Alanna Mitchell talk at the Vigil for Planet Earth, 16 Jan 2013, Toronto
Good evening. Thank you very much for inviting me to be here with you today. I’m Alanna Mitchell. I’m a journalist and author and over the past several years I’ve found myself immersed in water -- in a scientific sense as well as a physical one. I traipse around the world after the scientists who are studying water and ask them questions about what they’re doing. That’s led me to spend a lot of time on ships, in snorkel and diving gear, on riverbanks and sea shores, near icebergs and glaciers and occasionally in the abyss.
We are taking part in a vigil for the Planet Earth and of course that means, scientifically, that we are on a vigil for the planet Water. It’s a blue planet, as the British naturalist David Attenborough has so brilliantly described in his television series. A commanding majority of its surface is ocean – 71 per cent – and all but one per cent of its living space is contained in that ocean. The air we live in is a gossamer layer on top of the pulsing, salty, living depths of the sea.
So what is water? In plain scientific terms, water is simply the joining of two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom. It seems so simple, so basic and it is. But, that random atomic marriage is what makes life possible on our planet. Water is the prerequisite for life on Earth. Without water, life is absent. Water differentiates Earth from other planets, life from death.
All living things contain water. Almost all the chemical reactions that take place in living creatures take place in water. You are mostly water. The plasma that is coursing through your veins and arteries is a chemical replica of pure sea water and so is the amniotic fluid bathing a baby growing in its mother’s womb.
Water is constantly in motion, bound in its endless cycles, fresh and salt inextricably linked and moving through ice, air and fluid, in the form of storm clouds, rivers, underground aquifers, sheets of ice, salty seas. It’s always on its way somewhere else. Every tear you cry will eventually find its way back to the sea.
Water is time and history. It can’t be created or destroyed. In their book Ethical Water: Learning to Value what matters most, Robert Sandford and Merrell-Ann Phare explain that 97 per cent of the planet’s water is salty and 3 per cent is fresh. Much of the fresh is bound in ice or locked beneath the Earth’s crust. They conclude that only four thousandths of one per cent of the Earth’s total water is available at any one time to sustain us, the same slender sliver that has sustained every other civilization since the beginning of time.
It adds up to a metaphor: Water is healing, it is renewal, survival, rebirth, and, as we heard in Luke, baptism. It is redemption, forgiveness, acceptance, hope. It banishes despair, holding out instead the dream of infinite possibility.
All of that matters because most of us don’t think very much about water, whether it’s riding the ocean tides, trickling through underground aquifers, or running out of our taps. But the scientific research shows that we need to start thinking about it in a big way. Because we are changing it in fundamental ways that were unimaginable just a generation ago.
Let’s start with the ocean. While water is the key of life, the ocean is its main medium. That means that life on Earth depends on life in the ocean being healthy. If life in the ocean dies, so does life in the air. I recently read a scientific paper on the five mass extinctions that have taken place on our planet. Changes to the ocean played a starring role in each of them. It turns out that the ocean controls much of the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the oxygen cycle. Those elements, numbers 6, 7 and 8 on the periodic table, are the building blocks of life and when their cycles change, it’s never for the good in the short term.
The worst of the five cascades of extinction happened 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian period. Scientists refer to it as the “great dying,” because 95 per cent of the planet’s species went extinct. There’s been a real flurry of activity recently trying to understand what happened to kill off so much of the genetic legacy of our world. Scientists are convinced now that it had to do with a massive infusion of carbon-based gas into the atmosphere from the volcanic eruptions that made the Siberian traps geological formation in modern-day Russia. But while that was the trigger for the extinctions, it wasn’t the killing mechanism. The paper goes into quite a bit of detail describing how creatures’ cells stopped working and why. The nub of it is that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reacted chemically with the ocean water to create carbonic acid, turning the sea acidic, or sour. The extra carbon in the atmosphere also warmed up the air and the sea and it helped created vast swathes of the ocean that had no oxygen.
That combo was the killing mechanism.
The ocean, that key to life, became, as the scientists say, warm, sour and breathless and it wreaked havoc on the internal chemistry of the creatures that lived in it, and, because marine life controls air life, on the creatures that lived in air. 95 per cent of the species, not the individuals in the species, but the species, vanished from the book of life, except in their fossil remains.
There have only been five of these mass extinctions. The one that killed off the dinosaurs is the best known and the most recent – only 65 million years ago.
But today, scientists fear that the chemical changes we’re making to our ocean are setting us up for the sixth mass extinction. Today, we’re putting carbon-based gases into the atmosphere more quickly – I’m going to repeat that – >more quickly>, than when those volcanoes created the Siberian traps. We’re doing that by burning fossils for fuel – we call them gas, oil and coal -- and putting the carbon from their ancient bodies into today’s atmosphere. And our ocean is rapidly beginning to mimic the conditions of the ocean at the end of the Permian. It is becoming warm, sour and breathless and already creatures that live in it are having a hard time making shells, teeth, coral reefs, bones, having a hard time maintaining their internal chemistry.
That’s apart from all the other changes to the atmosphere that are also showing up from all the extra carbon in the atmosphere. We’ve all heard about the droughts in the U.S. and Hurricane Sandy and the floods in Bangladesh and the famine in the Horn of Africa, the smashed temperature records. I read last week that Australian meteorologists had to add two extra colours to the top of their heat maps to show temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. They are deep purple and pink.
