Humanity and the oceans lost a great friend and champion when Elisabeth Mann Borgese died on February 8th. Elisabeth, the youngest daughter of Thomas Mann, was a true citizen of the world. She inspired me and many others with her vision of the oceans as the “common heritage of humankind” and her ceaseless efforts to make this vision a reality.
Elisabeth believed that, just as life had emerged from the oceans onto land, a new form of human and environmentally friendly world order could emerge from the oceans to the land. She saw that the borderless oceans required a new form of cooperative governance to protect and preserve the ocean’s precious resources for future generations. She believed fervently that finding a new non-territorial way to govern the oceans was necessary and would teach humankind important lessons for governing our shared planet.
I first heard Elisabeth speak of these ideas when I was a young assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. I thought she had a vision that was worth fighting for. For me, she was like a pied piper. I immediately asked her if there was a way I could help her to achieve her goal. That led to working with Elisabeth for two years at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.
I learned from Elisabeth that the problems of our world were far more than academic — one should accept nothing less than changing a world so badly in need of change. Words were never enough; they must be translated into action.
Elisabeth held annual Pacem in Maribus (Peace in the Oceans) conferences, bringing together the best minds she could find from throughout the world to work on the multifaceted problems of creating a new law of the seas. In a book we edited together, The Tides of Change, based on one of these conferences held in Malta, Elisabeth wrote, “If the oceans are indeed man’s last frontier on this old earth of scarcity and competition to which we have reduced our common heritage, the law of the seas is the advance post on the long march toward a new world of science and technology, of abundance and cooperation which we have set out to achieve.”
Elisabeth also created the International Ocean Institute with branches throughout the world that trains individuals from developing countries to better use their ocean resources. She was a tireless campaigner for using the resources of the oceans to benefit those who needed it most rather than only those most technologically advanced.
After leaving the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Elisabeth moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I saw her only occasionally, but I noticed that her spirit never waivered and her commitment never waned. On the last few occasions that I saw her she had some difficulty walking and had physically slowed down, but she still traveled the world giving lectures and spreading her vision with the enthusiasm of a young girl.
Elisabeth was a great world citizen and a citizen of the future world that must be created if humanity is to survive. She was a treasure, and her life becomes part of the common heritage of humankind.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.