Image: Stopadani/Flickr

The Imperilled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea

By Laura Trethewey
Goose Lane Editions, January 1, 2020, 22.95

When I started reading The Imperilled Ocean, I worried that it would just add fuel to my grief and outrage at the state of the world. Having read it, I feel the inverse: I’m disappointed not to feel more aggrieved and outraged.

Laura Trethewey’s lively book pitches human-scale stories as portals into world-sized issues, and each of its seven chapters tells of individual lives touched by the sea. As she puts it, “The ocean’s story is also our own.”

There’s a chapter on underwater photography, focalized through Pete Romano, “Hollywood’s top underwater cinematographer.” Fiona and Robin’s tale of planning to cross the Pacific by sailboat is also a history of sailing as leisure and adventure. The geopolitical use of water as a barrier — as a “mass migrant graveyard” — is illustrated by the harrowing Mediterranean crossings of Hassan fleeing war in Syria and Mohammed, a gay teen escaping persecution in Ghana.

Other chapters chronicle ventures to clean plastic from the sea; the legal Wild West of luxury cruise liners, where crew like Favio Oñate Órdenes can disappear overboard with minimal consequence; the enigmatic lives of sturgeon in the Fraser River and the biologist who loves them; and the uncertain fate of “the Dogpatch,” a floating community relatively free from landlubber rules.

Trethewey is a deft storyteller in the National Geographic tradition, weaving the personal into global history, finance, ecology, meteorology. Her prose toggles between personal experience and the fruit of her extensive research, generating suspense through these shifts. Her account of tagging sturgeon is compelling, even if it involves mainly waiting. Her exposé of cruise-ships is disturbingly effective. She excels at action: her account of Fiona and Robin’s experience in a Pacific storm carries all the suspense of an action movie.

But the stories don’t cohere. The book’s title describes just a few chapters; a better one for this miscellany would have been Ocean’s Seven. More problematic is how the stories were selected and arranged. It’s not uninteresting to read about Pete coaching a model through an underwater shoot for a Kanye West video, but this feels inappropriately trivial when read beside an account of Mohammed watching a boat capsize with a hundred non-swimmers on board.

Each chapter is compelling individually, but the unaccountable juxtapositions — the story of Fiona next to Hassan’s — make for an uneasy, asymmetrical collection. How unsettling to read about Pete’s worries about CGI replacing underwater filming when, on the same page, we learn that by 2030 “plastic pollution in the ocean will have doubled” and by 2050 “climate change could displace around 200 million people.”

Of course narratives can modulate between deep and superficial, serious and comparatively trivial. Done well, such modulations produce richer, more human stories. The best storytellers negotiate these shifts, focusing on the particular in ways that reveal a larger perspective. In Connie Walker’s investigative podcast series Missing and Murdered, in Josh Neufeld’s nonfiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge, in Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s The Great Hack, stories about individuals also disclose systemic catastrophes.

But stories can also backfire, trivializing or pushing the big picture into the background. Trethewey states that her stories are connected: “for our survival and the ocean’s, it is time to imagine all the way in which our stories are linked.” But saying doesn’t make it so. Partly because The Imperilled Ocean is thin on analysis, its attempts to zoom out beyond the individual story often verging on cliché. An example is found in Trethewey insistence on humanity’s “watery origin story” — a Jungian quirk I find hard to take seriously, for example when she notes that “humans should feel comfortable in the ocean” because “it’s where we came from.”

More seriously, Trethewey’s environmental and political arguments feel canned, or even tone-deaf. We may be destroying the planet but, Trethewey offers, desperate for a silver lining, “at least we now have a name for this pattern…: the Anthropocene.” At least that! Trethewey is not afraid to moralize, nor should she be. Our situation warrants moralizing. But the stuff she delivers is pretty thin: “Taking care of the ocean means taking care of ourselves, too.” In a book filled with horrifying facts, such conclusions seem glib.

Trethewey may have too much faith in the human level. Her argument about “climate grief” really drove home this conclusion. Having described this psychological condition, Trethewey earnestly offers it as a solution to the apathy, misinformation and interference that prevent meaningful environmental action. “When climate deniers dismiss environmental destruction,” she suggests, “we can use collective grief to prove that it has a real impact.”

How strange to locate the “real impact” of climate change in our emotions — as if rising sea levels and temperatures, more frequent and more severe droughts and floods, extinction and misery weren’t real enough. This lapse in vision points to a larger problem with The Imperilled Ocean, its constantly shifting focus: is this book about the “changing sea,” or is about our symbolic and affective relationships with it? It could have been both — I assume it strove to be. But the balance is so tilted toward individual stories that their part in the book as a whole seems like an afterthought. 

Trethewey’s claim about “climate grief,” like The Imperilled Ocean as a whole, reflects a true concern with the state of the world. Like her, I think stories can help. But not just any stories. Diverting and interesting as it was, Trethewey’s book left me cold. Did we need human-interest stories about Hollywood and sailing adventures, when we got none about the human costs of storm surges, coral bleaching and collapsing fisheries? Stories are part of the solution, but only if we tell the right ones, and tell them in the right way.

Daniel Aureliano Newman teaches at the University of Toronto. He is the author of a scholarly book Modernist Life Histories: Biological Theory and the Experimental Bildungsroman, as well as essays in journals like Green Horizon, American Journal of Botany, Journal of Narrative Theory, and creative writing in journals Fiddlehead, Antigonish Review and CV2.

Image: Stopadani/Flickr