Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

What are you willing to bet on the Blue Economy?

An exploration into the depths of efforts to develop the Blue Economy in Rhode Island by an iconoclastic ecologist

Photo by Richard Asinof

A family at land's end at India Point Park in Providence, at the convergence of Narragansett Bay.

By Greg Gerritt
Posted 5/16/22
An ecological treatise looking at the problems with efforts to develop the Blue Economy in Rhode Island.
What are the remedies available to halt the overproduction of plastics from fossil fuels? Will the R.I. General Assembly take steps this year to regulate PFAs in our water supplies? Is there a diagnostic code for “long COVID?” Will the R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha continue to serve as the state’s public health advocate in opposing the plans for National Grid to sell off its holdings to PPL? What is the current value of the squid fishery projected to be over the next decade? How are efforts to develop long-term health and education plans for the state connected to the need to develop economic strategies that promote the end of the state’s dependence on fossil fuels?
For all the noise and uproar about critical race theory and replacement theory spewed by – there is no other way to describe them but as bigots, a critical component of the latest Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook, released on Monday, May 16, in a virtual event, are what the demographics tell us about ourselves, if we are willing to listen.
In Rhode Island, in 2022, minority children have become the majority, comprising 53 percent of the population of the state’s children. No talk radio show host, no nasty troll on Twitter, no FOX News commentator can deny that basic truth about Rhode Island: the Ocean State will soon emerge as a minority majority state, something all the planning and projections looking at the next decade do not ever seem to account for.
Armed with that knowledge, the next big question – often unasked and swept under the rug by the dominant business forces in Rhode Island – is how the efforts of diverse communities such as South Providence, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Newport, West Warwick and even Cranston – can reclaim ownership of and access to their riverfronts and waterfronts.

Editor’s Note: The lush promise of summer hangs in the air of an early May evening, with its salty fragrance perfuming the waterfront around us. Two children are exploring the water’s edge, under the watchful eyes of parents, as a young girl in pigtails throws a stone into the dark, blue-green water, proud of the big splash that it makes. In the background, a steady stream of traffic traverses the highways that define the city’s boundaries, separating the land from the sea, with a cluster of wind turbines seeming to provide a distant hum: I must go down to the sea again.

For the two young children, barefoot, at the edge of Narragansett Bay at India Point Park, it is an alluring escape into the local seascape, where their dreams and adventures can find a moment of pure joy in discovery. Splash!

Of course, if you peer more closely into that urban seascape at land’s end, you can discern the rotted wooden piers yards from the shoreline, with the tall smokestacks on the horizon, and acres and acres of waste metal disposal sites and industrial storage tanks, an homage to our fossil fuel infrastructure. It is an image far, far removed from the tourist playground fantasies of sandy beaches and rolling waves and pastel-colored lighthouses on special license plates: Cooler and warmer?

This is where the once and future economies of Rhode Island are on a collision course, according to Greg Gerritt, one of Rhode Island’s iconoclastic commentators with an ecological bent.

India Point Park in Providence, which once served as the landing point for slave ships, now serves as a popular late afternoon excursion point for families with young children, a refuge that serves as a place of convergence of river and sea. Why isn’t there a marker, or a bench by the side of the road, telling the story of the slave trade in Rhode Island, as Toni Morrison asked.

Here is the place where indigenous cultures once thrived, where herring returned to spawn, before European settlers arrived, and imposed their own version of commerce and religion and conquest. God save the King!

In a thoughtful exploration of the new, Blue Economy, Gerritt provides readers of ConvergenceRI with a sounding board, call it a rudder to steer with, through an “uncomfortable conversation” about how the recent plans to harvest what economic developers are calling the “Blue Economy” resembles the old-fashioned equation of the economic colonialism of the past.

The goal in publishing the op-ed is not to get you to agree, or to disagree – but to begin to have the conversation. Here we are, three years into the coronavirus pandemic and counting, on the verge of summertime in Rhode Island. …And the living is not easy…

The story is meant to serve as a spark, a starting point, for an exchange of ideas, particularly as Rhode Island finds itself at a crossroads for how it wants to define its future path toward economic prosperity – that place where  innovation, health, research, technology and community converge – a place where, as poet Langston Hughes described it, “Where the number not only/Comes out – but repeats!

For Gerritt, it begins with the strongly articulated belief: “Expectations of economic growth in an age of ecosystem collapse create more problems than it can solve, including the rolling climate catastrophe.” The more we want, Gerritt continues, “The bigger the deficit each year, and the closer we are to surpassing ever more planetary boundaries that threatens life on Earth.”

