In three years, Alanna Mitchell LLD’11(Honorary) took 13 journeys to destinations around the world to learn the truth about our oceans and climate change. She snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, walked the beaches of Zanzibar and witnessed a breathtaking once-a-year coral spawning in the waters off Panama. Those travels, and others, led to her riveting book and play about the state of the world’s oceans.

COVID stalks us still, yet I’m in Belfast, Northern Ireland, getting ready to perform my play Sea Sick in front of a live audience. It’s the first time in more than two years. And maybe because that feels so strange now, or maybe because I’m 5,232 kilometres from home during a pandemic, I feel philosophical. I’m asking myself why I keep doing this. Why don’t I just stay home?

The play, which is based on 13 journeys I made with scientists over three years for my book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, is about how the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of the ocean. The ocean has become warm, breathless and sour from all that carbon.

That extra warmth is forcing marine creatures to move, breaking up their communities, shredding the ocean’s web of life. The breathless zones that lack oxygen are afflicting more and more coastal waters, pushing life away or killing it.

The carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of the ocean. The ocean has become warm, breathless and sour from all that carbon.
The carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of the ocean. The ocean has become warm, breathless and sour from all that carbon.

Increasing acidity, or sourness, is making it hard for marine life to use calcium in the water to make shells, bones, teeth, reefs. It makes fish stupid. They swim toward predators instead of away. It’s particularly tough on young marine life; baby oysters and scallops are dying by the billions in the acid seas.

Together, these three chemical changes are a toxic cocktail. And they form a parallel to what happened during the biggest mass extinction in the planet’s history: the Permian extinction of 252 million years ago when about 95 per cent of species were erased from the book of life.

Except today, we’re putting carbon into the atmosphere about 100 times faster than the volcanoes that caused the Permian extinction, faster than at any other time in the planet’s history.

It adds up to an assault on the world’s life support systems. Even though we think of our planet as Earth, it could more properly be called Water. One scientist put it to me this way: if everything on land were to die tomorrow, everything in the ocean would be fine. But if everything in the ocean were to die, everything on land would die too. The ocean contains the switch of life.

The killing mechanism is carbon. Therefore, the saving grace is cutting carbon. As it turns out, I’m preparing to perform my play in Glasgow at the international climate talks on this tour, too. This is the annual Conference of the Parties (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), during which more than 100 nations haggle over how to cut carbon. They’ve been haggling for 26 years. Yet carbon concentrations in the atmosphere – and therefore changes to ocean chemistry – continue to rise to ever more dangerous levels. We’re already seeing the effects around the world in storms, droughts, hurricanes and floods. During those 26 years of negotiations, carbon has become a mass murderer.

My musings here in this Belfast hotel room are leading me to think about how COVID and carbon connect. First, we learned some valuable lessons from COVID. As citizens, we can collectively suspend our wants and needs if we have a good enough reason. We can work together as a single species against a common foe. Governments can make new rules when the old ones don’t work. This is the three-point blueprint for tackling carbon.

But the pandemic also showed us that, even when billions of us stayed home for months on end last year, carbon emissions only fell seven per cent. That means 93 per cent of emissions are tied to large systems our personal daily choices have little control over.

Even if we stripped all carbon out of our personal lives, the effect would only be symbolic, not numeric. The conundrum is that while we’re all implicated in the tragedy of carbon, governments alone have the power to fix the systems that control it, such as shifting to non-carbon forms of electric generation and then electrifying more of the economy. How to move forward?

 Mitchell is all smiles in the submersible that took her to the bottom of the sea.
Mitchell is all smiles in the submersible that took her to the bottom of the sea.

Which brings me back to the play. In 2013, a few years after the book Sea Sick came out, I gave a talk about it to a group of artists. One of them, Franco Boni, who was then the artistic director of the Theatre Centre in Toronto, called me later and asked me to turn the tales of my adventures into a play and to perform it. I agreed.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

I’m not an actor. I have no aspirations to be one. I’m a journalist. My one condition to Franco was that I wouldn’t have to memorize a whole script. Not at all, he said. You’ll just be on stage telling your stories.

