Polar Bears

Sila: An Artistic Contribution to the Problem of Climate Change

This post comes to you from Chantal Bilodeau’s Artists and Climate Change Blog

Inuksuk on Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut.

Inuksuk on Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut.

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.

*  *  *

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?”

Mama nods.

“The wind is sila?”

Mama nods.

“The land, the ice, the ocean?”

Mama nods.

“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.”

*  *  *

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.”

*  *  *

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.”

*  *  *

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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What does an Ice-Free Arctic mean?

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Stephen Leahy’s article (published by the Inter Press Service) on the “uncharted territory” of an ice-free arctic makes interesting reading.  It’s not just a problem for the indigenous peoples of the circumpolar region.  It’s not just a problem for polar bears, although they are faced with extinction as a result.  And in that context talking about it being a problem for us because it’ll change our weather seems facile.

What is interesting is reading it having just been reading Farley Mowat’s Canada North Now: The Great Betrayal.  The Second Edition was published in 1976, and whilst the impact of extraction industries on the landscape and culture of the North was foremost in the author’s mind, at that time the Arctic Sea Ice was a given.  There is no sense in this book of the Polar Ice Cap changing.  In 36 years we’ve gone from assuming that it’s a given, a permanent feature of the world, to a point where one summer it’ll be gone and the news will cover the first ship at the North Pole.  It’s quite a change.  The speed of change is what we seem to be unable to grasp.

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge Research, Gray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.
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Earth Matters On Stage 2012 at Carnegie Mellon University

  There have been a bevvy of eco-theater conferences in recent years, but it’s great to bring it all together with Earth Matters on Stage, which took place this past May 31st-June 2 at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg, PA. It included a collection of performances, presentations and panels covering everything from carbon footprint to eco-dramaturgy. Session titles included: “Sustainable Design,” “Ecocriticism & Contemporary American Theater,” and “The Carbon Footprint of Theatrical Production,” among many others. That last one was by CSPA’s Ian Garrett, and involved discussions of all the usual players: Arcola Theatre, Julie’s Bicycle, the Broadway Green Alliance . . . Discussions of sustainable design carried throughout the festival and bled into discussion of performance throughout the weekend. Again and again: how do we make theatrical production more sustainable? How do we incorporate or cultural dialogue with the planet into the work? How do we make work that goes beyond “being less bad” into something that actually has a positive impact on the environment?

Below are a selection of photos from the event. Keynote speaker and performer was Holly Hughes, one of the NEA four, whose most recent work (“The Dog and Pony Show: Bring your own Pony,”) examines her relationship with her pets. Ecodrama Playwright competition winners this year included Chantal Bilodeau, whose work “Sila,” explores a cultural cross-section of inuit culture, scientific researchers, and polar bears, and Mark Rigney, whose play, “Bears,” depicts a slow deterioration of civilization through the intimate stories of a group of zoo-bound bears.  The work of Earth Matters founder Theresa May was ever-present in the discussion on eco-dramaturgy, and the weekend ended with a discussion of conferences past and future. The dialogue continues, as we discuss and discover more ways that our set of skills can serve the environment.

Carbon-lite touring

The Last Polar Bears on tour

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

Wallace Heim writes: 

The carbon footprint of a production meets the content of the play in the National Theatre of Scotland’s tour of their climate change play The Last Polar Bears. For the 350-mile tour, everything needed for the show will be carried by the cast and crew on bicycles made from reclaimed bikes. The vinyl panniers are made from recycled National Theatre of Scotland banners.

As part of the production’s legacy, the National Theatre of Scotland will donate to the World Wildlife Fund’s Adopt a polar bear project on behalf of the 18 primary schools on the tour.

Alongside the production, director Joe Douglas will use the tour to interview people, ‘taking the temperature of how people are feeling about climate change.’


