As the boundaries between land and sea shift from climate change, so must the international laws that govern them. In this fantastic essay at The Dial — expanded from a project of the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard University — Surabhi Ranganathan takes us on a journey around the world and into the depths of its oceans. Who has freedom and access on the sea? What happens as geographies change and entire nations sink and vanish? Is it time to reimagine and remake civilization as we know it? Ranganathan weaves an enlightening piece in which history, law, and the environment intersect.

Grotius argued that the sea was entirely unlike land. Land, being fixed, cultivable and, most importantly, exhausted by its use, could be regarded as divisible, subject to public and private ownership, and demarcated by national boundaries. The sea was fluid and constantly in movement; it was indivisible, unoccupiable, inexhaustible, indeed unalterable for better or worse via human activity. As such, it was irreducible to private ownership or state sovereignty. That being the case, it was Portugal that had acted wrongfully in claiming exclusive rights of maritime navigation and commerce with the Indies.

The possibility of total loss of territory raises unsettled legal questions. Will these populations become stateless, not for having lost their citizenships or nations, but rather the ground upon which they once stood? International law dictates that certain criteria must be fulfilled for a state to come into existence; there must be, to use Judge James Crawford’s phrase, “a territorial community under government.” What, then, to make of islands that will no longer be able to support territorial communities because their “territory” has been claimed by the sea?

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.