The word ‘geography’ translates as ‘earth-writing‘. However, human geographers have focused their attention almost entirely on the terrestrial or landed parts of the earth — cities, towns, streets, homes — at the cost of studying the two-thirds of the earth which is water – our seas and oceans.
(More-than) Human Geographies of Seas and Oceans
A project, central to all of my work, is to understand the sea from a geographical perspective: looking out to and from the sea, rather than to and from the land.
Over the past two decades geographers have been been moving their studies beyond the shoreline, taking the social, cultural and political questions they ask about landed life, to sea. This project is not new and builds on (though oftentime omits) non-Western perspectives, where the sea has been more central to life, and the imagination.
Geographers are increasingly asking questions that emerge at sea, a space geophysically different from the grounded terrain of land. These interests form the basis of my work – my first book Waterworlds: Human Geographies of the Ocean (with J.Anderson) and my ongoing, collaborative work (with P. Steinberg) on ‘wet ontologies’: engaging with the sea to rethink our modes of ‘doing’ geography.
Under this broad umbrella ‘project’, I also work on a number of specific projects which seek to advance how we understand – geographically – our relationships with seas and oceans (with a particular interest in ocean governance). Some of these projects are large projects run in teams across the institute I work for, others are smaller and take place within more intimate groups of people. Some projects I am working on myself.
As well as researching the seas and oceans as central concerns, I am also increasingly interested in other ‘non-landed’ or grounded spaces, and elements, and how we seek to order, govern and challenges modes of management such ‘terrains’ and ‘forces’ (these include electromagnetic waves, outer space Near Earth Objects, and fire).
Details about some these projects are below.
Invisible Infrastructure: Maritime Motorways and Governing Global Shipping
One of my major research concerns relates to the connections between space and movement (or ‘mobilities’ – movement that is shaped by processes of power), both theoretically and empirically.
Following my PhD (see below), I continued to develop interests in the Dover Strait as a particular maritime bottleneck through which the mobilities of ships have designed, engineered, ‘channelled’ and ultimately governed. Here I have investigated the formulation and operation of a global governance regime – a maritime motorway, or Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) – tracing it from its beginnings in the Dover Strait in the late 1950s, with the advent of increased trade and larger ships, through to its current day articulation and a means of directing, making secure and preventing collisions. I like to think of ‘maritime motorways’ as pieces of invisible infrastructure. You cannot build a motorway, physically, on the seas. You cannot tarmac the ocean. But through years of persistence, and then through constant monitoring and observation, the scheme materialises.
Funded firstly by the Aberystwyth Research Fund as a means of piloting the project, a larger scale version of the work, encompassing new case studies was funded in 2016 by the Leverhulme Trust. This was entitled ‘Invisible Infrastructure: Maritime Motorways and the Making of Global Mobilities’. I have presented the work widely in a variety of talks, as well as written about it in both academic and mainstream publications.
I am currently continuing to explore the proposed development of the latest maritime motorway in the Bering Strait in Alaska, as ice melt makes for a new, possibly globally significant, shipping channel. A
Alongside this work, I have also developed projects that explore mobilities and global shipping through a consideration of autonomous technologies for safety and security at sea. The development of Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) presents challenges for the current regulatory mechanisms of governance specified to ensure safety and security at sea. This project (funded by HEFCW) aims to assess how geographers can add to the discussion of the practical, ethical and legal challenges of MAS. In recent years geographers have added much to the discussion of automated technologies. Yet academic attention has focused mostly on use of aerial and ground autonomous or ‘unmanned’ vehicles and systems with less being said of maritime autonomous systems. In a recent paper (with R. Squire) we set out the need to study autonomous shipping mobilities at sea.
Ocean Governance for Sustainability: From Climate Change to Deep-Sea Mining
Whilst much of my work has focused on shipping mobilities, governance and the (more than) human geographies of the sea, the environment – and sustainability at sea – is an underlying concern shaping all of my work, from thinking about how maritime motorways prevent shipping collisions and oil spills, to arguing the ways a (more than) wet ontology can help build greater awareness and engagement with ocean futures.
Accordingly, I have been working on several projects that focus explicitly on sustainability, biodiversity and stewardship for the oceans. Following a conference in 2016, I was involved (with M.Brown) in convening an experimental book about how we live with the sea in the 21st Century which engaged a variety of disciplines and perspectives – from geography to education, planning to architecture, social theory to those working at sea for a living – to consider our relationships with the water at this moment of unprecedented anthropocentric change. You can find out more about the book, ‘Living with the Seas: Knowledge, Awareness, Action’, here.
Alongside this, from 2016-2020 I have been part of a funded European COST Action Network, Ocean Governance for Sustainability (led by A.K.Hornidge). Here I have held the post of Working Group Leader (for the Seabed Management Group) and acted as UK representative. The network brings together hundreds of scholars and practitioners across the science and social science interface, from 29 COST-countries, to build collaborations in understanding our oceans for sustainability. In 2017 we hosted a Deep Sea Mining (DSM) training school in Liverpool and the Seabed Group are currently pursuing a number of co-authored publications to share knowledge about governing our oceans sustainability.
In 2020, I will begin work with the HIFMB on our exciting new project MARISCO (Marine Research and Innovation for a Sustainable management of Coasts and Oceans) funded by the Belmont Forum (led by H.Hillebrand). The project, including partners in South Africa and the United States, aims to build pathways to more sustainable ocean futures by accounting for, and understanding, change – whilst also aiming to engage with and create means of minimising risks moving forwards. Based on stakeholder-science co-design, and combining natural and social science approaches the project will i) produce the knowledge necessary for defining targets in sustainable marine ecosystem management,and ii) develop the strategies and tools to help implement management approaches that address pressing socio-ecological consequences of human impacts on marine biodiversity.
