I recently watched two features on Netflix in tandem: Robert Redford’s fascinating tour de force All Is Lost and the compelling documentary Mission Blue, the story of the inspiring life of oceanographer and eco-activist Sylvia Earle. Redford’s story of one man’s fierce struggle for survival in the ocean’s unforgiving expanse almost seems intended as a allegory for humankind’s struggle to come to terms with the watery depths of our global ecosystem.
Earle grew up exploring the underwater paradise of the Gulf of Mexico at a time when there was one oil derrick in the water. There are now over 30,000, and the Gulf itself has been transformed into our sewer – a dead zone created by all the nitrogen runoff from the nation’s breadbasket during the Agricultural Industrial Revolution during the last 50 years. She is the American equivalent of Jacques Cousteau, and is on a ‘mission’ to tell everyone the oceans are dying. And, as she is quick to point out, “a world without living oceans is a world without us,” since it produces about half our oxygen. The oceans are victim’s of humanity’s triple threat: the insane killing machines of industrial fishing, creating a marine holocaust supported by every person who eats tuna fish, shark fin soup, or factory farmed chickens (chicken feed comes from the ocean); greenhouse gases that are killing the coral reefs, source of so much of the ocean’s biodiversity; and, over-population – there are just too many of us.
Have you ever thought about how many lobsters are eaten every evening in America? There are 700 Red Lobster restaurants alone! Tuna populations in the sea are down 95% over just the last few decades, and what gets harvested are immature tuna, as they have exterminated most of the larger adults. Overall, big fish populations are down 90% since I was born. That’s crazy. If that were true of humans, there’d be only 250 million of us left.
All is Lost begins with the old man’s yacht getting rammed by an orphaned cargo container of gym shoes, ripping a hole in the hull. Gotta love the symbolism there! After a few days of cleverly recovering from that disaster, the ocean itself takes center stage. If Redford’s lone sailor represents mankind, and the ocean is seen as Ghaia, or anima mundi (the soul of the world), a living, conscious being, then you might understand that she is pretty pissed at us. She rises up in all her ferocity, and makes a mockery of all our attempts to ‘master’ her, eventually capsizing the small craft and ripping its mast off. Now adrift in his lifeboat, the old man is twice rebuffed by the megalithic ocean liners carrying products to market — too large and impersonal to see his plight. They are us. Too distracted by compulsive consumption to notice that our oceans are dying because of our ignorance and avarice.
Finally realizing his situation is hopeless, the old man pens a letter to his loved ones that he places in the proverbial bottle, bearing the message “All is Lost.” All of his ingenious adaptations and his strong will to live do not matter in the end because nature will eventually snuff out that which is not natural, and his shiny yacht with its teak wood fittings and stocked liquor cabinet are no match for the exaggerated storms created by climate change.
So is it true? Is it too late for the human race? For Redford’s character, it seems every action he takes has unintended consequences, and as he nears death one night he sees a light in the distance, a smaller craft, and attempts to get its attention by starting a small fire in a plastic bucket. It gets out of control, setting the whole raft on fire, and he ends up in the water, sinking without a struggle – until he notices that the craft has responded, and he rises up like a Phoenix from the ashes. This is our story. Ask yourself how many movies, how many novels, how many stories are about humans overcoming impossible odds. It is our mythical motif.
There are perfectly reputable, rational scientists today that have concluded that near term human extinction is inevitable – as in the next thirty years or so. That happens to be the lag time for how long it takes for the climate to exact revenge for our hubris, and it would not surprise me at all if we actually do reach that 250 million population level in the next 30-50 years, as we drop off the Malthusian cliff. In the end, I’m convinced we will live out our myths, including the myth of Apocalypse, but also the myth of overcoming seemingly impossible odds, and the myth of redemption that pervades all of our story telling.
Sylvia Earle knows the oceans better than any living human, and she, too, is convinced that we can change this destructive story. Today, about three million square miles of ocean are protected, which sounds like a lot until you realize there are about 100 million square miles total. Earle is on a mission to set aside 20 million square miles, the “hope spots” of marine diversity that have been identified across the watery orb we call home. If you haven’t seen this documentary, you really must. She is an amazingly beautiful human being with an incredible life story, and she speaks for Mother Earth to us, her wayward children. The scene where she is walking on the ocean floor at a depth never reached before, and asks them to turn off all the lights, is one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever seen on film.
Sylvia and Robert Redford are telling us the same story. Just when it seems that all is lost, human beings have an amazing capacity for redemptive action. The fact that we have evolved to the point of producing people like Dr. Earle speaks well of us. Not to mention the face of Robert Redford. That, in itself, is a pretty remarkable natural phenomenon.
We are, unfortunately, facing a shit-storm over the next few decades, one that will tear our mast asunder and find us adrift at sea sending out SOS messages. But somehow, someway, with an unlikely hand from the Earth itself at the moment all seems lost, we will survive. We will learn our hard lessons. We will find redemption. If you don’t believe me, just watch the “Lord of the RIngs” or “Maitrix” trilogies! It’s who we are…