Franco asked Ravi Jain, artistic director of Why Not Theatre in Toronto, to help. We taped a raft of public talks I gave over the next several months and then parsed them, trying to figure out which of the stories would work best in a play. And we talked. Franco and Ravi asked me questions. Why are you a journalist? What are journalists supposed to do? What’s their code of conduct? How do you report on science? How does carbon affect the ocean? How do you know for sure? I consider it some of the finest psychotherapy I’ve ever had.

As I talked, I would often leap up from the table and draw diagrams or write numbers on a blackboard that happened to be stored in our rehearsal room. You can’t understand THIS part until you understand THIS, I would say, clouds of chalk dust covering my fingers and clothes. A chalkboard became the centrepiece of the play’s set.

 

Alanna Mitchell LLD’11(Honorary) took 13 journeys to destinations around the world to learn the truth about our oceans and climate change.
Alanna Mitchell LLD’11(Honorary) took 13 journeys to destinations around the world to learn the truth about our oceans and climate change.

Eventually, we realized that the play needed an overture, by which we meant an opening section that would introduce the themes of the play: The history of scientific thought. Darwin’s ideas of evolution and extinction. Why I tell stories that few others are telling. Where I come from. What art is for and why we need it.

It’s that last part that keeps me going back to the stage to perform. I grew up in Regina. My father, George Mitchell, was a biologist who spent much of his career at the University of Regina. My mother, Constance Mitchell, was a painter who often painted prairie landscapes.

Growing up in that family taught me that science is how we find things out, but that art is how we find meaning. And it’s meaning we respond to; science can only take us so far.

I believe that meaning matters. We have all sorts of information now from scientists about how the carbon overload affects the planet. We can see the effects of carbon destabilization with our own eyes, in our own backyards. It’s not just the disasters, it’s the blooms that come earlier, the birds that leave later for the south, the pronghorn spotted so much further north now than before.

The urgency to cut carbon is clear. The techniques are obvious. Why aren’t we making more progress?

I think it’s art that will carry the day. Sure, I honour the climate summits and all the policy work that goes into orchestrating systemic change. I know all that has to happen.

At the same time, we need to cling tight to narratives that convince us this is possible. I’m not talking about hope so much as love – love of the planet, but also love of our species and of the messiness we’ve wrought. We can own that and still focus on what it will feel like when the planet is over its carbon addiction.

That’s where performing my play comes in, for me. I’m not going to be the one to write new policies or convert energy systems to renewables or run for a seat in the House of Commons. But what I can do is tell stories about what I’ve found out in an extremely intimate setting. I can reveal the secrets of the deeps and the mysteries of our tiny part of the universe. I can tell you that means something. I can use art to remind you that I matter and so do you. It’s why I keep doing the play. It’s why I’ll be reading it in March as part of the 29th season of the Playwrights Reading Series, organized by the University’s Centre for the Study of Script Development.

Because of the pandemic, I’ve had to take up my pen again to figure out a new way to finish the play. I’m sitting here, 24 hours away from being on stage for the first time in all these long months, trying to memorize this new writing, along with the script’s 10,000 other words, Franco!

Part of it goes like this: The great task of our generation is to be heroes, to find redemption, to bring us back from the brink, to do what we can, whatever it is. You’ll know what to do. Adapt and survive. Write a new ending. Live to tell another tale.

About the Author

Alanna Mitchell is a Canadian author and journalist who writes about global science issues. She specializes in investigating changes to the earth’s life-support systems and travels the world in search of scientists at the centre of what’s going on. Her second book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, has become an international best seller and won America’s Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment.