Carceral Seas: Crime, Governance and Mobilities
Much of my work is historical in focus, seeking to question how past oceanic events can help us understand contemporary concerns. To date my research has explored this interest in relation to the case study of offshore radio piracy questioning how historical transgressions led to a change in the law of the sea.
For the past 5 years I have been working on various projects concerned with the seemingly contradictory relationship between ‘carcerality’ and the ‘sea’ (with J. Turner) in a historic and more recent context. Carceral spaces are those defined as closed, controlled, confined. The sea is often characterised in opposition – as the most ‘free’ and ‘open’ of spaces (Langewiesche 2003). However, as geographers (historians and International Relations scholars) have demonstrated, the sea – a space often out of sight and mind, can offer a legal exception to the state and has thus frequently been used as a prison space to hold and contain, where state regulation can be circumnavigated for carceral purposes (Anderson 2000; Mountz and Loyd 2014; Peters and Turner 2015). It has also been used as a space across which to move and remove (and also return) ‘unwanted’ or ‘undesirable’ people from one territory to another via ‘transportation’ or prison ships. In our work, seeking to explore ‘Carceral Seas’, we have explored this spatial paradox – of the openness of the sea and the confinement of the ship, through researching the governance of ‘transgressive’ populations at sea through state-sponsored punitive regimes focusing on the convict ships that transported individuals to colonies in America and Australia. In particular, it sought to ask how regimes related to the mobilities of convicts created systems of carceral control. This project chimes with broader, current concerns over the management and governance of populations moving via boat. The project culminated in the book Carceral Mobilites: Interrogating Movement in Incarceration (Routledge, 2017)
More recently, we have been pushing the boundaries of work in ‘Carceral Geographies’ which is centred primarily on the prison. ‘Carcerality’, however, does not just pertain to the prison. It is a concept has purchase in understanding a multitude of spaces, sites, situations defined by ‘carceral’ conditions – of detriment, intent and spatiality (see Moran, Turner and Schliehe, 2018). Here, we have been developing a project that understands the sea, and lifeworlds, labour, activities, and relations with more-than-human life, as ‘carceral’. This has culminated with a series of conference sessions – at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) conference in 2019, and Annual Association of American Geographers meeting in 2020. Bringing together a variety of research and perspectives on offshore carceral worlds, we aim to convene a Special Issue in the journal Political Geography in 2021.
Our future work will continue to consider the relations between carcerality, the oceans, and crime and governance through future work on crime enforcement at sea.
Elemental Governance: Air, Water, Fire, Earth
Whilst my PhD was most definitely about ships (their ‘illicit’ activities and their subsequent governance), it was also about much more than the governance of the seas. In investigating offshore radio piracy, I was also fascinated by the control of the air and airwaves – or, to be precise, electromagnetic waves through which sound travels. In governing the broadcasting corsairs of the North Sea, successive governments not only had to grapple with governing extra-territorial activities, in the extra-territorial space of the sea, but also the transmission of radio shows via another natural medium, one which also defies neat bordering processes, and humanly constructed boundaries. I discuss the elemental governance of electromagnetic waves in my book ‘Rebel Radio’.
This work, along with my collaborative work (with P.Steinberg and E.Stratford) has sought to grapple with the politics and governance of territories beyond terra – beyond the grounded, earthly and solid spaces that tend to dominate work on territory and political contestation. We argue, building from the extensive work of Stuart Elden on terrtory and terrain, that key arenas of political struggle are no longer confined to land alone – but to the skies, to ice, to the underwater and beyond. We were fortunate to have Stuart Elden write a foreword for our book ‘Territory Beyond Terra’, and to convene an incredible set of authors who are progressing our understandings of the varied geophysical terrains of political control and conflict.
My interests in spaces that are tricky to govern has extended beyond the book above, and earlier work on radio piracy, to include a project on the governance of fire and automated fire protection (funded by the Manchester Geographical Society) and a new, project on outer space and how we connect past, present and future through modes of curating former planetary cosmic collisions by Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) with their contemporary governance (with G.Hoskins).
Wet and More-than-Wet Ontologies: A Theoretical Project
In addition to these projects, and what connects them all, is my theoretical work with Philip Steinberg (Durham University). Working with Phil has been, and continues to be, a career highlight. In our first major piece together we aimed to theorise how key geographical concepts: place, time, territory and materiality, could be re-thought by thinking with the sea as a conceptual tool. Here we developed what we called a ‘wet ontology‘ (moving beyond ‘flat ontologies’) to open up a world of volume, complexity and matter (this in 2015). Drawing on a range of philosophers – Virilio, Serres, Schmitt, Deleuze – we sought to demonstrate how thinking with the sea allows us to reinvigorate, redirect, and reshape debates that are all too often restricted by terrestrial limits.
In 2019, concerned that our theory was falling short, we published a follow-on paper, ‘more-than-wet ontologies‘ where we argue the sea is not just wet. It doesn’t just exist in its liquid form alone, but in ‘excess’: within us, beyond us and in our imaginations. The sea is the air we breath, the smells we sniff, the food we eat, the dreams we dream. Thinking with excess allows us to reconsider the geographical and geophysical reach of the oceans and imagine them, and know them, differently – creating new opportunities for understanding, engaging and stewarding.
From 2020, we will continue to develop our ocean thinking. Watch this space…