fields of Development Studies, Economic Geography and International Political Economy, and is co-author of Capitalism and the Sea (Verso, 2021), Free Trade Agreements and Global Labour Governance (Routledge, 2021), co-editor of Labour Regimes and Global Production (Agenda/ Columbia University Press, 2022), and was part of the editorial team at Journal of Agrarian Change from 2007 to 2022.   He has done research for a variety of organisations, including the Commonwealth Secretariat, European Parliament, International Transport Workers Federation, various United Nations agencies, and, in particular, the Pacific Islands.

Facing Blue Fear through Just Transition? Redistributing Value(s) and Wealth in the Appropriation of the Global Ocean   

‘We’ as an undifferentiated humanity are not the cause of the Anthropocene: always-terraqueous industrial capitalism does not benefit all equally, whether within or between countries or between generations. While the appropriation of nature is a transhistorical dimension of human life and labour, the particular historical forms of appropriation of the global ocean associated with the generalised production of commodities for profit are now known to undermine the reproduction of eco-systems and social systems as we know them. After decades of promise and experimentation, we also now know that neither market environmentalism nor some benign environmentalist state are sufficient to address the socio-ecological contradictions and crises that are underpinning Blue Fear. Within this gap, marine researchers are increasingly describing concentrated capital and market power as being central to this predicament. By drawing on almost 20 years of research on the global tuna industry, I hope to suggest ways to build on these insights in three steps. First, I set out a framework that combines the circuit of capital, geopolitical economy and labour regimes to analyse ‘who’ is capital and why the dynamics of capitalist competition produce socio-ecological contradictions. Second, I sketch the ways in which firms and states appropriate value in the global tuna industry and redistribute wealth between social classes and across geographies, exploiting social relations of domination and subordination to do so. Third, turning the anxieties of Blue Fear on their head while taking care to avoid populist tropes, I suggest a Blue Hope based on the redistribution of wealth and rethinking of value(s) with/in the global oceans. Responses to the current climate and biodiversity crises and energy transitions provide a rare opportunity to fundamentally rethink the relationship between nature and necessary human labour that take seriously a socially-expansive, democratic and internationalist notion of just and equitable transition.

Nireka Weeratunge

Nireka Weeratunge is an anthropologist and Research Fellow at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her recent work has included research on gender and wellbeing in small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, land tenure, and interpersonal/social trust. She is also a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of Integrated Marine Biosphere Research (IMBeR), Canada/China. She has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Toronto, Canada with over 30 years of research and practice in the interface of gender, environment and development issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Her areas of interest are the social and cultural aspects of natural resource use, focusing on livelihood strategies in relation to poverty, vulnerability, resilience and wellbeing in fishing and farming communities. She has worked in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China (Yunan), Laos, Myanmar, Solomon Islands, Philippines and Vietnam.

Oceans of uncertainty and wellbeing threats to coastal people in the Global South: Insights from Sri Lanka

Coastal communities across the Global South are currently confronted with serious economic hardship and a potential for widespread social and political unrest.  This is creating uncertainities and fears, largely caused by recent anthropogenic shocks of global scale. The effects of the pandemic, inflation and the war in Ukraine have contributed to over 60% of developing countries facing debt distress, 12 of which are projected by the World Bank to default on debts in 2023.  Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, experiencing an unprecedented economic, political and social crisis since 2022, is a case in point. A third of its 22 million population is estimated to be coastal. The current crisis followed close in the heels of the lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two years  (2020-2021) and the Easter Sunday bomb attack of 2019. These three anthropogenic shocks taken together have resulted in crippling the country’s economy, mainly dependent on worker remittances, tourism, and the apparel and tea industries, adversely affecting the wellbeing of islanders. The Easter Sunday bomb attack was focused on three coastal communities and loss of earnings from tourism, fisheries and services have especially affected coastal women and men. The depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves has resulted in fuel scarcity, currency devaluation, defaulting on international debt payments and spiralling price inflation on food and other commodities. These factors in turn have increased the risks of poverty and food insecurity for a growing segment of people. The lives of the island’s inhabitants in general, and coastal women and men in particular, are challenged by everyday anxieties on how to make ends meet and put enough food on the table. Crisis responses have ranged from an emergence of an unexpected protest movement, mostly centred in the coastal city of Colombo, curtailed by now through state repression, to migration overseas, especially of young skilled workers and professionals. 

Sri Lanka is presented here as a case study with a special focus on the impact of recent shocks on coastal urban and fishing communities,  based on a gendered social wellbeing perspective. The entanglements of a corrupt and incompetent local political elite in the interface of contesting geopolitical interests and a disputed global financial system that underlie the vulnerabilities of an island nation are unravelled using an anthropological lens. The question emerges as to what extent the structures and actors in the Sri Lankan crisis story constitute a ‘Blue Fear’ – especially threats faced by small-scale fishers to access the ocean due to a combination of urban development and military initiatives by the state and the promotion of tourism, aquaculture and mining with the engagement of the private sector. What are potential resilience strategies and governance pathways to transcend the existential anxieties that have become an intrinsic part of the lives of islanders in an ocean of uncertainty – not only in Sri Lanka but in other places facing similar crises in the Global South?

Stefan Helmreich

Stefan Helmreich is Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton 2016) Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (California 2009) and Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (California 1998). His forthcoming A Book of Waves (Duke 2023) is an anthropological study of wave science, centered on oceanography but also reaching into the domains of cosmology, medicine, acoustics, and social theory. Helmreich’s essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Representations, American Anthropologist, Cabinet, and The Wire.

Ocean Waves Dangerous, Domesticated, and Diagnostic

Ocean waves of relentless approach have long been objects of apprehension and fear. From mariner folklore to literature to Hollywood films, oncoming waves — both outsized and unremitting — have been forces and symbols of, variously, nature unbound and social planning unprepared. How do coastal engineers and marine scientists understand such entities? This keynote will center attention on how ocean waves become objects of measure, monitoring, and modeling and in the process, entities whose frightening dimensions might yield to prediction and control. The talk will offer an extended case study from the Netherlands, a major center for wave research, reporting on ethnographic research with wave scientists in this country shaped by centuries-old endeavors to hold waves back from a land below sea level. Waves, long interpreted as forces of a wild, enemy nature, have come lately to be read as entities that might be rewritten, domesticated, allies in sculpting resilient environmental infrastructure. The talk zeros in on the historical matrices out of which Dutch wave science arrives, discussing wave folklore (e.g., the figure of the wave as “waterwolf”), early and contemporary physical scale models, up-to-the-minute computer simulations, remote sensing instruments, field measurement campaigns, and the recent rise of “building-with-nature” coastal defense strategies (e.g., the beach nourishment strategy emblematized by the “Sand Motor”). The presentation will conclude by zooming out to wider, comparative cases that see engineers and scientists seeking to manage waves and wave effects, including in the open ocean, a zone increasingly visited by “rogue” waves, effects, in some accounts, of increased storm strengths following from intensifying climate change. Amplified waves emerge as avatars of the Thallasocene, forces and forms diagnostic of the age of a rising ocean.