Some wags call this global warming. Scientists call it planetary destabilization. Experts in catastrophes, whose dreadful business it is to add these things up, say simply that this situation is already leading to terrible hardship for tens of millions of souls a year and death for a significant number of those.
The scientists are quick to remind us that these are not trivial changes. What we’re seeing around us has not been seen on the planet for tens of millions of years. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been for many tens of millions of years. The ocean is more acidic than it’s been for 55 million years. All all of these changes are speeding up, not slowing down, not stopping, not moving backwards. The human volcano is erupting with ever greater ferocity.
From the planet’s point of view, this is not business as usual. This is exceedingly rapid chemical change to the only two media of life on the planet: water and air. In geological terms, instantaneous happens in 10,000 years or less. The change we are experiencing has happened in 250 years, and most of it has been in the past 50.
In November I spent time on a tall ship in the Caribbean – for my sins – doing research for a story on plastics in the ocean. We all know about the Great Garbage Patch north of Hawaii in the Pacific subtropical gyre. It’s a whirling soup of plastic pieces on the surface that collect there from all over the world. But it’s not the only place there’s plastic. In fact, it’s proven impossible for scientists to find any part of the ocean that is devoid of plastic. They’ve found bits and pieces on the bottom of the Arctic ocean, swirling in high concentrations in the other four subtropical gyres, in the waters surrounding Antarctica – in fact, everywhere they’ve looked. Some of the pieces, like the ones now heading our way from Japan’s tsunami in 2011, are big. Sailors in the Pacific report passing pieces so large they are a navigational hazard. But lots of the pieces are invisible to the naked eye.
Before I did the research on ocean plastic, I wasn’t entirely sure what plastic is and, apart from being metaphoric about how we treat our planet, I didn’t know why it would really be a problem in the ocean. So I spoke to a plastics chemist from the States. He explained that after the Second World War, we figured out how to take crude petroleum – more fossils – and fiddle with it chemically to make incredibly long polymers that are useful because they are flexible but incapable of being broken. That great gift is also a great curse. Plastics cannot be broken down by any known living enzyme. So what we’ve got in the ocean, and in landfills, will be there forever. It’s another massive change to the ocean in the past 50 years. Far more than symbolic, the plastic soup that is in the ocean holds out the potential of changing the ocean’s metabolism – suddenly, creatures are colonizing plastic and living in parts of the ocean that once didn’t support much life, like the five subtropical gyres that, by the way, make up 40 per cent of the planet’s surface. That could change the carbon cycle, the fish cycle, the system of the ocean.
And maybe the food web. Those little pieces of plastic are absorbing toxins from the ocean, containing in some cases 100,000 times the toxic waste of the water surrounding them. We know creatures eat those small pieces of plastic. We found some of the very tiniest bits in the very cells of muscles. Do the toxins make the creatures sick? Could we get sick from eating up the toxic plastics? Both unknown so far.
I’ve been looking recently, too, at another part of the planet’s water cycle: the aquifers. The story there is also astonishing and also represents dramatic change in just 50 years. All over the world, we are draining aquifers to grow food, really sucking the water out to sometimes dangerously low levels. It’s making deserts where there weren’t any. Land is collapsing to fill in the spaces. Good that there’s food. But the long-term effects on the planet’s water cycle are a complete unknown. Many of those aquifers were filled up thousands and millions of years ago. When we add their water to the current above-ground cycle, what’s the fallout? That one keeps me awake at night.
I keep thinking about an interview I did recently on the plastics issue with a young scientist named Miriam Goldstein. I said to her, so, is plastic in the ocean a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s the wrong question, she snapped back at me. You journalists. You always want winners and losers. The point is that life on our planet depends on predictability. We and other living creatures need chemical and biological cycles and climate patterns that do roughly the same thing century after century. What’s happening now is a change.
And not just change. It is, as scientists now say, planetary destabilization on a grand scale.
But of course, this is just the science. These are the facts, like saying that water is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. These are the scientific trends. But the danger here is that the trend is only part of the story. It is only where the story is leading, it’s not the end point. It is not the parable.
The hope lies in the fact that we can change the trend and therefore – if we are very, very lucky -- change the end point. We can forestall millions if not billions of human deaths, the extinction of other creatures, misery, terror, pain.
It all comes down in some way to carbon, to using fossils in ways that are damaging the earth, whether by making them into plastic polymers or burning them to put carbon in the atmosphere and ocean. And we don’t have to. We have the technology to shift to types of energy and even types of plastic that don’t pollute in this way. There’s a global plan to make that happen in what scientists hope is time to pull us back from the brink.
Conceptually, we could make the human volcano stop in mid belch. We’re just not doing it.
Why don’t we? Why does the human species – including Homo sapiens Canadiensis – the Canadian chunk of it – not feel this urgency and rise up to demand swift action from its government? Perhaps it does. Perhaps that’s part of why the Idle No More movement has taken people by storm and the federal government by surprise. Maybe they didn’t know that we knew all this, that we could fit these puzzle pieces together and figure out that more pipelines, more bitumen mining, more toxic lakes, more erosion of human rights --- that all that is not stopping the volcano. Maybe we haven’t been fooled all along. Maybe we’ve just felt helpless and didn’t know exactly what to do.
Perhaps the brave new ending to this parable of the human reign on Earth is already being written, being told, being acted out. That ending is the one that’s based on redemption, on love, on success.
It’s the one that tells the astounding tale of how our generation miraculously pulled back from the brink because we raised our voices, refused to take no for an answer, took the greatest challenge humans have ever faced, and simply ran with it.