We live in a world obsessed with numbers – college rankings, baseball scores, exam results – and now we have one to tell us what’s happening to our oceans.
According to a study outlining the first results of the Ocean Health Index, recently founded by Conservation International and other organizations, the entire world’s oceans score 60 out of a hundred for their ability to deliver benefits to both nature and people. Individual country scores range from 36 to 86, with the U.S. chalking up a 63 and China following behind with a 53. A paltry 5 percent of countries hit the 70 point mark, while 32 percent lingered below 50. And, as might be expected, developed countries generally did better than developing countries, thanks to their more robust economies and greater capacity for environmental stewardship (though Poland and Singapore scored a relatively pitiful 42 and 48 respectively).
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That’s a lot of numbers, but the science behind them is fascinating, largely because the architects of the Ocean Health Index have made huge efforts to account for the world’s astonishing complexity in their calculations. First of all, the index doesn’t simply lump together science-driven metrics of ocean health like water pH and carbon dioxide levels. Rather, it zones in on ten vital ways in which nature and humans rely on the seas, including biodiversity, food, tourism, and even “sense of place,” and then examines how well the oceans are able to deliver those things. To do this, the researchers assign a score to each of their ten measures for the oceans they examine, and find the index score based on the weighted sum of these individual scores. They make sure to include in their ratings the status of each measure as it stands right now as well as what it might be in the future based on a mathematical model.
What makes this index particularly different from the rest is that the scientists have steered clear of a purely “protectionist” approach that aims to preserve nature from human hands. Instead, they have also considered how “extractive users” of the ocean – those who value the sea for its food and natural resources – might view the natural world.
“Most ecosystem assessments focus solely on the negative impacts of humans on nature,” the study authors wrote. “Although focus on benefits to people is not new to management or science, it has yet to become the common currency of assessment.”
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Also worth noting is that the Ocean Health Index score for each country may seem counterintuitive based on how certain places score on individual measures of ocean health. For example, one might expect a low score for Russia because its oceans fared poorly in providing food and natural products. But because the country seems to do so well with clean water and biodiversity, its overall index score was a fairly impressive 67. Further, two countries with similar scores – like the U. S. and the U. K., at 63 and 62 respectively – could be getting those scores from very different facets of ocean health. “Coastal protection” and “coastal livelihoods and economies” bumped up the U. S. score, while the U. K. did well with providing food and natural products.
Holistic though the index is, there are still some holes in it. The High Seas, the parts of the ocean that don’t belong to a particular State, haven’t been scored yet for a lack of data, for example. But it’s great to have a simple number that encompasses such a trove of information. And perhaps even better is the increasing recognition that humans and nature are inextricably linked, and that conservation measures must be met with an eye for the needs of a growing human population. We both need each other – it’s nice to have a scorecard that acknowledges that.
Tara Thean is a contributor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @tarathean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.