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Green Is The New Black

Seaspiracy review: stream it or skip it? Here’s a more nuanced take…

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seaspiracy green is the new black

The talk of the town is the new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. It’s brought to you by the filmmaker behind Cowspiracy (hence the name), so you know it’s going to be controversial. We watched it, and have seen the many takes—hot and not-so-hot—on it. So here’s a more nuanced one. Whether you’ve watched it or not, you’re invited to buckle up: it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we promise it’ll be worth it.

 

STREAM IT OR SKIP IT: A SHORT (BUT STILL NUANCED) ANSWER

Stream it, with an abundance of caution, and preferably with a virtual film club to accompany your viewing. The baseline is this: Seaspiracy highlights some valid and important concerns about the fishing industry. But—and it’s a huge but—it’s packaged in a way that’s intended to sway the audience towards veganism, which is not a bad thing, if not for its glaring flaws. For one: misinformation and bad arguments (cherry-picking, outdated science, false dilemmas, and more). Two: diversity and inclusion are harmfully mishandled. And finally: the logic leap involved in its final call to action (falling on the shoulders of individuals instead of the industry and the system). Which in the end serves not to create more critical thinkers, but instead enhances the already divisive and polarised culture we have.

Let’s begin with the main issues the documentary tackles, followed by the narrative and the call to action. 

 

1. THE CONTENT

The science about our marine ecosystem

This is where most of Seaspiracy‘s merits are, and we’ll give it that. It draws attention to how important marine life (as in, the animals, plants and everything in between) is.

For instance, whales, when they return to the surface to breathe, fertilise phytoplankton with their excrement. These phytoplankton absorb carbon, making the ocean a carbon sink (like the Amazon rainforest). (The film claims that dolphins do this too, but we couldn’t fact-check that). And then we have sharks, which are, as apex predators, an important part of the marine ecosystem. Think back to the time you learnt about food chains: if sharks go, the prey species overrun their habitat, food becomes scarce, and the populations move or crash. And what about fish? According to the film, fish are crucial to keeping coral reefs alive: they excrete food for the coral, so without them, reefs die. (We fact-checked this, and couldn’t find exactly that, but there are fish that help coral reefs. See here and here).

The film adds that on top of all this, the cumulative movements of all these animal species might be one of the ways in which the ocean sequesters carbon at the bottom of the ocean. According to research, the movements churn the sea, and, as the film claims, “it creates a powerful down-welling of the warmer surface waters to mix with the colder waters below.” (The closest we could find was the concept of the “biological pump”. In any case, the ocean is a carbon sink, and the health of the ecosystem certainly plays a big part in maintaining the health of the ocean). Part of the sequestration are coastal plants, which the film explains stores up to 20 times more carbon than forests on land (this is true). 

Together, the film says, 93% of the world’s carbon is stored in the ocean. (We couldn’t fact-check this, but according to the National Geographic, 93% of the world’s heat of climate change is soaked up by the ocean). As we can see, the film could do with quite a bit more fact-checking. But the points are generally right. Ask any marine scientist (try Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson), and they’ll tell you that the ocean, and everything in it, is crucial if we care about climate issues. 

 

The threats to our marine ecosystem

This is another section that Seaspiracy gets pretty right, it sheds light on the major threats to our marine ecosystem.

Seaspiracy starts off tackling plastic pollution, which it says is killing whales and dolphins. This we know, from the countless times it’s made the headlines everywhere. Then, it draws attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is an accumulation of marine debris. It later makes clear that at least 46% of this Garbage Patch is not plastic straws, but… synthetic fishing nets. This brings our attention to the fishing industry: the main enemy of the film. The film does well to explain the threats that the fishing industry poses to the marine ecosystem, starting with the concept of “bycatch”. Bycatch is basically unwanted stuff (including sea life) that’s thrown out while fishing: and the film says that half of the sharks the industry kills (11,000 to 30,000 per hour) is killed as bycatch. (True, except we couldn’t fact-check the upper limit of 30,000—11,000 is right though).