My guess is that Gerritt and I could argue long into the night about this, and maybe find common ground, and maybe not. But it is an argument worth having.

The children playing at the water’s edge at India Point Park may at first appear to be far removed the conversation, a postcard from the edge of the debate, not fully aware of the drama being played out in front of them about the future. But they are Rhode Island’s future.

PART One

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself.
— Rachel Carson

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island is called the Ocean State, so it is safe to say that the ocean has always played a big role in our economy and our culture. Shellfish have been a food staple since the end of the Ice Ages. Purple shells were an important trade good well before the European colonial invasion. Herring were not only a valuable food source but served as a key component of agriculture.

Post European invasion, Rhode Island was active in ocean trade routes, beginning with the slave trade and the Triangle Trade [slaves, sugar cane, rum]. India Point was named for the destination of many of its ships.

Until there were paved roads, coastal shipping and ferries were often the main modes of commerce, even after the railroads were built. Waterfalls that were used to power industrial mills came right up next to the tidewater, helping Rhode Island to become an industrial giant in the 19th-century America.

You get the picture: ocean-related sectors of the state’s economy and our evolving workplace culture were defined by their long-standing economic value.

Roots, mills, and robots
The ocean-oriented economic sectors never went away, but the sectors have evolved. We no longer send out slave ships and whalers – though we do have a whale-watching industry.

But today there is a greater push to increase the size of the ocean-oriented economy, and to broaden its definition. Mining metal nodules on the “abyssal” plains hundreds of feet deep on the seafloor bed, with new-fangled submersible robots, may seem like it will be the next big thing to place bets on, despite the potential to cause great harm and disruption to the sea’s ecosystem.

I recently wrote a paper exploring what I believe to be the misguided economic development strategy found in “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0,” a report produced on behalf of CommerceRI, the state’s economic development agency, written by consultant Bruce Katz.

If you read my essay, “CommerceRI innovates towards inequality, unaffordable health care and ecological collapse,” you will note that I spent relatively little verbiage on the “Blue Economy,” despite that being one of the areas that CommerceRI believes is ripe for innovation and growth.

To be honest, the “Blue Economy” is a mixed bag, from fisheries to submarines with nuclear weapons, from life affirming to planet destroying investments and technologies.

I was asked to delve deeper into the subject by the editor of ConvergenceRI, Richard Asinof, and I agreed to give it a whirl, knowing it was not really my area of expertise.

Asinof also sent me the introduction to a book by Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism, which focuses on the differences between the modern exploitive methodology of science, specifically the study of plastic pollution in fish, and contrasts it with how the lab she works in at a university in Newfoundland tries to practice non-exploitive science.

This underlying approach that Liboiron offers directly relates to a decent-sized chunk of the Rhode Island’s “Blue Economy,” the part that scientific research that plays in the local economy.

But it also offers us an opportunity to rethink an economy based on exploitation – and our willingness to surpass safe limits when our activities for profit threaten planetary health.

Framing the discussion
In my activism around the ocean and ocean industries, I have learned to color outside the lines.

I begin with the understanding that the expectations of economic growth in an age of ecosystem collapse create more problems than such growth solves, including the rolling climate catastrophe.

Translated, the more we want, the bigger the deficit each year, and the closer we come to surpassing ever more planetary boundaries that threatens life on Earth.

The exploitation of the planet is matched by the exploitation of other people by whomever can manipulate the economic system to their own advantage, in my opinion. There is enough for all of our needs, but feeding the greed wreaks havoc.

What we really need is an economy geared not toward scarcity, but toward the concept of enough – that we can meet the needs of everyone quite well, while ensuring the genetic materials we need to continue the evolutionary journey have room to diversify, eventually reaching a steady state of economic equilibrium.

I admit it is perhaps not a very popular concept, but if you look at what is going on, our resources are disappearing. The planetary boundaries for the renewal of key nutrients are being surpassed. [For instance, phosphorus is ending up at the bottom of the ocean, not to be available for the next few hundred million years, and a body cannot process food without phosphorus.]

In other words, to repeat the popular slogan, “There is no Planet B.” So Plan B has to be a based upon a very different kind of economy.

It is that understanding that I bring to the public discussions of economic development in Rhode Island and New England. I have viewed the efforts to continue to grow the economy faster and faster as a death spiral, what I call an inebriated dance. Because we have not really produced any good ideas for growing the economy faster, in a way that actually benefits our communities, in a world with ever-diminishing natural resources, except for creating ever-bigger piles of trash, and growing inequality.

