Sven Huseby and his grandson, Elias, walk along a beach in this scene from "A Sea Change." (Courtesy Niijii Films)
Sven Huseby and his grandson, Elias, walk along a beach in this scene from "A Sea Change." (Courtesy Niijii Films)
Saturday May 15, 2010

BRATTLEBORO

There are, as the saying goes, lots of fish in the sea.

Sven Huseby is in the fight of his life to keep it that way.

Huseby, remembered locally for the 30 years he spent as teacher, administrator and ultimately head of The Putney School, finds himself in the international spotlight, drawn there by a cause that grips him tightly -- ocean acidification.

Never heard of it?

Neither had Huseby, until he read an article in the Nov. 22, 2006, New Yorker titled "The Darkening Sea." In it, environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert described a new ecological threat -- the falling pH levels of ocean waters caused primarily by what happens when all the carbon dioxide we belch into atmosphere falls back into the sea. It is global warming's frightening flipside, and reading about it scared hell out of him.

"I think my biggest shock is I think of myself as a somewhat informed environmentalist. When I read that article, I felt like I'd been blindsided," said Huseby in a telephone interview from his home in Germantown, N.Y. "The idea that we were in a measurable way changing the chemistry of the ocean, and seeing it rapidly change That really made me sit back and ask: ‘Is this really true or is this some sort of melodrama?'"

As a teacher and a lifelong student, Huseby knew how to answer that question. Research. He talked to Kolbert, talked to people who knew Kolbert's work to ascertain her credibility.


Advertisement

He tracked down scientists studying the problem and by coincidence found that there was going to be a conference in January 2007 in Seattle about ocean acidification. Huseby and his wife, documentary filmmaker Barbara Ettiger, were going to be in Seattle at the time anyway, so they asked if they come to the conference and film it.

"We came back from the conference, which was much more horrific than we thought, and we realized this needed to be told," said Huseby.

What's so horrific is what ocean acidification portends. Falling pH levels spell trouble for many species, particularly shelled fish and coral reefs. Among the most threatened are a little known group called pteropods, tiny creatures who serve as the basis for whole oceanic food chains. If they collapse, what will become of all the fish that depend on them? Will the expression "lots of fish in the sea" become as anachronistic as "dumb as a dodo?"

So they set out to tell it the best way they knew how -- with a film. Huseby is billed as co-producer with Ettiger as director and co-producer for their Niijii Films.

Before reading Kolbert's article Huseby and Ettiger had just finished a documentary about the six-year battle some residents in their Hudson Valley community against a proposal to build a coal-fired cement manufacturing plant nearby. That film, which Huseby called "the story of David and Goliath," was eventually aired on PBS' Independent Lens series. It was good practice for the film about ocean acidification, only the Goliath here is ignorance and inaction.

"When we started this, we wrote on a 3x5 card that I still have on my computer: ‘Bring ocean acidification into the public discourse.' That was our goal," said Huseby. "How much we've been able to do that, I can't say, but I think we're making a difference.

Sven Huseby and his grandson Elias admire fish in an aquarium in this scene from "A Sea Change." (Courtesy Niijii Films)
Sven Huseby and his grandson Elias admire fish in an aquarium in this scene from "A Sea Change." (Courtesy Niijii Films)
"

Their film, "A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish," was completed in February 2009, and the response was overwhelming and instantaneous. They inspired audiences at scientific gatherings and at a seafood industry convention, they packed the house at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in March 2009 for a screening at an Environmental Film Festival. They've been interviewed on C-Span, and shown their films at festivals all over the world -- in Brazil, Finland, Kosovo. Discovery Channel bought the film.

The National Oceanaic and Atmospheric Administration put out a special issue of its magazine Oceanology and bought 4,000 DVDs of the film which were distributed free in the magazine. Six weeks ago, Huseby was appointed to serve on a national task force about ocean resources by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

On Wednesday, May 19, "A Sea Change" comes to Vermont to inaugurate the Strolling of the Heifers film series, highlighting two films on the issue of sustainability. "A Sea Change" will be shown at 7 p.m., in Room 108-100 of the Rotch Learning Center (library) at SIT/World Learning on Kipling Road. Admission is free, but all donations will benefit the Strolling of the Heifers.

The only people with an excused absence from this event are, sadly, Huseby and Ettiger, who will be out of town, but for good reason -- they will be accepting NOAA's 2010 Environmental Heroes Award in San Diego. But their presence will be felt. They plan to be available by telephone for the question and answer session following the screening.

What makes "A Sea Change" so compelling is not just its content, but the way it's presented. The science is there, the consequences are spelled out in chilling clarity, but "A Sea Change" doesn't bludgeon its viewers. It has a beating heart, a warmth and humanity that serve to convert one's sense of helplessness into hope, and everyone's responsibility into a moral imperative.

At the heart of "A Sea Change" is a relationship -- that of Huseby to his grandson Elias, who was 5 when the film was made. We see them in the beginning and at various times throughout the film sharing time together, learning about the ocean and its creatures and talking about Huseby's travels as he learns about ocean acidification. The film is very much a love letter to Elias -- and a covenant from a grandfather today to help the world his grandson will inherit.

"That was all Barbara. Her filmmaking style is very humanistic," Huseby said. "I think the story of legacy is a hook that transcends partisanship."

When they broached the idea with Elias and his parents, his one question was "'If I do this, would it maybe help the oceans,'" Huseby recalled. "He wasn't caught up in the glitz of it all. ... He loves the oceans."

Also crucial to the success of "A Sea Change" is the powerful way it casts environmental action as a moral obligation.

"It was critical from day one. This was a scientific topic. What motivated us was the need to confront a moral imperative," Huseby said. "There's a growing greening taking place in religious communities in this country."

Huseby said he and Ettiger are "absolutely delighted" to be part of the films presented Strolling of the Heifers, in partnership with Brattleboro Climate Protection and SIT/World Learning. The other film is "Taking Root: The vision of Wangari Maathai," by Marlboro filmmakers Lisa Merton and Alan Dater on Thursday, May 27, at 7 p.m.

The only disappointment for Huseby and Ettiger is that they won't be able to be in Vermont to present the film and see old friends.

"I loved Putney. I love it to this day," said Huseby.

For more information on the film or other Strolling of the Heifers events and presentations, visit www.strollingoftheheifers.com.

Jon Potter can be reached at jpotter@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 149.