And it’s not only the sharks that are bycatch, it’s other animals too. The film highlights one fishery in Iceland that caught 269 harbour porpoises, 900 seals and 5,000 seabirds in a month. That being said, however, it is hard to find statistics on bycatch in other fisheries (who would want to report the numbers for that?). Point is, we’re not sure if we can extrapolate that extent of killing to every fishery, though we know for sure it is an issue.

What else is an issue? Trawling. The film highlights that this is the most destructive form of fishing, with large trawl nets “so big they could swallow entire cathedrals or up to 13 jumbo jet planes.” These nets scar the seafloor with the heavyweights they drag along with them. The film claims that in comparison to deforestation (which costs us 25 million acres of forest yearly according to the FAO), bottom trawling wipes out 3.9 billion acres yearly. That fact is according to this 2008 study, and though there hasn’t been an update since then, a recent report (as in March 2021) reveals that bottom trawling releases as much carbon as air travel.

Anyway, these are big issues and the fishing industry is undeniably huge. In fact, the global fish catch, according to the film is at 2.7 trillion fish—that’s 5 million per minute (fact check: that’s an upper limit. The lower limit is 0.97 trillion, which is still a lot of fish). Although the film claims that oceans will be empty by 2048, apparently this is based on a completely debunked 2006 statistic, refuted even by the author of the original study, and there was even a follow-up report in the (academic) journal Science released in 2009, titled “New Hope for Fisheries”. We’ll get back to this later.

 

“Sustainable” fishing?

If you thought some of the factual inaccuracies were bad so far: there is a lot more to unpack (see the fact-checking section below). Seaspiracy‘s second target is the sustainable fishing industry, which it exposes as a sham.

Remember that Icelandic fishery that has astonishing levels of bycatch? The film highlights that it’s been awarded for its sustainable fishing practises by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Blue Tick. On the MSC, marine conservation biologist, oceanographer, author, and research scholar Professor Callum Roberts says that the bycatch is ignored because the level of kill is considered to be “sustainable” in itself. Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi tried to meet with MSC, but the film shows how Tabrizi was refused. Tabrizi then follows the money to find that one of the founders of MSC was the Unilever corporation, which at the time was a major seafood retailer. He adds that only a few fisheries have been denied certification in over 20 years and that over 80% of their over 30-million-pound-a-year income is from licensing. Which is to say: more labels, more ticks, more money. 

The film also takes a hit at “Dolphin Safe Tuna”, a supposedly sustainable label, which, the film argues, obscures “what’s really happening at sea”. In the same way, it highlights the Icelandic fishery, the chairperson of Sea Shepherd France, Lamya Essemlali, shares that they’ve caught a tuna fishing vessel that had slaughtered 45 dolphins to catch eight tunas. And that vessel? Working for Dolphin Safe canned tuna. Tabrizi went to meet with the Earth Island Institute, who’s behind the label, and the representative said that nobody can guarantee whether they kill dolphins or not. “Once you’re out there in the ocean,” the representative says, “how do you know what they’re doing?” He plainly states: “We have observers on board. The observers can be bribed.”

Animal rights activist Richard “Ric” O’Barry then essentially slams all these labels to say that there are no witnesses. They depend, he says, on the captain’s log, and then just take money from the captains to sell them the label. So far, the MSC has hit back with a response, and so has Dolphin Safe Tuna’s representative. We’ll fact-check in a bit, but for now, we’re not done. The film says more about sustainable fishing.

 

Fish farming: also a sham

Seaspiracy rips apart fish farming too (which accounts for half of the consumed seafood today). It says that the industry has been perceived as an eco-friendly alternative. No bycatch, illegal fishing, seafloor damage, killing of endangered species, or dangerous work conditions, etc. One of the Sea Shepherd representatives then asks: what are the fish being farmed fed? The film then shows how farmed fish is being fed with feed made from real fish, which means it’s really just wild fish in disguise, apparently. It follows with speaking with the industry’s whistleblowers.

Corin Smith, founder of Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots says that the industry hides information that they don’t want to get out. The film then shows captured footage from Smith of salmon being eaten alive by sea lice, “a common reality of fish farming across the world”. Smith even says that without colourants, farmed salmon is completely grey. More damning is the shot of a mountain of dead salmon, which Don Saniford, founder of Scottish Salmon Watch, calls the “mortality mountain”. Saniford claims half the salmon farmed are dying. He says they are dying from anemia, lice infestation, infectious diseases, chlamydia, heart disease. “This is welfare abuse,” he says.

