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.
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?
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.
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.