Sea Sick: Alanna Mitchell’s drive to democratise science
Alanna Mitchell is here to explain something about the ocean; it’s more important than you realise, and it’s in trouble.
Armed with a blackboard, a piece of chalk and a jug of vinegar, Mitchell, a Canadian journalist, performs her captivating one-woman, nonfiction play Sea Sick, detailing how our oceans are sick, and how that will affect life as we know it around the globe.
In Darwin for the Darwin Festival, Mitchell told Canada Down Under her play was her attempt at making this complicated scientific topic accessible to a wider audience.
“People often call me an environmentalist but that’s not actually how I think of myself,” Mitchell said.
“I think of myself as a democratiser of science, that’s the role that I like to take, and what that means is that scientists are finding out all this stuff, and it’s really hard for people like you and me to get that information and what I try to do is understand it as well as I can and then translate if for the public.”
After initially starting her journalistic career in real estate and finance for The Financial Post, Mitchell moved to Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail to work in social statistics and, later, earth sciences, and a life-long passion for science drove her to learn more about the world.
“I love to learn, and so when I took the job with Financial Post, my first full time job at a journalist, right out of journalism school, I didn’t know anything about finance whatsoever, and it was just a terrific learning curve,” she said.
“That took me to Calgary where I was Bureau Chief for The Globe and Mail, and in Calgary there are a lot of science stories, they just surface there in ways they haven’t in other parts of the country, so I just became immersed in those and that was that, I’ve just stayed in science ever since.”
Her immersion in science was made slightly easier by the fact she had a knowledgeable and connected source at her disposal.
“My father was a biologist who taught at the University of Regina and he was sort of like my secret weapon in some ways because he had all these contacts among biologists in the Prairies,” she explained.
“So if I had a question about a species like polar bears he’d tell me “oh well, you’ve got to talk to Ian Stirling [adjunct professor in the University of Alberta Department of Biological Sciences and leading polar bear expert], my old pal who studied them.”
Her exploration into the depths of the ocean, however, was inspired through a frustrating discovery of how little she really knew about such an important ecological aspect of the globe.
“I didn’t know that there was anything this wrong with the ocean when I began, I just wanted to understand it as a system, I just needed to understand how it worked on the planet and as I did that, I realised the evidence just grew and grew – I hung out with scientists, and so as I was with them it was clear they were finding all these things going drastically, drastically wrong with the life support system of the planet,” she said.
“I felt like an idiot in a way, because I at that time was the earth sciences reporter at The Globe, and I thought I understood how the earth worked, and I didn’t – I didn’t understand it until I got into the ocean and once you realise what’s going on, there’s this imperative to keep exploring and then to keep talking about it, and it’s one of the issues that people don’t know much about.”
This new knowledge, research and collaboration with experts (including Australian environmentalist and global warming activist Tim Flannery) brought about her book Sea Sick, which Mitchell turned into her first play, and she is taking it around the world to educate more and more people about the dire state of the world’s oceans, while at the same time taking herself well and truly outside her comfort zone.
“It’s totally different [to writing], and it’s a weird little play too because it’s a nonfiction play, which is atypical, and I’m not a performer, so it was a huge leap of faith. I would never ever have imagined that I would do this play, or that I would be here in Australia, not in my wildest dreams,” she said.
“As a journalist there’s the whole process of finding out information and writing it, and then if you end up speaking about it as well, that’s a whole other medium, and then to do a play and to memorise 10,000 words in order and be on stage for 75 minutes is just terrifying, and it’s really hard, it never gets easier.”
Mitchell says that Australians generally have a better understanding of and connection to the ocean than many others around the world – the coastal nature of the Australian lifestyle being a factor, as well as the prominent heritage listed feature which provides a constant indicator of global ocean health – the Great Barrier Reef.
“I find Australians are much more involved in the ocean because there’s this huge coast and people care about it in perhaps a different way,” she said.
“When something as massive and as ecologically important as the Great Barrier Reef is under as much threat as it is right now – it’s in desperate, desperate shape – when that happens it’s a signal that something on our planet is going dramatically wrong, so it’s something we can’t ignore.
“We have three coasts in Canada, and whenever I go and talk in those places there’s just a more intrinsic connection to the ocean, people just seem to more viscerally connected to it – of course in Australia you’ve got that no matter where you go,” she continued
“But if I go to other parts of Canada, for example where I live, Toronto, often I hear ‘well, why should I care about the ocean’, so there’s this whole process of trying to explain that we’re all dependent, like every species on earth is dependent on what happens in the ocean, and that’s just a piece that’s missing in the whole puzzle of how we understand the world.”
Being in Darwin, named for naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin, was an enormous thrill for Mitchell, who has studied Darwin’s work throughout her scientific learnings, and in particular, a visit to Kakadu fulfilled a life-long dream, as well as her own inherent curiosity.
“I can hardly wait, I’ve been to Australia twice before, and each time I’ve done a little bit more research into the rock art and into the Dreamtime,” she explained.
“I’m doing some other work just to try to understand the arc of Aboriginal rights in Australia compared to what’s happening in Canada – it turns out now there’s collaboration between the two countries.”
Alanna Mitchell performed at the Darwin Festival thanks to the support of the High Commission of Canada and the Consulate General of Canada. Her book Sea Sick and other information about her tour is available on her website.