I believe that it is as a rather similar approach to community economics that the Clear Laboratory in Newfoundland is taking to the study of pollution.

• “Betting on the Blue Economy” is a decision to smartly flog the horse to go faster, and mostly for things that either harm people directly or diminish the natural world and our communities.

I admit that this is sweeping generalization that is not truly 100 percent accurate, given that a fair bit of Rhode Island’s “Blue Economy” is focused on wind power and scientific research – and much of that research is focused on looking at how Narragansett Bay and the coastal waters along its southern coast are changing in response to climate change.

So, the Blue Economy is not completely harmful, even if it is embedded in a culture in which economic growth is supposed to be as normal as schools of fish swimming in Narragansett Bay – even if it kills both fish and humans with microplastics.

Tourism is very clearly an industry that uses a low-paid, often severely abused, labor force to cater to those who have more. Boat building today, it seems, is something that only the rich can afford to keep afloat. Advanced materials for racing boats is, by definition, money to burn.

Shellfish are no longer part of a basic diet ingredient but a luxury, as is aquaculture as practiced in the limited spaces available in Rhode Island.

Managing fisheries also becomes a rather strange science in an age in which fishing technologies can wipe out species almost overnight, at depths we could never have imagined fishing in the past. And, with ocean managers who are trying to “square the circle” between science and the power of money in the political process.

Complicating the “Blue Economy” further is the fact that fish and human populations are being forced to migrate, moving around the seas and the planet’s land masses, due to carbon pollution resulting in hotter water temperatures, drought, and uninhabitable climates.

Then we have all of the military institutions and contractors, merging big money, violence, and easy corruption. The stoking of the war machine is among the biggest threats to democracy, the oceans, and life on earth. Nuclear madness has reared its ugly head in Ukraine. It reminds us that we will not have a healthy ocean if we do not ban nuclear weapons and quit building the vehicles such as nuclear submarines for their delivery.

Finally, do not forget the nodules of metal paving the bottom of the ocean deep that the submersibles being worked on around the Bay will facilitate the exploitation of, no matter what the cost to the planet.

The big picture
The big picture is that just about every sector of the “Blue Economy” in Rhode Island is geared toward growing the inequality of our economy.

Even the parts of the economy providing good working-class jobs in construction, fishing, aquaculture, boat building, materials innovation, and the war machine feed the coffers of the wealthiest among us more than the pockets of the hungry populace, and provide for the rich much more than the poor, while the low-wage work of the tourism, food, and recreation industries also mostly serves those who have more money.

Maybe the part of the “Blue Economy” directly tied to scientific research, monitoring temperatures and chemicals and the like in the Bay, looking at sea-level rise or the health of fish populations could be considered as relatively benign, but according to Liboiron, the very structure of science as practiced upholds a power structure based on exploitation, and creates the tools to do the exploiting.

A series of question to answer before delving deeper into the “Blue Economy” are: Does it help us solve the real problems we face today beyond our desire for more money? Does it help us undo the climate catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels? Does it help us live healthier lives, free from polluted environments? Does it reduce inequality?

Too often, it appears that the government wishes to make people subservient to the economy, to force us to do what the most rich and powerful would have us do to satisfy their insatiable appetite for more money and more tax revenue rather than design the economy to serve the community, including those with the least power.

Many of these issues are showing up in all the discussions and hearings around what is to be allowed in the Port of Providence.

The mainstream lens
Bruce Katz helped to lead the work on some of the economic development plans that Rhode Island has produced in the last 25 years. His perspective on the Blue Economy [from a previous interview with ConvergenceRI] is probably as mainstream as it gets and is included here to show how far away from an economy based on justice and ecological healing Rhode Island has strayed, and how far into jargon we have stumbled as the rich and powerful attempt to control the messaging.

“The Ocean State, for our perspective,” Katz said, “is not just a brand; it’s a platform for broader, innovative growth. The blue economy covers multiple sectors. It obviously covers what the Navy is doing at Naval Undersea Warfare Center, it covers the Naval War College, it covers off-shore wind near Block Island, it covers tourism, it covers aquaculture, it covers coastal resiliency and resiliency along rivers to prevent flooding or mitigate flooding, it covers environmental remediation.”

Katz continued: “So, this is a very broad super sector of the economy, which is essentially like the green economy was 25 years ago, it’s coming into its own, particularly as the U.N. has designated the next decade as the decade of ocean science, oceans writ large.”

