On a ship in the Galapagos Alanna Mitchell realized she was missing the most important piece of the climate-change process.
“I had been writing about atmosphere and habitat structure and all that kind of stuff,” said the seasoned journalist.
But it was the planet’s biggest ecosystem, which surrounded her on that ship, that she had overlooked.
Deciding to write about the oceans was easy.
“I didn’t understand how the ocean worked, at all,” said Mitchell. “I had no concept of it. So it was a really huge learning curve for me.”
And Mitchell is not the only one.
Most people have no clue what goes on in the deep blue.
“You can call people up and ask them questions and they’ll explain things to you, and that’s just how I started,” said Mitchell, adding she has never taken a university science class. “I just started reading the scientific journals.
“A lot of the stuff I write about isn’t in books yet, or magazine articles, it’s just locked in the brains of the scientists.”
But for those who don’t have the same vigour to learn about the oceans’ ways, Mitchell hopes people can understand just one basic concept.
“Life on the planet began in the ocean and all life depends on the ocean,” she said.
That oversight led her to neglect the oceans for as long as she did.
“I’m terrestrial,” she said. “I breathe the air and was thinking that it’s the atmosphere that was so important, but, really, it’s the ocean that drives life on the planet – the ability of the planet to support life.
Mitchell’s book, Sea Sick explains how the oceans control everything life needs: the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and parts of the oxygen cycle.
“These basic building blocks of life are dependant on the ocean working a certain way,” she said. “We, as a species, have pushed it outside of its own comfort zone. And we continue to push it in that way every single day.
“When our species begins to change the chemistry of that huge medium, then we’ve really hit a critical point.”
And that is exactly where we are at.
In simple terms, carbon from the burning of fossil fuels eventually dissolves into the oceans. There, it interacts with salt and becomes carbonic acid.
The oceans are now acidifying so quickly their future is in peril.
Three main things indicate this: the decreasing pH levels of the oceans, the rising temperature, and their inability to retain oxygen.
Only 10 to 15 years ago, scientists didn’t think we could affect the chemistry of the oceans, Mitchell said, laughing.
We sure showed them.
But Mitchell never meant to write about this. All she wanted to do was explain how the oceans worked.
But how “sick” they are becoming, was too important to ignore.
“If we don’t change some of our activities, having to do with carbon mainly, we really will push the plant into another phase, in which life as we know it cannot exist,” she said.
It was somber putting all the pieces together, she added.
On top of that, the book took her around the world for two and a half years – a journey that began within months of her wedding.
Money was low and stress was high. Mitchell turned to her newlywed husband and asked, “Why am I doing this? I’m crazy.”
He hugged her.
“You’re doing it because you have to,” he said.
Most of what caused the oceans to reach this dire state happened when we didn’t know better, said Mitchell. And we continued to not know any better because no one was tapping those scientific minds and jargonized journals. It wasn’t being told or explained outside of that scientific world.
But the amazing, exotic experiences Mitchell had while researching the book allowed her to explain the issues with ease and entertainment.
It’s not a difficult book to get through, she said.
And because of it, we now know better, said Mitchell.
Mitchell said she doesn’t think it’s too late to fix what we have done to the oceans.
“What this is, is the most remarkable challenge humanity has ever had,” she said. “To make a huge difference to save, literally, billions of human lives and many, many millions of species.
“We already know what we have to do, we know how to do it and we have the technology to do it, so those are not the issues. It’s that we don’t have the culture that allows us to say that we need to shift things.
“The reason that we don’t just flick a switch is because our entire economic system is plugged into this old mechanism of this old source of energy. But we know that we can shift that successfully with no damage to the global economy – in fact it will be good for the global economy if we do this. And it will cost us less money to do it now than to do it later.”
Carbon emissions are not the main issue of the coming elections, she said.
“It’s not even close, and yet in terms of human civilization, it is the only issue that matters.”
We are at a point where every single molecule of carbon we emit into the atmosphere matters, she said. We can’t just stop emitting, we also have to make like plants and start sucking it out, which is possible, she added.
“There have been numerous, really good recipes on how to do that, we’re just not following them.”
Our problem is forgiveness, said Mitchell. What we have now is a profound psychological journey, she said.
We need to let go of the paralyzing guilt we have, and the defeatist attitude that comes with it, or we will never be able to decide that it is possible to hope, she said.
“Because if we don’t hope then things really are over. Hope is just a choice. It’s not a logical thing or rational, it may be even ludicrous, but it’s very quintessentially human. It’s the one gift that we can bring to this, which no other species can bring.”
It is the one thing we, as humans, can do to reverse what only we, as humans, have caused.
Mitchell is in Whitehorse for Live Words.
The annual writers’ festival kicks off tonight, at the Old Fire Hall at 7 p.m.
Mitchell is joined by Dorris Heffron, Claire Eamer, Brian Brett and Richard Van Camp and will be making stops for book signings, panel readings, school visits and lectures in Whitehorse, Haines Junction and Dawson City.
Mitchell will give a lecture, An Ocean of Hope, on Sunday, May 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Beringia Centre and at the Dawson City Community Library on Tuesday May 3 at 7:30 p.m.
For more information on festival events and details call 667-5239.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at