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On the day Chris Lane was to receive his degree from the University of Regina - which, coincidentally, was also his 22nd birthday - he boarded a plane bound for London, England. Lane had received a prestigious scholarship that offered him international experience in journalism, and he was determined to make the most of the opportunity. From the beginning of his career, Lane valued real-world experience gained through the scholarship and internships. Later in his career he would seize opportunities to pay it forward.

Chris Lane's route from journalist and television news producer to CEO of one of the major livestock shows in North America was a roundabout one. He grew up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, but, while members of his family farmed nearby, he doesn't think of himself as a farm kid. However, he observes that farming is part of who you are growing up in that environment. "I think people living on the Prairies feel ownership for agriculture because of their ties to the land."

Lane headed to the University of Alberta to become a lawyer, but university opened his eyes to all of the options available. "The liberal arts program I entered showed all of the different paths you can take," he says. Almost every course he took, from archaeology to theology, sparked an interest he thought might be worth pursuing. He even considered entering a seminary. At the end of his second year, while discussing the right fit with his parents around the kitchen table, they suggested something to do with writing - perhaps journalism - might be a better choice. Although he'd always enjoyed writing, he'd never considered it as a career until he did some research on journalism.

"I was impressed with the University of Regina and the feedback I received about the journalism program. I was sold on it," says Lane.

The program had many more applicants than spaces available, and a rigorous application process. His interview was in Edmonton because there were so many applicants from Alberta. "It was my first real interview, and it was more of a conversation," Lane observes. "I realized that it wasn't so much about having the right answers, but about having the right approach - did I have the curiosity to explore things and figure them out."

Later, Lane recalls, his hands were shaking as he opened the envelope from the University. He was accepted! It then registered with him how far away he'd have to go to pursue his goal, 1,600 kilometres from friends and family to a city he knew almost nothing about and where he knew nobody.

"I remember the day my family moved me to Regina," Lane recalls. "I realized I was going to have to figure things out on my own." What made the move easier, he adds, was that he fell in love with Regina immediately.

After spending a few days exploring the city and surrounding area, he was raring to go. There were some surprises at first. Some of the liberal arts classes he attended at the University of Alberta were massive in size, while the U of R's School of Journalism brought together students from all over the country into small groups. Friendships blossomed, he notes, as did conversations among students and instructors about the concepts and principles of journalism.

"We had robust discussions about issues that might not have a right or wrong answer. Because the program combined the academic and the practical, while we were debating, we were also learning the mechanics of good journalism," Lane explains.

In particular, he credits instructors Patricia Bell and Jill Spelliscy for leading discussions and teaching him how to be a good journalist. Bell, who taught print journalism, research and interviewing courses at the time, and headed the school for three years, describes Lane as a very engaged student. He once did a feature story on the Masonic Temple, Bell recalls, taking the reader into what seemed like an extraordinarily secret and sacred place. "He did it not just because he's curious," she adds, "but because he believes it's the journalist's job to find out things that other people aren't able to find out."

Former School of Journalism instructor Patricia Bell. Former School of Journalism instructor Patricia Bell.

For Lane, seeing the TV studio for the first time was another significant moment. The combination of taking the television course in his final year and the enthusiasm and passion that the instructor, Donna Pasiechnik, brought to the course confirmed that broadcasting was the right route for him. "I was interested in producing TV and directing a team," he says.

In 2002, his last year, Lane landed a four-month internship at CBC Calgary, which was extended into a four-month paid position. During that time, he received a scholarship from the Gemini News Service, giving him the opportunity to fly off to London to work for the agency for more than six months. While he was there, he accepted an offer for a full-time job as a producer back at CBC Calgary. "That offer was a direct result of the internship," Lane states. "I believe internships give journalism students experiences in the areas that are likely to become a career path. That was certainly my experience."

After working in different roles in Calgary for five years, Lane moved to Charlottetown in 2006 to become the senior producer of CBC's evening TV newscast for Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.). The experience was an eye-opener.

