marshall islands

Mike Markels Pioneering And Tending Ocean Pastures


A talk at the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC 1999

Michael Markels

Michael Markels

Introduction: My friend Mike Markels was a chemical engineer who was always engineering solutions to problems. He’d created a large corporation, Versar Corp., that made it their business to engineer solutions in industry especially environmental solutions. He became passionate about the work of John Martin about the same time as I and many people did when Martin pronounced the power of plankton in managing the world’s climate. He started making real progress on his plan around 1995. That’s when we became friends.

Like Mike my life has been all about inventing solutions to problems especially in the environment. I’d founded a treeplanting company in the early 1970’s in Canada that has gone on to plant hundreds of millions of trees. I’ve as well worked for decades prescribing treatments to prevent and mitigate environmental damage in the natural resource industries both as a government man and industry consultant.

john martin

John Martin – The Original Iron Man click to read about his ideas to save the planet

But the passion I shared with Mike Markels has been about how we can solve the tragedy of the ocean commons that are treated exclusively like wild places where humankind is allowed to hunt and kill the natural things that live there. Mike and I agreed that today, 10,000 years after humankind began being responsible about caring and tending to pastures on land it is time to do the same for ocean pastures.

(Transcript of Mike’s talk below)

Mankind has the basic tools to solve problems that seem to defy solution – 1999 Cosmos Club Talk – Michael Markels Jr.

The popular and academic press is filled these days with dire assessments of the Earth’s present condition and even more pessimistic predictions for the future. Change can be frightening, and forecasts of doom may be extrapolated from almost any negative trend regarding the use and availability of the planet’s natural resources. Pessimism, in other words, is an easy trap to fall into. All too often, it is easy to romanticize the past, ignore the relative comfort and excitement of life in the present, and disregard the likelihood that invention, entrepreneurship, and the creativity of the human spirit will improve our own lives and those of our children.

Indeed, two of the most pressing problems now facing mankind may be nearing solution in ways not even dreamed of just a few years ago. Before turning to that happy prospect, however, let us consider whether the past and present are as benighted as many today insist.

At the outset, human beings were hunter-gatherers, taking what the land produced but not changing it in any significant way. In many societies, such change would constitute an insult to a deity, a sacrilege. In any case, life was sustainable, ecologically compatible, biologically diverse, and relatively simple to understand. But, as Thomas Hobbes observed, life without civilization is also solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Few of us would exchange our lives today for such conditions.

After hundreds of thousands of years, humans began herding sheep, goats, and, later, cattle to places that offered the best forage. Then, about 5,500 years ago, a stupendous invention rocked the world: the moldboard plow. A farmer equipped with this wonderful tool could increase his output by a factor of seven. Within 200 years of the appearance of the plow, the first pyramids were built, the first highways constructed, the first cities created. Civilization arose. Agriculture became global, raising the output of the land by about 2,000 times. Humans were on the road to take over the world.

This astonishing power led to many mistakes, but human creativity, inventiveness, and ability prevailed. The invention of agriculture provided humans with the time and energy to invent other technologies. Each new piece of information resulted in new building blocks, allowing humankind to solve new problems in less and less time. It took about 5,000 years after writing was invented to come up with the printing press, another 400 years to invent the typewriter, about 60 years to commercialize the ditto process, 40 years for the Xerox copy machine, and, finally, 20 years for the computer-driven printer.

The explosion in technology has greatly increased the availability of information. Only a few hundred years ago, whatever information the average person learned came from visits to churches, taverns, or a friend dwelling. The total information gathered by one person in a lifetime was, according to some estimates, about as much as is contained in a single issue of the New York Times. Today’s quantum leaps in information and technology have greatly increased the basic materials that the inventive mind needs in order to create new and useful things.

But information and technology are not the only necessary tools of invention. A nurturing and rewarding environment is also crucial. Autocratic societies, especially those without strong private-ownership guarantees, generally do not reward entrepreneurship and may actually discourage it. Tradition-driven societies tend not to welcome new technology. Henry Miller wrote, The new always carries with it the sense of violation and sacrilege. What is dead is sacred. What is new, that is different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive.

When it comes to creative invention, the United States today is among the most nurturing society’s ever, and there is every reason to expect that the pace of US innovation will only increase in the years ahead. To the extent that this expectation is thwarted, the blame will rest to some extent with those who argue against change and harken to a simpler era before fossil fuels, an era with ecological diversity, a simple natural lifestyle, and no technological distractions.

