Below is a transcript of my presentation at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment’s biennial conference at the University of Kansas in Lawrence last Saturday. I was part of a panel titled Environment, Culture, and Place in a Rapidly Changing North.
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In my play Sila, set on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, a Mama polar bear teaches a lesson to her young cub. She says:
“All life is breath. From the original breath from which Creation is drawn to the world itself, sila wraps itself all around us.”
And the daughter asks:
“The sky is sila?”
“The wind is sila?”
“The land, the ice, the ocean?”
“And sila also moves in and out of our lungs. (Mama breathes.) See? That’s sila. And with each breath, sila reminds us that we are never alone. Each and every one of us is connected to every other living creature. But sila’s gift is not ours to keep. We may use our breath while we roam the land but we must surrender it once we pass from the land. Creatures who are lonely are the ones who hold on to their breath as if it were theirs and theirs alone.”
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Like for the polar bears in my play, the North has always been a place of the imagination. The ancient Greeks thought it was a land of eternal spring, inhabited by immortals whose perfect lives were filled with music and dance. Mapmakers from the 1500s depicted a circular continent surrounding a polar sea with a single high mountain in the center. And the Inuit communities who made the Arctic their home populated the landscape with spirits and gods whose whims influenced every aspect of their lives.
Today is no different. The impact of climate change on the North, and the increased media coverage it has generated over the last 20 years, have contributed to the emergence of a new imaginary place. Wild, inhospitable and endangered, the new North has become a symbol for the excesses of modern life. Conveniently remote and therefore easy to see as separate from the rest of the world, we have made it a poster child for climate change, complete with melting glaciers and dying polar bears. We project on it our collective guilt and through that process, set ourselves free to go about our daily business in the same way we always have.
Clearly, this picture is not complete and most importantly, it is not useful. The North cannot be conceived as an isolated place that bears no relevance to our lives anymore. We have seen in recent years how glacier melts, and changes in winds and ocean currents directly affect weather patterns in the South, causing severe droughts, floods, cold snaps and heat waves. As global warming continues to make natural resources more accessible, our economies will be increasingly dependent on the oil, gas and minerals found North of the 66th parallel. And Arctic communities, who have traditionally been ignored and left to fend for themselves, will take their rightful place at the global table and demand the consideration and respect they deserve.
As an artist who feels deeply connected to that region, my work is to expand the place that the North occupies in our collective imagination so it can become the culturally rich and multifaceted place that it really is. The more vivid and complex our image of the North, the more likely we are to feel protective of it and concerned by its future.
In Sila, Leanna, an Inuit activist, paints a picture of her Arctic. She says:
“I come from a place of barren landscapes and infinite skies. I come from a place of rugged mountains, imperial glaciers and tundra-covered permafrost. I come from a place where North is where you stand and South, everywhere else. Where there are five seasons and no trees. Where the days last twenty-four hours and the nights too. I come from a place where skyscrapers are made of ice and proudly ride winds and currents. I come from a place where the only crowds are air, sea and land creatures that gather each year by the thousands. I come from a place where you can walk onto the ocean and if you’re lucky, beyond the horizon itself. I come from a people who have kept accounts of the early days when the world was rich and urgent and new. When unknown forces lay like pebbles to be picked by those who stumbled upon them. When spirits roamed the land like polar bears and muskoxen and caribou. I come from a world where life and death walk hand in hand like giggling teenagers. I come from a land whose wisdom reminds us of our humanity.
This place I come from we call Nunavut. It means “Our Land” in Inuktitut. It’s where we, Inuit, have thrived for more than 4,000 years. It’s where we strive to realize our full potential. It’s where we nurture our knowledge of who we are. But Nunavut, our land, is only as rich as it is cold. And today, most of it is melting.”
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As Leanna suggests, the North is not just a geographic place – it is a social and cultural anchor that shapes both the identity and the lifestyle of the people who inhabit it. Yet our image of the new North rarely takes into consideration the human element. For the most part, the public conversation has remained centered on ecological disruptions and whenever humans are mentioned, the focus tends to be on externalities – like how they will travel when their traditional ice route is no longer safe or where they will relocate when the shoreline erodes. There is very little mention of the social and emotional cost of climate change. Yet that cost is real and it is disproportionally high in Northern communities.
In this second monologue from Sila, Leanna addresses the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after losing her grandson to suicide:
“The issue is not climate change. It’s not how warm or how cold, how much water or how much ice, how many particles per million, or whether it’s man-induced or not. The issue is not where the tree line will fall, where the hurricanes will hit, what animal species will make it, and what islands won’t. The issue is not complex or global or intractable. It’s not political or economic. And it’s not even about climate. No. The issue is small and personal and it has to do with the most inconsequential of things: human nature. Because who cares about one’s desire to eat their traditional food when millions of others need to keep theirs cold so it doesn’t spoil? Who cares about a culture having an identity crisis when entire countries are struggling to lift themselves out of poverty? Who cares about a nation’s love affair with nature when the world’s economic survival is at stake?… You and I both know that upset feelings don’t justify the kind of massive disruptions a grand scale action would entail. You and I both know that anxiety and fear and depression are a matter of personal choice, not of environmental stewardship. You and I both know that drug abuse and… teenage suicide… (a beat as she fights back tears) are by no means a sign of degradation of the Arctic but simply an indication of human nature run amok.
So don’t be fooled by those who may want to convince you otherwise. The issue is not and will never be climate change. The issue is that we, sensitive humans, are just terribly ill-equipped to deal with loss… So it doesn’t matter whether the U.S. lowers its emissions or recognizes a violation of human rights. We will always, by default, grieve over what we lose because we don’t celebrate what we have.”
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Leanna’s monologue is a call to action. And imagination is the first step towards action. If we can collectively imagine a North that is complex, life-sustaining and intimately connected to every other place in the world, we will be one step closer to honoring that reality. And I believe the arts can help us get there. Good art expands our vision of the world and makes us care. Good art can help us shape the new North into a success story.
Filed under: Theatre
Artists and Climate Change is a blog by playwright Chantal Bilodeau that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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