Further, Katz elaborated on the players in this space. “I think there are going to be multiple players in this space. And, I think the University of Rhode Island has a particular role to play because it is one of the top centers of oceanography in the world. I could definitely see that the Providence Innovation District could have a portion of its focus be around the blue economy. You already have some movement in that direction. I think this is an evolution of an understanding of what makes the Rhode Island economy distinctive and special, and how to build on it over time.”

That Katz views this sector as poised for growth with no measuring stick looking at the results of the growth says much. And, as we know, while the Green Economy is much touted, and much larger, it has done nothing to change the fundamental approach in economic development or the power dynamics in our communities.

We may not poison as overtly, we may pay homage to good ecological management, we may even include more of the community in the discussion about what we should do, but the Earth and the ocean and our communities are still much diminished and being harmed ever more every day.

Diving deeper
After reading “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0,” I read “The Value of Rhode Island’s Blue Economy,” which was produced by the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI, in partnership with the RI Coastal Resources Center and RI Sea Grant.

The authors list seven major sub-sectors of the Blue Economy. They include: Defense, Marine Trades, Ports and Shipping, Tourism and Recreation, Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Offshore Renewable Energy.

Here is a very quick and dirty take on the seven sub-sectors:

• Tourism and Recreation provides by far the most jobs, though most of those are relatively low paid.

• The Defense industry has the highest wages. There is plenty of money to be made supplying the Navy with the tools of the trade. It offers us new and better ways to build weapons or training members of the military, including Americans and military officers from around the world.

And while the defense industry has shed a few jobs in Rhode Island over the last 10 years, the war in Ukraine is likely to increase the unbelievably huge budget for “killing” passed by Congress, and some of that will end up in Rhode Island.

So, expect the defense industry to grow as the business of killing increases.

• Marine Trades is ship building and related tasks. We are small potatoes, building yachts, and now boats to service the offshore wind industry.

Included in this is also a sector of the industry that focuses on developing new materials for boat building, something that was spurred by yacht racing. Aquidneck Island has been home to very prestigious yacht races for many years, and the industry has continued to grow in that area.

• Ports and shipping is focused on transforming shipping into a Green
Industry by reducing emissions and pollution. Shipping is responsible for about 3 percent of global emissions], but in a state in which the landings are dominated by fossil fuels and automobiles, with some road salt throw in for good measure, and exports are
primarily scrap metal and used cars, one has to wonder how “green” Rhode Island’s ports will ever be, and if they will be able to survive the end of fossil fuels.

The Port of Providence deserves its own discussion as an economic justice zone and I will talk about that in another section.

It will take considerable resources to make our docks capable of handling a four-foot sea level rise. In a world with out of control carbon emissions, an offshore wind industry is very welcome.

But progress has been slow for a variety of reasons. The former President and the
fossil fuel industries have tried to kill or slow walk the wind industry.

Rhode Island also has a limited number of large parcels to convert into facilities capable of handling the huge structures of the wind industry. We may generate lots of the electricity we need offshore eventually, but we shall only be home to a limited percentage of the associated industries.

• Aquaculture is a growth industry, pun intended. With cleaner water, it appears to be a fit, but there are limits to where it is acceptable. Communities are fighting back to prevent the overrunning of the neighborhood recreation hot spots, and it will remain an industry primarily serving the wealthiest among us.

It also remains to be seen how climate change will affect it. The next big thing appears to be kelp, and again it will be as a smallish scale specialty crop.

For all the noise it generates, Rhode Island only has about 350 acres in aquaculture and new leases are struggling more and more against community opposition. [The archaic nature of the Coastal Resources Management Council is not helping much.]

Fishing is as old as settlements along the coast, but it is an industry in trouble. The ability to over-fish species after species means that there is a constant struggle between regulation of take and what the people who fish need to keep them on the water.

Complicating this is the fact that climate change is causing fish and shellfish to move north to escape the heat, and be replaced by species moving up from the south.

It also turns out that wind turbine bases enhance recreational fishing while making life more difficult for commercial fishers, so the siting the ocean leases has also become more problematic. Almost as problematic as how to protect the right whales.

Underlying all of this economic activity is a research component, mostly based at universities like URI and Roger Williams University, that are monitoring the bay, studying the fish, creating new tools to study the Bay and fish as well as providing tools and expertise to places around the world, and developing new technologies and weapons for the industrial sectors.

The people in charge of economic development policy and the people pulling the levers in the private sector are not asking the questions about where we are going, in my opinion. They are not asking if the industry in question leads to more justice, a more equitable economy, progress on climate change, and healthier communities, and yes, world peace.

Right now, you could not say the “Blue Economy” as described by Bruce Katz and the Rhode Island ruling elite is going to move us in the right direction.

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