The Cultural Ecology of Elisabeth Mann Borgese

In her blog, Julia Poertner (Interdisciplinary PhD program, Dalhousie University) explores the place of Elisabeth Mann Borgese, Dalhousie professor and daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, in the development of international law on oceans, drawing on a philosophy that stresses dynamic interconnections between the artificial and the natural, the human and other forms of life, and between the present and its potential futures.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918-2002). The founder of the International Ocean Institute (IOI) and professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University was born in Munich in 1918, the second youngest child of the German novelist Thomas Mann and his wife Katia Pringsheim. The centenary provides us with the perfect opportunity to have a more interdisciplinary look at the various works of the German exile and expert on the International Law of the Sea who published widely on ocean governance and management. In particular, she was a key contributor to the discourse surrounding the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind during the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). In his Author’s Notes to his essay “Günter Grass: King of the Toy Merchants” (first published in 1982), the American writer John Irving describes meeting Thomas Mann’s daughter on a plane from Toronto to Paris:

[M]y seat companion was an elderly woman with a disturbingly deep cough. She had a refined German accent and a face of patrician detachment, of unending wisdom and constraint. […] I liked her very much, but not her cough. I drank a beer, she sipped a Scotch. […] And what business was she in? I asked her. Oceans she replied. […] Her field was “everything to do with oceans,” she said. (422-23)

This is certainly not an understatement. During the second half of her life, Mann Borgese helped lay the theoretical and practical foundations of what is now known as integrated ocean and coastal governance and management, setting the public stage with her monumental cultural history of the ocean, The Drama of the Oceans in 1975. But like most members of the Mann family she was also a writer of fiction, and very dark fiction at that.

In 1982, after lengthy and difficult negotiations that officially started in 1973, Part XI of the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea declared the non-living natural resources in the deep seabed beyond national jurisdiction to be the Common Heritage of Mankind (Article 136). In light of the seemingly imminent technological possibility of deep seabed mining, it was the first time that this concept was spelled out as a legal regime to govern and manage natural resources for the benefit of all humankind. What makes the long process of enshrining the concept into international law truly remarkable is its underlying utopianism. The international community developed jurisdiction in anticipation of technological processes affecting humankind that were not yet realized but were thought to be possible at some point in the future and so potential threats to political and economic stability, justice, and the environment.

Although the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind was “not initially aimed at environmental protection” (Ellis and Wood 364), Mann Borgese strongly believed that it had to be included because of her ethical understanding of nature as inherently valuable and in need of  protection for the benefit of both current and future generations. She envisioned that the Common Heritage of Mankind could also be applied to other resources and eventually would lead to a new sustainable economic and political system–both on land and the sea–and thus to a more just and peaceful world order. That way, the Common Heritage of Mankind became a legal means to redefine the interrelationship between nature and culture. Her views are in line with (and probably based on) the traditionally German understanding of nature as cultural landscapes (Lekan and Zeller 6), where culture, ecology, and technology exist in harmony with each other. Much like the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Mann Borgese understood that everything is interconnected:

This [ocean] system is one and indivisible. […] Everything in the oceans interacts with everything else, and the oceans themselves interact with the atmosphere and with the land. To impose our rigid, conceptually land-based divisions on this flowing environment will not work, for static concepts cannot be applied within a dynamic system. Division–even opposition–between man and nature, man and environment, is a static concept. Man and nature are a dynamic continuum, each part of the other. The social environment is clearly part of the total environment. Division–even opposition–between individual and community is a static concept. Individual and community are a dynamic continuum, each part of the other. (Mann Borgese, Drama 230)

           Mann Borgese’s literary works also experiment with questions regarding the interrelationships and continuities between the individual, society, nature, and technology. Drawing on pessimism about the future, they address the boundaries of the individual and reflect the dangers of cultural evolution gone wild.  Her stories depict modern scientific developments and technological progress that can potentially lead to the dissolution of the individual because the relationship of nature and culture, the old and the new, between myth and science, is thrown out of balance. There is no harmony. In 1959, her first collection of dystopian short stories, titled To Whom It May Concern, was published, followed by her utopian Ascent of Woman in 1963 and thoughts about animal communication in The White Snake in 1966. All of these works have been dismissed, ridiculed or remained unnoticed by critics and scholars alike. On a superficial level, one might think that the topics Mann Borgese dealt with during the 1950s and early 1960s are completely disconnected from each other. But it is just the opposite: they all deal in some way or another with the interdependencies of natural and cultural evolution. All of Mann Borgese’s elaborations on this then culminate in her philosophy of the Common Heritage of Mankind:

It is based on a philosophy of transcendence of the individual, the blurring of his or her boundaries, and the continuity between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ that the concept of the common heritage becomes ‘natural’, and therefore acceptable, because ownership and sovereignty become as open and permeable as the individual. (Mann Borgese, Future 130)

           If the disciplines of law and literature have anything to say to each other, it is, according to Jeffrey Miller, about culture (Miller 9). Seen as narratives, both can serve as vehicles for cultural expression. If we put environmental aspects into the mix, the International Law of the Sea, theoretical texts about the Law of the Sea (and Environmental Law in general), as well as fiction, when analyzed through an ecocritical lens, can shed much needed light on the relationship between nature and culture and all the ethical questions that come with it. Mann Borgese’s utopian ideas thus have the potential to influence our relationship with nature because they impact our legal, political, and economic orders. Going beyond just paradigmatic change, Mann Borgese developed a cultural ecology, that is, an “ecologically redefined model of humanity and human culture” (Zapf 4) that repudiates the strict anthropocentric separation between nature and culture. In her view, the International Law of the Sea, eventually, would make the evolutionary step back on land to revolutionize our ways of living within our environment and with each other. Mann Borgese’s bold visionary statement to treat the ocean as a laboratory for a new world order based on cultural ecology is not just a metaphor–it is a fundamental declaration.


Ellis, Jaye and Stepan Wood. “International Environmental Law.” Environmental Law for Sustainability: A Reader, edited by Benjamin J. Richardson and Stepan Wood, Hart Publishing, 2006.

Irving, John. “Günter Grass. King of Toy Merchants.” Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. ArcadePublishing, 1996, pp. 397-432.

Lekan, Thomas and Thomas Zeller. Germany’s Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Mann Borgese, Elisabeth. To Whom It May Concern. G. Braziller, 1960.

—. Ascent of Woman. G. Braziller, 1963.

—. The Language Barrier: Beasts and Men. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. [First published as The White Snake]

—. The Drama of the Oceans. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1975.

—. The Future of the Oceans: A Report to the Club of Rome. Harvest House, 1986.

Miller, Jeffrey. The Structures of Law and Literature. Duty, Justice, and Evil in the Cultural Imagination. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Zapf, Hubert. “Introduction.” Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology. De Gruyter, 2016.




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