All this adds up. Tabrizi says multiple times in the film “sustainable seafood cannot exist”. Other experts in the film concur. Slyvia Earle, oceanographer and marine biologist, one of Tabrizi’s heroes, says that “large scale extraction of wildlife” cannot be sustainable. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, emphasises: “There’s no such thing as a sustainable fishery. There’s simply not enough fish to justify that.” He adds: “A lot of these groups aren’t interested in solving the problem, they’re interested in exploiting the problem. It’s a business. It’s a feel-good business.”

 

Fact-checking “sustainable” fishing

There’s a lot to unpack, and many claims to debunk, which we’re not going to get into here in full. Perhaps it’s worth checking out this source, which is part of a larger project at the University of Washington and is (supposed to be) fact-checked.

Alternatively, we also found a summary of statements against the documentary by the Global Aquaculture Alliance here. And here are a few points. Apparently, Staniford has been accused of defamation in 2012. And the farm with the mortality mountain? Current monthly survival rates across all its farms exceed 99%. And on the fake news about the fish feed? Katherine Bryar, global head of marketing and branding for the Danish aquaculture feed manufacturer BioMar, said that for decades, they’ve been working on alternative ingredient sources. And back to the MSC statement: they say that they are entirely transparent about their market-based funding model. And that “it is completely wrong to imply” that their certification process “is financially motivated”.

MSC added that “millions of people around the world rely on seafood for their protein needs. With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources responsibly is more urgent than ever. Sustainable fishing has a vital role to play in securing those resources.” We will return to this. But first: how should we understand the sustainable fishing industry? There’s a lot we don’t know either, and we encourage you to do some fact-checking of your own.

What might help is likening the industry to sustainable cotton (referring here to sustainable fashion). The fashion industry suffers from a lack of regulation, transparency, and a whole lot of greenwashing (similar to what we are seeing here with sustainable fishing). But sustainable cotton is a start. And it’s a solution that doesn’t forget that whole countries, and their people, depend on the fashion industry (garment workers). In the end, however, we still recommend people boycott fast fashion—if they can. While remembering, at the same time, that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Meaning: the burden should not be entirely on the consumer. We will return to this, too.

 

A final word on sustainable fishing, as shown by the film

The Global Aquaculture Alliance, like the MSC, highlights that simply ending fishing “will do nothing but abandon the approximately 250 million people employed by the industry and rob billions of people of a healthful source of protein”. Perhaps this is the GAA’s attempt to continue business-as-usual. But we do need to think about how the transition will happen. We can’t just abandon the workers in these industries with no plan—here we’re thinking of the Green New Deal way of dealing with the fossil fuel transition. There must be a way to abandon fishing while pursuing justice at the same time. Point is, the film doesn’t appreciate these nuances enough.

Instead, the film writes off all the work by slamming a few organisations that bluewash (to continue our fashion analogy, that’s like slamming sustainable cotton based on what H&M does). The UW project’s—the website we mentioned earlier—founder said that the film is “so full of misinformation, it’s astounding. These filmmakers know what they’re doing in terms of images and they found and interviewed the four most fisheries-hating people in the world. But they don’t tell you that the number of whales in the oceans is growing, not declining and that there’s more fish now than there were 100 years ago.”

The founder of GAA says to ignore Seaspiracy entirely, but perhaps it’s worth trying to sit with the discomfort, and come up with nuanced takes instead. (At least, the discomfort with the critique of sustainable fishing. There are other much more problematic parts, which we’ll get to in a bit).

 

Environmental organisations: also a sham?

George Monbiot, one of the most respected environmentalists of the moment, weighs in about the plastic pollution issue. “Even the groups that are talking about marine plastic are highly reluctant to talk about what that plastic is, which is fishing nets and fishing gear.” Monbiot points out that these are far more dangerous than plastic straws. “Because, of course, they’re designed to kill.” 