Despite all of the challenges, Chris Lane insists that as CEO of Agribition he has the best job in Saskatchewan, in part because he believes the province is coming into another golden age of agriculture. Despite all of the challenges, Chris Lane insists that as CEO of Agribition he has the best job in Saskatchewan, in part because he believes the province is coming into another golden age of agriculture.

"P.E.I. loves all things local," Lane observes. "There was a story in the local newspaper about my arrival as the senior producer. There would be fans waiting in the parking lot to talk with us after the newscast. P.E.I. is different."

Lane led what he describes as a fantastic team that was really invested in local news. The group received a Gemini News Award (now known as a Canadian Screen Award) for one of their live news productions. While he has warm, satisfying memories of his years in the Maritimes, the experience also reinforced the fact that he's a Westerner at heart. He knew that one of his favourite instructors at the School of Journalism, Jill Spelliscy, had become a manager at CBC Saskatchewan in Regina, so when a job opening came up there, he made the move back to the Prairies.

"I wanted to work as a professional in an environment where she was involved," Lane notes. "I was already such a fan of Regina that I wanted to make it my home, and there was also the challenge of leading something different."

Merelda Fiddler-Potter, now a Vanier Scholar, executive-in-residence and PhD candidate at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, was a reporter and current affairs producer at CBC Saskatchewan during the time Lane was there. She recalls working with him on several projects, including some partnerships with other organizations that brought fresh perspectives to TV newscasts.

Merelda Fiddler-Potter, a Vanier Scholar, executive in residence and
PhD candidate at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate Schhool of Public Policy. Photo by Rachel Buhr, Still Life Photography. 
Merelda Fiddler-Potter, a Vanier Scholar, executive in residence and PhD candidate at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate Schhool of Public Policy. Photo by Rachel Buhr, Still Life Photography.

For example, The Boom Box challenged Indigenous entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to investor and philanthropist Brett Wilson, while Taking the Pulse partnered with a large team of professor and student researchers at the University of Saskatchewan to survey residents of the province on a variety of topics.

"Chris is good at seeing the value of doing these projects," Fiddler-Potter says. "CBC Saskatchewan's 40 Under 40 project, which identified 40 people under 40 years of age making a difference in the province, was a big one. It was about change-makers, but not just about telling the stories of these people doing different things in different areas of life. It was about bringing them all together, meeting them, networking and having fun."

Good stories about people came out of those projects, Fiddler-Potter observes, and by bringing them to air, Lane changed the face of the supper-hour newscast.

Someone at the Canadian Western Agribition noticed his work, and when the CEO position became vacant, Lane received a phone call suggesting that he think about applying. He dismissed the idea at first, but the more he thought about it, the more he recognized that journalism and Agribition had some characteristics in common.

Lane explains that, to the agricultural community, Agribition means the same thing local news meant to the people of P.E.I. Agribition's impact on Regina is massive, he adds, and much more complex and layered than it might first appear. At the same time, he realized that being the CEO of Agribition would be an entirely different challenge and a significant turning point in his career.

"In university, you learn how to learn, to be adaptable and curious," Lane says. "And in journalism school in particular, I developed a lifelong passion for curiosity and the problem-solving abilities that lead to success. I thought I could apply those attributes to the role of CEO for Agribition.

Lane diligently prepared a presentation for the hiring panel, pinpointing the areas where he believed he could help. He knew what he had to offer was likely unique for the position, and that it might not fit what the organization was looking for.

Lane didn't hear anything for a while, so he filed the experience in the back of his mind. A follow-up call to one of the members of the hiring panel changed that abruptly. "He told me 'I've been meaning to call you; we intend to offer you the job.'"

Lane says that, at first, he was floored by the reality of stepping into a world he hadn't been trained for, until he remembered what he had told himself earlier - that there are far more similarities than differences between the two jobs. "It was a matter of transferring the education, training and experience I'd learned along the way."

Chris Lane was enjoying a satisfying career with the CBC when he embarked on a new journey - as CEO of one of North America's premiere livestock shows - Agribition. Chris Lane was enjoying a satisfying career with the CBC when he embarked on a new journey - as CEO of one of North America's premiere livestock shows - Agribition.

