Ocean boosters, scientists, popular writers, industrialists and others embraced the metaphor of the frontier in the decades after World War II to signal their aim to intensify traditional uses of the ocean and especially to pursue novel plans for the ocean's depths. Conceived in self-conscious comparison to outer space, the ocean frontier diverged from space in its accessibility and its apparent promise to yield vast resources and foster science-based industries. Boosters celebrated the ocean, particularly its depths, for its potential for development even as they recognized and bemoaned its lawless state. At the moment when the ocean appeared to hold virtually inexhaustible riches, the Law of the Sea (LOS) process began, with conferences held in 1958 and 1960 and powerfully punctuated by the 1967 call by Arvid Pardo to consider the high seas "the Common Heritage of Mankind" (now "Humankind"), a principle embraced by developing nations and offering them powerful common ground for the negotiations. During the 14 years before the third conference in 1974, industrial use of the ocean increased in traditional areas, such as fisheries and shipping, while new uses such as oil drilling – and dreams for even more novel uses multiplied – including humans working and living underwater. Pardo's famous speech was riddled with the frontier language and examples drawn from the ocean boosters. This paper explores how the powerful "ocean frontier" metaphor moved from the context of American economic and cultural imagination to become a tool for developing nations to try to secure claims to an ocean whose resources were, briefly but at a pivotal moment in the LOS process, understood as virtually endless. This paper contributes to the emerging body of literature at the intersection of environmental history and diplomatic history.
Helen Rozwadowski is an Associate Professor of History and founder of the Maritime Studies program at the University of Connecticut, USA. Her research and teaching focus on environmental history, history of science, and public history, as well as interdisciplinary maritime studies. Her latest book, Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), demonstrates that the human relationship with the ocean began in evolutionary time and has tightened dramatically since them, aims to provide a model for writing ocean history, and argues that ocean histories must examine and historicize the technologies and knowledges systems that enabled and accompanied human interactions with the sea.
Jeremy Pittman is an Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada. His research interests include environmental policy and governance in the anthropocene, landscape- and seascape-scale approaches to planning, human communities in an interconnected world, and social-ecological connectivity.