“Why aren’t even the plastic campaigns talking about fishing?” Monbiot’s question takes Seaspiracy to their next target: environmental organisations. The film highlights that fishing nets are a big part of the plastic problem. It references that viral video of a straw getting stuck in a turtle’s nose, and points to a global study that estimated that 250,000 sea turtles are captured, injured or killed yearly by fishing vessels in the US. “If a single turtle with a straw in its nose went viral, then why wasn’t this front-page news?” Tabrizi asks. Fact-check: that number has whittled down to 4,600, apparently. But the truth still stands: plastic straws only account, as the film says, for 0.03% of plastic in the ocean (this is true)

Meanwhile, the plastic campaigns really don’t focus on fishing (but problematically, Tabrizi phrases it as plastic campaigns not focusing on “don’t eat fish”, instead of “commercial fishing”. We’ll get to this). Some of you might be familiar with the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Coalition says in an interview with Tabrizi: “A consumer message to eat less fish? Yeah, it’s not my area, it’s not my area of focus. I hear you. I don’t have time, we have an event. Can you turn off the cameras?” Tabrizi follows the money, and of course: the Coalition is a project of the Earth Island Institute. 

Monbiot emphasises, again, that it’s the commercial fishing industry that’s the issue. Not the plastic consumption by individuals. In the film, he reveals: “it’s far more damaging than the oil pollution from oils pills.” Professor Roberts then goes onto unveil, shockingly, that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was actually beneficial for the marine ecosystem because it got a respite from fishing.

 

Staying silent on the truth?

And yet, the environmental organisations say nothing, or so Tabrizi claims. He focuses on Oceana, the world’s biggest marine conservation organisation, which he says does not say anything about eliminating or reducing seafood consumption anywhere on their website. In an interview with Maria-José Cornax, fisheries campaign manager of Oceana, Cornax claims that they are never asked that question. Seaspiracy goes on to also slam governments. Tabrizi meets the (then) European Commissioner for Oceans and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella. Vella says, disappointingly: “For me, the idea is not to stop fishing. For me, the idea is to do more sustainable fishing.”

All of this is staying silent on the truth. And it perpetuates this idea, as Monbiot rightfully points out, that “there’s this image of the fishing industry which is deeply implanted in our minds from childhood. It’s a little red boat chugging across a sparkling sea with Captain Birdseye at the wheel, with his white beard and his twinkly blue eyes and his fisherman’s cap. And of course, what it really is, is a death machine. This is a highly effective, technological machine.”

Is this a fair critique waged against environmental organisations and governments everywhere? Certainly, incrementalism is a problem, and being funded by the fishing industry is a problem. But to go on and say that “the global attention on plastics and fossil fuels were distracting from an industry we hear almost nothing about, with a much, much greater impact on the sea,” is problematic. For two reasons. The first: why pit issues of awareness against each other? Especially if fossil fuels are certainly a massive part of the problem too? And the second: there are many local organisations and governments doing good things to raise awareness of the fishing industry. Perhaps Tabrizi would see it if he looked beyond white activists and representatives… which conveniently brings us to the next point.

 

2. THE NARRATIVE

 

 

A narrative that hinges on trauma porn…

…is a narrative that we don’t want. Trauma porn, well-explained in this blog post, “refers to the perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune; a phenomenon which has become increasingly pervasive in a digital era where pain is commodified, and upsetting portrayals of it stripped of their emotional impact as they sink into the depths of content overload.” And this film has a lot of it, to say the least. Without any proper trigger or content warnings. (What’s up with that, Netflix?). On that note, here’s a trigger warning: we’ll be talking about the death of Southeast Asian, and African bodies, as the film exploits.

Seaspiracy opens with a man speaking in Thai, about the dangers of working at sea. “If you’re scared of dying,” the anonymous man narrates, “go home.” We’ll come back to this later. But for now, another example. When talking about how the government observers who are tasked with monitoring fishing activities are murdered at sea, the film brings up two cases. One, of a white man, which is briefly talked about. Another of a Filipino woman fully animated with dramatic music. Gerlie Alpajora, the film explains, was assassinated by armed men, after she’d received death threats from the family of a tuna fisherman arrested for illegal fishing. In the film’s portrayal, there were gunshots and blood.

We have to ask: was this necessary? Is trauma porn ever necessary?

