The Ontological Politics of MSP

“The ontological politics of marine spatial planning” sounds like a mouthful, but it refers to some pretty interesting processes: the ways that people’s language and everyday practices create new meanings and new realities in the realm of ocean planning. With this research theme, we have studied the ways that the actual “stuff” of ocean planning (computer databases and GIS mapping technology, places in and on the ocean, ecological formations and organisms, and people themselves) is assembling–and sometimes disassembling–in new ways. In particular, we have focused on how these new assemblages can increase or decrease opportunities for ocean planning to incorporate and represent both the concerns of human communities that use the ocean, as well as the environmental complexities of coastal and ocean ecosystems.

So far, we have found that there are trends in both directions–currently marine spatial planning practices include activities and relationships that both increase and decrease opportunities for communities and environments to be well-represented in policies and processes. For instance, though planning practitioners often express a desire to be inclusive and open, it is sometimes unclear how decisions are made about what ecological and human use data to include in ocean planning data portals, and how to display it. These displays can be important because they influence how people ‘see’ ocean spaces, and because they may have political consequences as policymakers begin to use such portals for planning purposes. Some practitioners are trying to find ways to better illustrate ocean spaces as the dynamic and interconnected spaces that they are, for example by conducting participatory GIS mapping sessions where people can place their own activities in virtual space.

For more, see our recent article in Geoforum:

  • Boucquey, N, L Fairbanks, K St. Martin, LM Campbell, and BJ McCay. 2016. The Ontological Politics of Marine Spatial Planning: (Re)Assembling the Ocean and Shaping the Capacities of ‘Community’ and ‘Environment’. Geoforum 75: 1-11. [Available here free online until August 28, 2016] — Click for abstract
    Governance projects to measure and organize socio-natural spaces have often resulted in the marginalization of human communities (e.g., national parks) or in the destruction of environmental resources (e.g., mining). In the United States, new marine spatial planning (MSP) policies seek to categorize and represent ocean spaces and activities in an effort to provide a solution to long-standing controversies stemming from individual sector-based management (e.g., fisheries, energy, transportation, marine mammal conservation). In this paper we examine how the ontological politics of MSP are being shaped through the narratives and practices of emerging MSP projects. We employ the ideas of ontological politics and assemblage to explore how communities and environments are being constituted through their association with MSP and its key conceptual framework (ecosystem-based management) and operational tools (geospatial databases). We trace how the ontological formations of MSP—people, places, technologies, and organisms—are being actively assembled in concurrent processes of stabilization and disruption through narratives and processes of inscription that create new political-spatial imaginaries and relationships. We show that while some emerging MSP ontologies restrict the capacities of ‘environment’ and ‘community’—for instance in the language of ‘salvation’ and in the organization of certain geospatial databases—other practices offer space to expand the capacities of community and environmental actors (for example in participatory mapping projects and in the aspirations of many practitioners themselves).