This point of view results in a creed that embodies the following tenets:

  1. Don’t do anything unless you know all of the consequences (i.e., do no harm).
  2. All harm is permanent and can never be reversed.
  3. If something results in change, stop doing it.
  4. The human effect is always bad.
  5. Nature, unaffected by man, is always good.
  6. Life has never been this bad before and soon will be getting much worse.

This outlook sometimes appeals to those who recall, accurately or not, a carefree youth. But the application of reason to the state of the planet today leads to quite different conclusions: life is better now than any time in history; food is better and less expensive; medical care is better; and human beings are living longer and healthier lives. In today’s world, individuals have more opportunities and choices than ever before.

When society encounters new problems, like air pollution, solutions are found. For the most part, mankind has also been able to differentiate the real problems from the emotional kind that have led in the past to wars, say, or the hanging of witches or the extermination of minorities. (Emotional responses nevertheless seem to be a part of our genetic makeup, and so may be reduced but not eliminated as recent events in Kosovo illustrate.)


Looking to the future, it is logical to assume that the tools of invention will grow exponentially. And with human creativity unleashed, there is hardly a problem that must now be deemed beyond society’s ability to solve, including such vexing matters as how to feed the world’s population and how to deal with the increasing level of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) in the atmosphere.

As the world’s population continues to grow, the world is running out of new, prime agricultural land. Moreover, the pace of recent increases in agricultural productivity seems to be slowing. To many, this combination of problems seems intractable. The news is full of reports about the decline in biological diversity and sustainability, and how both trends threaten human survival. But biological diversity is not, in itself, an unqualifiedly positive thing.

Human beings have thrived in part by limiting biological diversity in and on our bodies as well as in our homes, on the highways, on our farms and ranches. Very few people feel the need to harbor, in the name of biological diversity, fleas, ticks, and lice on a continuing basis, or to endure internal parasites and disease. We would rather not have mice, rats, and insects in our homes. Similarly, human society as a whole is moving toward maintaining biological diversity only in limited areas and to a limited extent so that increased productivity might be achieved elsewhere to meet human needs.

Sustainability, too, is amenable to management. Certainly it is possible to mine a resource to the point that it can no longer produce. Over-fishing that eradicates the wild stock is one example. Agriculture that leads to erosion of the land and loss of topsoil is another. Such situations arise when a greater value is placed on current output than on continued productivity a priority that exists especially in the absence of strong private-property rights.

New technologies, though, can rejuvenate the damaged resource and restore it to productivity, perhaps with a different group of products. Mineral mining is a form of unsustainable production. Yet even here there is reason for optimism. After a mine is played out, the materials it yielded remain part of the planet. They can be recycled and used again. Energy is consumed in the recycling process, but energy is being renewed constantly by the sun, while atomic energy is almost inexhaustible.


The other problem that some think defies solution is the increasing CO2 content of the atmosphere as the world continues to burn fossil fuels. If this increase causes global climate change and its attendant, much-discussed, and much-feared catastrophes, then the seven-percent reductions envisioned by the year 2012 in the international Kyoto Protocol of 1997 will be completely inadequate to reverse the CO2 buildup. Mankind has been increasing the efficiency of energy production and utilization for over 200 years; there simply isn’t much more that can be done before we encounter thermodynamic restrictions. Many are concerned that this could signal the end of the good life, as we know it.

The dire predictions based on these two problems how to feed a burgeoning population and how to deal with the effects of too much CO2 in the atmosphere do not take into account human creativity and inventiveness. Solutions will be found, not only for these problems, but also for others that now seem intractable. In the search for solutions, for example, it quickly becomes apparent that sunlight as an energy source is not currently being well utilized. Most of the earth’s sunlight falls on the unproductive portions of the oceans, not on the land. Surely, there are ways to utilize this ultimate resource more effectively.

Sixty percent of ocean plant growth comes from only two percent of the ocean surface. The other 40 percent comes from the nominally barren 98 percent of the ocean. Thus, it should be possible to realize a substantial increase in the productivity of the oceans by adding fertilizing elements to the barren portions. This option seems much more appealing than counting on the land to increase the carrying capacity of the globe. There is not much agricultural land left whose productivity is likely to be increased, and gains that have been realized from the use of insecticides and fertilizers, as well as genetically engineered stocks, may have largely run their courses.

One problem in using the ocean as a source of agricultural production is the traditional vision of the sea as a vast and mysterious resource impervious to man’s management a view, by the way, that our early ancestors had of the land! For this reason we have always considered the open ocean as a commons whose fruits, such as fish, are owned by no one until they are brought over the side of the boat or otherwise harvested. This has made conservation difficult and investment in increased-productivity projects impossible.