One of Lane's aims was to extend Agribition's reach beyond the show week in November and make the community more aware of its impact year-round. As he describes it, this includes being a cheerleader for what agriculture already does well, and extending that through initiatives such as the Next Gen Agriculture Mentorship program, which enables eight young people from around Saskatchewan to be mentored for 18 months by leaders in Canada's agriculture industry.

During his time with CBC Saskatchewan, several interns from the U of R's School of Journalism had work placements there, a practice Lane has continued at Agribition, providing students with opportunities to practice media relations, public relations and content generation. "The internship sets them up to tell some stories about the people who attend Agribition, and especially to work with the media during Agribition Week."

Agribition, like all events-based businesses, was affected in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the show has adapted, Lane says, "Agribition is built for the cattle and breeding industry, and the business in the barns doesn't stop, so we were able to provide showcase options virtually in 2020." The organization chose not to lay anyone off, with the goal of presenting the best possible show in 2021. With two months to go before Agribition 2021, Lane noted that 125,000 people attend the show over six days, and plans for presenting the show in a responsible and safe manner might change from day to day. "The COVID pandemic isn't much different from TV shows on election night; the circumstances are always changing."

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With all of the challenges, Lane insists that he has the best job in Saskatchewan, in part because he believes the province is coming into another golden age of agriculture. He describes it as a coalescing of understanding and effort to make agriculture a driver of growth over the next ten years, pointing to the investments in canola processing plants in southern Saskatchewan, the plan for a first-of-its-kind plant to convert waste wheat straw into pulp, and support for Saskatchewan-based agriculture startups though the Cultivator business incubator and the Emmertech venture capital fund, which support the development of agricultural technologies in the province. 

"With our international business development program, there's no better time for Agribition to be involved in what's happening in agriculture, here and around the globe." Lane says. "That's one reason why I say I have the best job. I'm glad that people took a chance that a journalist who trained at the U of R had the right stuff to take on the job. I'm forever grateful for everything that's led me here."

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"Join us online"

You see those words on the front cover of this issue of Degrees magazine but what do they mean?

After 33 years, we have decided to move away from the printed version of Degrees magazine. We will now tell the remarkable stories of our University of Regina alumni community via the website and social media.

The University's commitment to sustainability is certainly a key factor in our decision. By eliminating the printed version, we will significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

Printing Degrees magazine required us to use about 6,000 kilograms of paper each year. Each time we published, approximately 40,000 copies had to be shipped from the printer to Canada Post for mailing. Those that were not mailed were transported some 2,700 kilometres by truck to the University. That is not in keeping with our University-wide commitment to sustainability.

The transition allows us to concentrate on our online presence. It means we will be able to bring you all the informative and engaging stories you've come to expect from Degrees and we'll be able to bring them to you more often, and with value-added visual content such as video or photo galleries.

We are excited by the prospect of bringing you enriched content.

While we may no longer be printing the magazine we will continue to bring you stories and shine a brief spotlight on people in our U of R community  who, in their own ways, are making the world a better place every day.

The website, www.degreesmagazine.ca, is now the place to go for the extraordinary stories of the alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends who make up our University community.

You can be sure to be notified of the most recent Degrees website updates if you've shared your primary email address with us.

If you haven't already done so, go to https://alumni.uregina.ca/degrees-subscribe and submit your email address. Or scan the QR Code that appears below. Submitting your email address will ensure you don't miss any of these great stories.  One submission, selected at random, will win an Apple iPad.

 

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I would like to thank our readers for their loyalty through the years and their understanding as we change with the times. I look forward to sharing more stories through the Degrees website.

So "join us online" is more than just a new way to read these stories, it's an invitation to be part of our University of Regina community that is now more than 80,000 strong and spans the globe.

Greg Campbell BFA'85, BJ'95
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