 

While at the same time criticising non-white entities as a whole

This is made worse with the way in which the first two issues raised in Seaspiracy centre around targeting the Japanese and the Chinese. The first issue they talk about is how the Japanese government is supporting the continuation of commercial whale hunting. Despite, of course, the international whaling ban since 1986. The film starts in Taiji, Japan, “where each year over 700 dolphins and small whales are herded into a cove for slaughter”. The Japanese government is in on it, and at one point Tabrizi shows how he was followed by “an entourage of police, secret service, undercover cops, and the coast guard” for filming on the island. As if this isn’t bad enough, Tamara Arenovich, from Sea Sheperd, adds that dolphins are killed because the fishermen view dolphins as competition.

Tabrizi then goes to Kii-Katsuura, stumbling upon one of the largest tuna ports in the world. There he sees the overfishing, the mass killing of fish for consumption. He says: “This is a $42 billion dollar a year industry. And it’s at threat from overfishing. Of course, they’re gonna blame the dolphins. The excuse of killing dolphins for the crime of eating too many fish was a lie. In reality, what they were doing was killing dolphins as a scapegoat for the overfishing. That way, they can continue participating in the multibillion-dollar tuna industry, and wash off any ecological responsibility.”

There are so many issues with this. For one, a quick Google search will show you that while Japan still does whaling, apparently, Norway now surpasses Japan. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but portraying one without even mentioning others, and making Japanese people seem like an enemy, especially in a time of anti-Asian hate, is just poor taste. And harmful to Asian and AAPI communities. Ultimately, it is true that bluefin tuna, the species mentioned that is being driven to extinction, is consumed mostly within Japan. And it is true that Japanese corporations are making big money from this commercial fishing industry. But surely there are Japanese activists speaking up against this too? Why feature a white woman? 

The same critique can be applied to the film’s handling of the shark fin issue. Paul De Gelder, a white shark activist, comes on screen to talk about the multi-billion dollar industry and “Mafia-esque run” nature that is the shark fin industry. He explains that the fins are shipped to Asia, predominantly China, “which is held as a status symbol. It has no nutritional benefits, it really doesn’t taste like much, and it can cost anywhere upwards of $100 a bowl.” Tabrizi then focuses on Hong Kong (which is not the same as China) and calls it “Shark Fin City”, and shows how everyone there doesn’t allow him to film.

We’ll let this sink in, with a tweet.

 

Where’s the representation?

In this day and age, you’d think that films know better than to centre white perspectives. But almost all of the activists Seaspiracy features are white (the percentage is probably something like 96%). And the only environmental organisation that the film seems to love is Sea Sheperd, which is featured many times. And yet, there are many local environmental organisations and non-white, i.e. BIPOC activists, out there. Where are they in the film?

And no, diversity and inclusion aren’t just about optics. The reason why we say that it’s important to have non-white activists is not only because we want to see ourselves on the screen (we do, and representation matters). But it’s also because non-white perspectives are, usually, more intersectional. Case in point: Watson says in the film that “if you want to address climate change, you need to protect the ocean.” The solution? Watson says is to leave it alone. And to that, we say: no. The solution is for the industry to leave it alone. Coastal communities and Indigenous people who have lived in harmony with the ocean (for far longer than the industry has) know how to protect the ocean. Which Seaspiracy would be able to express… if it interviewed them.

 

A final word on this…

We have to talk about the way Seaspiracy handled the issues of slavery in the fishing industry in Thailand (and Southeast Asia) and how the fishing industry is linked to Ebola epidemics in Liberia.

On slavery, Monbiot comments: “We hear a lot about blood diamonds. This is blood shrimp.” The film then focuses on how slavery at sea is a huge and incredibly dangerous problem (this is true). It spotlights escaped slaves from the fishing boats, who Tabrizi speaks to in Thailand. Who share painful stories of bullying, abuse, suicide, and murder. The film explains that if not for this slavery, most of these boats would not be economic. They have to “find a way to fish for cheap”… “to catch fewer fish”. We’ve talked about trauma porn, and the representation issue already. But the cherry on top is this: the film stops short of making the crucial link. That the reason why this is the case, to begin with… is capitalism. The cheap-ness of fish, and cheap-ness of labour. It’s a systemic issue, that needs structural fixes.

