“A Sea Change” reviewed; or, HALP! Iz I stuck in the ivory science tower?

After seeing “A Sea Change,” a documentary about ocean acidification, I felt really, really guilty. Not because of my carbon footprint, but because I did not like this earnest, passionate movie.

“A Sea Change,” which made its southern California debut at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography last week, is essentially one big appeal to emotion. Everyman Sven Huseby embarks on a quest to save the oceans for his overly adorable grandson, seeking answers in scientific meetings, subarctic labs, and even artist Maya Lin’s studio. The narrative is frequently interspersed with Mr. Huseby writing heartfelt letters to and frolicking with his grandson, as well as multiple scenes on his computer googling away for “pteropods” and “ocean acidification.” Since the filmmakers said that they were determined to avoid graphs, information is conveyed in voiceovers while the audience listens to Phillip Glass music (Battlestar Galactica fans will feel like they’re in the Opera House) and gazes at pretty ocean scenes.

I was bothered by the lack of informative content. I understand that oceanic carbon chemistry and acidification is extremely difficult to explain and understand, but there is almost no mention of what ocean acidification actually is. There was an interesting demonstration of the effects of carbonated soda water on human teeth (they dissolve!), but since soda water is far more acidic than even the worst seawater, will people find this convincing? At another point Mr. Huseby mentions “a world without fish” but we have no idea how this is linked to ocean acidification, except for that it has to do with CO2 somehow.

I did like that the last third of the movie focused on climate change solutions. Mr. Huseby visits Google’s solar panels, a wind farm, and a hotel that runs on ocean geothermic energy. He makes the excellent point that clean energy technology exists! It exists right now! We should use it! I was also shocked and intrigued at a statistic casually bandied about by climate scientist Ken Caldeira. Caldeira said that fixing the climate change problem would cost less than 2% annual GDP. I would love to know more about that figure. Whose GDP? And what does 2% actually mean in terms of predicted economic impact?

As a nascent scientist who took an entire seminar on the scientific ocean acidification literature,  I’m not the target audience for “A Sea Change.” But I’m not sure who their audience might be. In my opinion, the movie is not informative enough to show in science classes, and I don’t know if young people will emotionally connect with a grandfather’s quest. (It doesn’t help that nearly every single person in the movie is white.)  I could see the movie resonating with older, non-scientific audiences, but as a young science person it’s hard for me to tell.

I would love to hear from others who have seen “A Sea Change.” Am I a sterotypical scientist addicted to facts and graphs? A grinch who hates sea lions and blond moppets? Or do non-scientists also want more content from their science documentaries?

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14 Responses to “A Sea Change” reviewed; or, HALP! Iz I stuck in the ivory science tower?

  1. Kevin Zelnio says:

    I don’t understand these recent runs of environmental films. First, who is the audience? Who will go out and rent this movie? Is it the ocean acidification denialist? The fence sitter? The uniformed, but interest random citizen? The choir?

    What is wrong with challenging your audience and forcing them to think and learn something new? If we keep lowering our expectations of people then eventually we are going to bottom out. We will become the movie Idiocracy…

  2. Mark Powell says:

    You guys are high if you think more information will make people better informed and lead to solutions. That’s a science-head myth that we science-heads like because it works for us. Yeah, us and about 1% of the population that is like us. If that.

    Step number 1 is try to make people care. Then step number 2 and 3 is to try again to make people care. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Facts don’t make people care, and if people don’t care then nothing changes.

  3. Mark Powell says:

    Uh…I haven’t seen the movie yet, do you think it will make people care?

  4. Hao says:

    I think the 2% GDP statement refers to world GDP, but probably ignores issues like scaling costs for alternative energy. As mentioned in Falkowski’s talk, solar panels are not scalable (they use certain rare elements besides efficiency and storage problems). Wind and tidal generators are being deployed first to regions where the energy is cheapest, so it’s only going to be uphill from here using current technologies. I imagine proper building insulation would go a long way to reducing energy usage, but doesn’t solve the problem by producing another source.

    Besides, isn’t ocean acidification inevitable anyway, given that the ocean and atmosphere are not yet in equilibrium re: CO2? Unless the world goes net carbon negative SOON, more changes are forthcoming, so the only sensible approach is to fund research…

  5. Tony Wildish says:

    I’ve not seen the full film, but I did see a 20-minute trailer of it. I agree that it doesn’t give much information, and for me it doesn’t have much appeal. I was quite disappointed by what I saw.

    As for the 2% GDP figure, I don’t know a great deal about that, but the (now venerable) Stern Review (2 years ago?) came up with a figure like that. It’s quite shocking how cheap it could be to actually address the problem properly.

  6. Kevin Z says:

    It might be true that I’m high, but my point is really that the people that need to see these types of movies are not going to go out of their way to see it. Unless it get picked up by NBC, FOX, Discovery, Nat. Geo. Channel, etc. and played in the prime time.

    Is there any data (neilsen ratings/data?) on how effective these programs are and what their reach is? I just *feel* like target audiences are not being hit. Why would Joe the Plumber rent this? If he rented this (or Sizzle, or Flock of Dodos, etc.) would he be swayed or would be all like dude wtf?

    I feel like these movies are really made for other scientists or scientifically inclined members of the public. I hope I am wrong though, but would like to see something, maybe from the social scientists like interviews, surveys, of TV ratings, dvd sales/rentals, etc. that comforts me otherwise. Surely this has been done by a non-profit environmental group before to study the reach and efficacy of such tools? If not it would be an excellent PhD project.

  7. My gut says that these movies are probably consumed by the same people by which they’re made – middle-class coastal urbanites. After all, these are the people who live near the art house theaters and universities where enviro-gloom films play and who have kids overloaded with green guilt.

  8. I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I found the message on ocean acidification to be too confused. They tried to make pteropods the poster-snail, but in all the talk on Exxon Valdez (“a small coastal town without fish!”), melting glaciers, and solar power the pteropods got lost. I’m not sure what the take-home message would be for a non-science person.

  9. Water Sippora says:

    Wait a minute Miriam, I dispute your claim that you “took an entire seminar on the scientific ocean acidification literature”! As I recall, you missed about half of the meetings!

    If you had actually blessed the class with your presence more often, and had spent a little more time listening, rather than merely thinking up snide remarks and daydreaming about sexy invertebrates, you would have heard the numerous pleas to disseminate this information to the lay public.

    I actually thought that the movie was pretty effective, because it presented pteropods as the “sea otters” of ocean acidification (OA), and pulled a few heartstrings along the way. You know the old saying “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

    The problem is that people will never grasp the intricate details about OA, but grandkids and “Butterflies of the Sea” sure are cute! Remember how many times Sven told us that he loves pteropods? He seemed to be slightly enamored with his grandson as well, and I think that the story was very effective–albeit quite cheesy!

    Time to come down from that ivory tower and get off that high horse!!

  10. Wow, little Watersipora, who know such a little lophophorate could make such a big noise? And it must have been you sleeping through all those seminars, since I only missed 2 in the beginning – for religious observance, no less! PBBBBBTTT.

    Re: pteropods. Sure, Sven told us a lot about his love for pteropods but outside of a few photos of dissolved shells I’m not sure they were well connected with OA. There was a vague sense of doom but is that enough to motivate otherwise uninformed people?

  11. sydney says:

    i think thats so cool that you can have the oppertunity to write about what you saw.unlike every one els i think thats fun to know.

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