Meet Carol, a humanitarian, researcher and writer, who joined Leg 2 of eXXpedition’s Round Britain voyage. Carol works for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on migration, climate and health issues. During our discussion she recounts her experiences onboard and reflects on the power of storytelling and the importance of it within the medical and humanitarian space.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you would describe your superpower?
I am a social scientist and writer currently working on climate, health and their interconnections, encompassing oceans, forests, food systems, medicines, humanitarian issues, conflict, migration, culture and more. These cascading crises disproportionately affect communities and Indigenous groups who have long stewarded the land and today 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.
I also do conceptual art. I believe in the importance of storytelling, speaking with affected communities, working with scientists, artists and policymakers. It’s all very well having the science, but how do we translate it? How do we ensure people are able to understand the science and how it is applicable to them? For me, art is a storytelling tool that allows people to make sense of the science. And that’s why I believe it’s my superpower because I can help connect ideas and people!
“It’s all very well having the science, but how do we translate it?”
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing a piece inspired by my experience with MSF at COP27. Having all the pavilions sit alongside each other and listen to their concerns and the actions they are taking felt like a very powerful form of diplomacy to me. It got me thinking about the voice of the ocean. Who speaks for the ocean? What does its advocacy look like?
This visit also gave me the opportunity to see Sharm El Sheik’s surprisingly resilient and beautiful coral and ocean life up close. I’m going to create a visual piece to share my experience in the Red Sea, and some of the advocacy questions also inspired by the Ocean Pavilion and the climate conference itself.
“The understanding you gain from witnessing the problem firsthand and contributing to research and policy change with eXXpedition is extraordinary.”
How did you get involved with eXXpedition?
I had recently returned from Antarctica from a Women in Science expedition. A journalist from Deutsche Welle (DW) in Germany contacted me about my previous environmental work in Svalbard and a related exhibition on it, and about a civilian Antarctic cleanup I’d led in 1995/96 for a story. He mentioned the work of eXXpedition so I did some research, was immediately enamoured and put my application forward!
“It gave me a heightened sense of connection and respect for the engagement with multiple key actors in action – that we weren’t just there pontificating and doing research, but collaborating and bringing different pieces of the puzzle together.”
What surprised you most during the voyage?
Realising the depth of the problem whilst collecting samples is definitely high up there. The understanding you gain from witnessing the problem firsthand and contributing to research and policy change with eXXpedition is extraordinary.
eXXpedition’s impactful approach of not only collecting plastic and water samples, but partnering with research institutions and organisations, doing local clean ups, meeting with stakeholders gave me a heightened sense of connection. Engaging with multiple key factors meant that we weren’t just there pontificating and doing research, but collaborating and bringing different pieces of the puzzle together!
There was also one poignant moment that really stuck with me. It was early one sunny morning, and we were going through one of the locks to get to Loch Ness with some of us still in our pyjamas. Whilst preparing to go through the loch, above us there were some male sailors looking at us perplexed. One of them asked, “Hang on, wait a minute, are you all women?” And I said, “Yeah!”. He then asked, “How many women are below deck?” And I said “300!”. It was a good laugh, but it stuck with me how surprised they were. All these cool and accomplished women were taking part and I’m so pleased I had the fortune to sail with them. That modelling of women in science and sport alongside the tangible research that eXXpedition contributes to on ocean plastics and concrete solutions, was a powerful takeaway, and one that has stayed with me and informed my work since.
Lastly, I think the experience of living on a sailboat for nearly two weeks taught me so much. I came to view the sailboat as a microcosm for how life should be led back on shore – depending on one another, collaborating together, relying on each other for our wellbeing and having all that we needed with us, to care for and share.
“I came to view the sailboat as a microcosm for how life should be led back on shore – depending on one another, collaborating together, relying on each other for our wellbeing and having all that we needed with us, to care for and share.”
How did your superpower come to life onboard?
I wrote during the voyage, though I got seasick writing below deck! At the Edinburgh Festival we also had an opportunity to collaborate with ASCUS Science & Art Lab to create an interactive event to shine a light on the voyage, the plastics issue and the solutions. We put plastics we had found under a microscope and ask people to come in and pretend that they’re 400 years in the future and are looking back in time at these “artefacts” that these female sailors collected at sea in 2017.
They’d soon realise that what they were looking at was not amazing or precious, like pottery, or clever inventions, like arrowheads or pyramids. Instead, it would be things that don’t break up or break down. Just ordinary, mundane objects – visa cards, plastic polar fleece threads, nurdles, tampon packages – that we left behind.
The impact was tangible and we had a lot of fun doing it. I humbly helped shape and write about the wonderful immersive experience with my fellow eXXpedition crew. The experience made me realise I have an apt for storytelling and pinpointing the essence to retell them years later. The power of storytelling and my ability to write showed me how it could help inspire, inform, connect people and communicate the science.
How has the experience influenced your work since?
After the voyage, I did a TEDx called Ocean Love – Cleaning up our Plastic Mess. MY experience with eXXpedition helped me to communicate with a greater depth of understanding and with knowledge of policy advocacy. I talked about the voyage and its connection to the cleanups I did in Antarctica and Svalbard prior to eXXpedition. The experience allowed me to communicate the fact that the problem is ubiquitous. It’s not something that exists far away and out of sight, but on our shores, in Europe, in Canada, on remote Atoll islands, at the poles – everywhere. And it is mitigable and preventable.
Whilst I’ve always had a huge love for the ocean, it was always something that I considered slightly separate from the medical humanitarian issues I’ve dealt with in my work. However, eXXpedition helped me understand just how interconnected the ocean is to climate and human health. Now, I consider topics I have always been interested in and ask where and how our ocean connects to them. The ocean is a source for so many things but it is under threat from climate change, overfishing, pollution, and exploitation.
At COP27 Climate Conference I was asked to present in a first-ever Health Pavillion in a session for MSF with others on “Nature Based Solutions for Climate Change and Human Health”. My work in polar regions and with eXXpedition gave me greater understanding and courage to speak up on a topic newer to the medical humanitarian space. As it’s been said, there can’t be healthy people on a sick planet: biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are fundamental to our well-being.
“eXXpedition helped me understand just how interconnected the ocean is to climate and human health”
What else are you working on?
Alongside my writing, I am also working to include Antarctic plastic ‘portraits’ in a Svalbard plastic pollution exhibition, Aquamess, portraits of garbage at the top of the Earth. I brought home garbage from a collection of trash from the fjords, carried on currents to Svalbard.
I will also be going to New Zealand, to continue writing about and documenting the glaciers and their future.
Part of the visit will be to continue a project with my daughter Veronica called Hello Goodbye Glaciers: a 10 year intergenerational study of glaciers, their significance to humanity, and tragic decline. As the glaciers shrink, Veronica grows. It’s an ode to glaciers and the young people experiencing and leading action on the climate crisis. The project started in Iceland when Veronica was 10. We’ve visited glaciers in five countries in five years to learn their stories and delve deeper into their meaning.
COVID-19 put a halt on our project but this gave us time to catch up on our writing. The pause also gave us pause to reflect on how much we all travel whilst knowingly contributing to carbon emissions. Now I travel more consciously, using trains or other means of transport instead of a plane, where possible.
How can we use storytelling to inspire change?
We have to make people care – especially those holding and hoarding power. Science communication, climate change, advocacy, and storytelling can help people feel. Storytelling, for me, is about finding the human aspect. Not talking only polars – they are bad, this is good – but talking about beauty, what’s at stake, problem-solving and ultimately helping people to understand the connection between our actions and the world around us.