And then there’s the Ebola issue. Which is probably one of the film’s most shocking points: it claims that fishing by the European Union in places like West Africa has caused fish stocks in those waters to deplete. Which means that coastal communities, who have been there since time immemorial, are running out of food. Not only do they risk their lives further out at sea because the vessels are fishing too close to their zones, but they also have to resort to other food instead. So, the film says, they hunt for wild animals, which has a major impact on humans… because the bushmeat trade is responsible for the Ebola epidemics. Which links commercial fishing to Ebola in Liberia. This is actually researched.

So what now? If the system is flawed, what do we do?

 

3. THE CALL TO ACTION

In the end, for all the issues it problematises within the industry, the call to action is this: don’t eat fish.

Throughout Seaspiracy, as much as there are points at which you’d think the film would proceed to say that it’s the industry that’s the problem, it’s insinuated that the burden is on the consumer. And this imagined consumer, who is faulted, is part of this collective humanity. It is “we”, an imagined “we”. As Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans (yet another white man) says: “We are at war with the oceans. And if we win this war, we’re gonna lose it all, because mankind is not able to live on this planet with a Dead Sea. It’s the total industrialisation of fishing that is the problem here. We are pretty much destroying everything at rapid speed.” On one hand, he says it’s the industrialisation. And on the other? He says “we” are the problem. 

The goal is clear: Seaspiracy, at its heart, is trying to make you think that we are the problem. You are the problem. It hammers home the point with the ending. Which, of course, explains how fish feel pain. Earle says: “We feel pain, we feel touch, but fish have a lateral line down their sides, that senses the most exquisite little movements in the water. So you see a thousand fish moving like one fish. Those who say, ‘Doesn’t matter what you do to a fish, they can’t feel anything.’ Or that they can’t relate to pain, or they can’t sense danger in the future. Well… they haven’t really observed fish. I think it’s a justification for doing dastardly things to innocent creatures. It’s the only explanation I can think of for treating fish with such a barbaric attitude.”

The film then makes this goal clear: it shows various (white) physicians telling the viewer that you don’t really need to eat fish. What with the pollutants concentrated in fish, outweighing its nutrients. A white man tells the viewer that algae cells make omega-3 fatty acids. A white woman then says: “So why not just eat the algae that has those great benefits we’re looking for?” To top it all off: Seaspiracy highlights that traditional animal agriculture produces run-off that has huge impacts on our oceans too—so really, just go vegan

 

Just go vegan?

To be clear: nobody is saying you shouldn’t go vegan. If you can, of course, you should go vegan. But the film cannot, and should not end on that note. It’s too easy, and it fails to do justice to the systemic issues it tackles. The answer should be: yes, go vegan, but (a) recognise that going vegan is first and foremost a privilege that not everybody can afford. And (b) that going vegan is an individual solution, and yes collective efforts matter, but they’re not necessarily going to fix structural flaws. This means (c) the film needs to highlight ongoing solutions that are trying to fix the structural issues. Like sustainable fisheries, governmental regulations, etc. People still depend on fisheries and many people can’t afford to go vegan. So telling people to just go vegan is not good enough. It is a cop-out, and a polarising conclusion.

And we are seeing the effects of this polarising conclusion. If you’ve seen Twitter at all, much of the response has either been (a) this movie is full of misinformation, totally vegan propaganda! Or (b) fuck humans, stop eating fish! Both of which are hot takes that are not-so-hot. And that is probably what Netflix in allowing this documentary to be published wants. But activism cannot be reduced to this—we must be able to be more nuanced. More intersectional. More systemic.

To its credit, Seaspiracy begins to tackle the nuances. But the attempt is riddled with misinformation, bad stereotyping, lack of representation and systemic answers. We must do better.

 

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Tammy (she/her) is an activist-in-progress and digital creator and communicator, based in sunny, tropical Singapore. Her mission is three-fold: (1) to make climate justice activism and theory more accessible; (2) to create digital and physical community and learning spaces towards a more just, regenerative, and loving world within our current one; (3) and to mobilise the best parts of social media in service of all this.

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