Profile: Peter Neil ’59, World Ocean Observatory founder

The weight of water - World Ocean Observatory founder Peter Neill ’59 on why water matters so much


Peter Neill ’59 remembers the moment he came to care about the ocean. It was 1998, and he was walking through Harvard Square in a snowstorm. He ducked into a used bookstore and happened upon a copy of The Ocean: Our Future, an official report by the World Commission on Oceans. 

“It was a revelation,” he says. At the time, Neill was president of the South Street Seaport Museum and wanted to take ideas he read about in the report and incorporate them into programming and partnerships. When he ran into resistance from museum trustees, he decided to take the idea and do his own thing. That thing turned into the World Ocean Observatory (, what Neill describes as “a web-based global social system that transcends species and habitat” and provides a space to trade science, technology, policy, and cultural ideas about the role water plays in the world. 

“The ocean is the one natural system that connects us all,” says Neill. “It’s also, in my view, how we’ll survive in the 21st century. We can’t be indifferent to it. Look at it like this: If you go three days without water, you die.”


Though water is the most precious of natural resources, Neill says we take it for granted. But we shouldn’t.

“We have cities that cannot provide water to their citizens. One million gallons of water per well are poisoned through fracking, and it’s removed from the finite inventory of water in the earth. That’s not included in the price paid for that energy. Fresh water is vital to food and human health. It’s fundamental to survival. You can’t wait around for it take care of itself. If you do, you’re making suicidal decisions.”

Neill’s philosophy and call to action are the centerpieces of his 2016 book, The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He wants to see a society transformed by its relationship to water, where decisions about everything from what to build and with what materials, where we live, and how we share resources are paramount. He outlines his ideas of a “post-industrial, post-consumption” community. 

While Neill’s vision is futuristic, he says there are things happening now that indicate how societal entities work together to share and preserve resources. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, represent a trans-boundary governance format organized around watersheds that serves the vision of “hydraulic society” more realistically than conventional state-by-state organization. Neill says a continued evolution in how we think about water is essential, and believes his work can help bring that about. 

“The key to my proposed paradigm shift,” he says, “is the understanding of the ocean/freshwater continuum applied to a transformation of value, structure, and behavior, sustaining the most important global natural resource as the inevitable key to human survival. We fail to make this shift above all else at our peril.”