However, a new understanding of the oceans and their susceptibility to management is developing. Like the land, oceans may be made more productive through fertilization, primarily with iron, phosphorous, and fixed nitrogen. Fertilization must occur within the first 200 feet below the surface (the photic zone), where sunlight penetrates and plants can grow. Iron is the key missing element, but it must be added in chelated form so that it does not precipitate and sink out of the photic zone. Certain national and international patents that currently exist, or that have been applied for, deal with additives to encourage the kind of plant growth that would, in turn, sustain a population of fish to be harvested by mankind.

marshall islands

The Marshall Islands in the western Pacific are a nation of 58,000 people living on 70 square miles of coral atolls whose average elevation is seven feet. A sea level rise caused by global warming would have a big effect on this country, which helps explain why it was one of the first to ratify the Rio treaty. In the 1990’s the government of the Marshalls also signed another document—a contract with a Springfield, Virginia, entrepreneur named Michael Markels. The contract gives Markels the privilege of restoring the ocean pastures on the country’s entire Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of some 800,000 square miles—almost the size of the Louisiana Purchase, says Markels.

But to raise fish on an ocean farm, the right kind of fish, i.e., filter-feeder fish, have to be present to eat the plants (phytoplankton) that will grow once the sea is fertilized. These types of fish do not currently live in the barren open ocean, which would have to be seeded with the best varieties. The seeded fish would then take their places in the food chain and become a food source for the higher trophic-level fish, such as tuna and swordfish. Any company that invests in ocean operations of this kind must own the fish it produces, just as a farmer owns the wheat in his field or his cattle on range land. To this end, Ocean Farming, Inc., a US company, has signed an agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands to privatize, for the purpose of ocean farming, 800,000 square miles of the barren tropical Pacific.

But oceans also have the potential to help siphon off greater and greater amounts of atmospheric CO2, thus helping to solve the other problem facing mankind. When an ocean is fertilized, new biological material (plants) are created that fix carbon dioxide from the ocean surface and from the air. Small animals, bacteria, and fish eat about half this biomass, recycling only about half of it back to the atmosphere as CO2 . The other half, including fish excreta, body parts and dead plants, goes to the bottom where clams, worms, and bacteria slowly consume it.

In the deep ocean there is plenty of oxygen dissolved in the water to process the biological material back into carbon dioxide and dissolved nutrients. The carbon dioxide thus produced is recycled back to the surface as upwellings after about 1,500 years, although some areas of the deep ocean may have residence times of over 10,000 years. For the foreseeable future, however, the net effect is a reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.

There are some obvious difficulties to be considered in trying to manage the oceans in this way. One is that a man-made or man-enhanced ecosystem in the deep open ocean must be created on a large scale. Otherwise, diffusion by currents and migration would make it impossible to manage the fish populations. And then there are potentially adverse ecological consequences to consider. Ocean farming and cultivation should not take place near coral reefs, for instance, because of the likely adverse impact on them.

Still, there is a lot of ocean out there, and plenty of room to grow lots of fish to feed the world and sequester lots of CO2 to ameliorate the climate change due to CO2 build-up in the atmosphere. The numbers are compelling. In theory, it is possible to zero out the world’s CO2 production from burning fossil fuels by continuously fertilizing about 800,000 square miles of tropical ocean. It should also be possible to double global fish production by continuously fertilizing about 200,000 square miles of tropical ocean. (In both cases the fertilization must be continuous since an application only lasts about 20 days.)

Of course, there is much to be learned before the application of this technology may be termed a success. But mankind has been farming the land for 5,500 years and farmers are still learning how to do it better. With data from research experiments like IronEx II, which measures the effects of adding ferrous sulfate to tropical Pacific waters, and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s World Ocean Database, which provides information on ocean chemistry, it is possible to pinpoint the most promising waters for ocean farming. But this is only a beginning. Each success and failure will add to our knowledge and will lead to more inventions, discoveries and ventures, many of which doubtless will have a positive impact on our lives. In time, we may get to know as much about the ocean as we do about the land and may create there a base of similar productivity and value.

In the future, there will be many other endeavors whose potential will match or exceed the early attempts to use fertilization to increase the productivity of the oceans. Where will they be found? Perhaps from experiments in space, perhaps from new materials not yet imagined, or perhaps they will be found within ourselves as we learn how to live better, happier, more productive lives. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.