It is hard to act on climate change when its impacts reduce us to feelings of hopelessness and doom, the kind of “planetary anguish ” that Liz Cunningham starts out with in Ocean Country.* Literally paralyzed from a kayak accident, she transcends both her physical limitations and her heartbreak about the degradation of her beloved ocean. Through a beautifully written blend of travel adventure, memoir, and nature observation, she broadens our understanding of our ocean’s challenges and what we can do about them.
Cunningham’s quest takes her to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, along the California coast, to the Coral Triangle in the Pacific Ocean , and to the Mediterranean Sea. She experiences richly diverse ocean landscapes and meets with communities dependent upon them for livelihood. Although she finds no easy solutions, when she encounters threatened marine ecosystems her anguish is mitigated by the people she meets who are trying to do something about it.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands she finds that developers have tried to eradicate mangroves in order to build a“Spiritual Retreat” and that the government has been destroying whole islands for a resort. Mangrove habitats support a wide variety of interdependent species and contribute significantly to the atmospheric oxygen we all need to survive. But the development has been forbidden, there is a national park and a marine conservator in place, and Cunningham helps a marine ecologist tally new seedlings. “There on that artificial island created out of pillaged ocean, in the new roots pushing out leaves, I saw it for myself —hash marks on a slate for each instance of life’s insurgence.”
In the Pacific Islands, Cunningham visits fishing communities threatened by overfishing, dynamite bombs and cyanide poisoning, combined with pollution from sewage to damage marine life and coral reefs. The fishermen create a forum to agree on common goals: “If someone uses the bomb or cyanide, we go to him and we talk. ‘This is our reef,’we say.’ If you do this, no one will have fish.’They have begun to pierce the armor of that goliath of problems, the Tragedy of the Commons: the tragic loss of common resources because of an inability to forego narrow self-interest and agree how to preserve them.”
A world away from the Pacific Islanders, in the urban and sophisticated culture of Parisian haute cuisine,Cunningham finds chefs, fishmongers, and fishermen collaborating to foster sustainable sandeel fisheries. “The natural feeling of a fishermen is that of a hunter “ one of them tells her. “Now it’s totally different, because we share the fish. We are no longer hunters.” To see fishermen moving from competition with each other to community well being, she concludes, “Is like Columbus announcing that the world isn’t flat.” The fishermens’ paradigm has shifted from winner/takes/all to sharing in the collaborative commons, a “round world” paradigm consists of scientific monitoring (which they pay for), and “adaptive, community-based, networked, task-specific” initiatives. Or, as a Parisian Chef puts it, “The message is that we are able to put back something that seemed completely out of control. All we need is political will in order to go toward sustainability.”
Cunningham discovers that we may feel powerless about global warming as individuals , but become empowered when we join with groups who have rolled up their sleeves and gone to work to create a “circular” rather than a competitive economy.
“What if I lived as if my voice mattered,” she asks herself. By engaging her readers her world-wide ocean quest, she strengthens our wills to roll up our sleeves on behalf of our beloved planet; in so doing, she answers her own question.
*Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to save the Seas. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2015