“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

ashdenizen is edited by Robert Butler, and is the blog associated with the Ashden Directory, a website focusing on environment and performance.
The Ashden Directory is edited by Robert Butler and Wallace Heim, with associate editor Kellie Gutman. The Directory includes features, interviews, news, a timeline and a database of ecologically – themed productions since 1893 in the United Kingdom. Our own projects include ‘New Metaphors for Sustainability’, ‘Flowers Onstage’ and ‘Six ways to look at climate change and theatre’.

The Directory has been live since 2000.

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As the Globe Warms

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Globe Short EP31:IntheGardenofClimate Reality from Heather Woodbury on Vimeo.

As the Globe Warms is a new genus of an ancient species – an episodic story told by a single person for a live audience and for online subscribers as well. Its bare bones production puts forward an ethics of sustainability: a minimalist aesthetic yoked to a maximal engagement of imagination. As the human effect on the environment increasingly enters our personal narratives via altered weather patterns and vanishing eco-systems Globe weaves a story of ordinary people living through the extraordinary headlines of our times. It limns the themes of climate change – our relation to God, nature, survival and extinction – and explores the fateful intertwining of religion and politics in America.

The story:

Handsome herpetologist Reed Ferris arrives in the small town of Vane Springs, Nevada, determined to try to save a unique species of frog from extinction. He meets Lorelei Ray, the home-schooled daughter of a Pentecostal pastor, who has lately found herself mysteriously “speaking in the tongues” of endangered animals and sharing these possessions online with a growing following of Evangelical youth. The unlikely friendship that forms between them has unexpected and far-reaching consequences. In the mix are Tea Party zealots, closeted gay evangelicals, a working class family itself on the brink of extinction and eyewitness reports from whales, polar bears, bees, bats and frogs.

Heather Woodbury is a recipient of the C.O.L.A. (City of Los Angeles) fellowship in performance, the Spalding Gray Award for Writing and Performance, and Kennedy and National Endowment for the Arts Awards for Playwriting.

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a little girl and a big snake – can the arts connect us before its too late?

This post comes to you from An Arts and Ecology Notebook

Post image for a little girl and a big snake – can the arts connect us before its too late?

Was just reading the following quote from a book The Care of Creation (2000) and thinking about this ecopoem entry into last weeks British Talent show that has gone viral on youtube


”When the greatest beasts before whom our ancestors shrank in terror is in danger of extinction, when the very biodiversity of the planet seems to depend on the implementation of a political treaty, the only thing to be in awe of is the dizzying power of human culture…. our problem today… is that our awe has given way to an exploitative and managerial approach to nature.”

save the humansI loved Olivia’s courage to present her ‘passion, which she knows is out of fashion’ but I couldn’t help but feel though that many in audience while applauding this audacious poetic gesture fail to see the bigger crisis that extinction is pointing to, ie that extinction doesn’t only apply to snakes! (I saw the polar bear image above earlier this week and thought, yep, the polar bears have got it – a friend of mine has it as his avatar on Facebook)

Other contributors to Care of Creation printed back in 2000, from scientists to theologians state that ‘the ecocrisis is so serious that scientists and political solutions alone are unlikely to address it satisfactorily’… which some of us are beginning to realise. One of the contributors quotes an earlier writer, Hamilton in 1993, who argued, ‘it is not the ecologists, engineers, economists or earth scientists who will save spaceship earth, but the poets (even small ones), priests, artists and philosophers’.

Here’s another creative work which dovetails Olivia’s piece above, don’t you think.

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Olivia gets where science often fails and where artistic performance excels…. ‘if I say their Latin names will you listen more?’

An Arts & Ecology Notebook, by Cathy Fitzgerald, whose work exists as ongoing research and is continually inspired to create short films, photographic documentation, and writings. While she interacts with foresters, scientists, and communities, she aims to create a sense of a personal possibility, responsibility and engagement in her local environment that also connects to global environmental concerns.

Go to An Arts and Ecology Notebook