Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Deep Sea Immersion: Chris Turner, Literary Journalism & the New Sustainability Narrative

Chris Turner’s How to Breathe Underwater was not written as a book. Approached by a publisher about compiling 15 years worth of his magazine features, he secretly wondered if he would be embarrassed by his early work. This was tempered with the unusual fact that he had always thought collected non-fiction volumes were the pinnacle of achievement.


He said yes.


The book’s title essay was originally published in The Walrus, sometimes cutting a solitary figure in Canada for long-form literary journalism. He calls the genre “the poor cousin in the literary firmament,” but the lament is not without a smile. He first discovered feature writing through his aunt’s subscription to Rolling Stone, which soon turned into his own subscription, and then into a fascination with David Foster Wallace and others of the genre’s greats.


Unlike novels, Turner says, magazine features are usually read in one sitting. Self-contained immersion experiences, the scuba suit and mask are secured and new worlds explored. Seemingly discrete events transcend their locality and individual actions become a universal mirror. The genre is doubtlessly undervalued, but Turner’s newest book proves that features are often relevant beyond their one-month-give-or-take shelf life.


A former federal Green candidate (accidentally, he claims), and sought-after speaker on sustainability (again, not on purpose), Turner says his one intentional decision along this road was to write about the environment.


As a natural cynic, he could have adopted the disaster and panic narrative of climate change coverage—if he thought it would work. Instead he writes about solutions, preferring hope to doom as a motivator. Nothing in our daily lives tells us that we need to drastically change—at least not until some GHG-coloured mushroom cloud appears—but Turner says we’re more likely to move in a certain direction if we’re actually excited about where we’re going. Hence he leads his readers towards, not away.


He calls it “transformative myth,” and should the magazine industry last, it may just change everything.


We are headed somewhere unknown, somewhere surely dangerous but also perhaps blessed with unexpected beauty. The terrain will be at least partially alien, the logic and rules of the place governed by inversions and seeming perversions of the natural order we’ve always known. Some of the tools we’ll need to traverse this new landscape safely may at first appear unfamiliar, unwieldy, inconvenient. We may only comprehend their vital necessity once we’ve taken the plunge into this tumultuous sea. But we will learn to thrive. Feel exhilaration in the place of anxiety and lament. We will all learn to breathe underwater.”

– Chris Turner, “The Age of Breathing Underwater”