What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change

Tidelines Ferry Tour
Members of the Tidelines Ferry Tour from left to right: Hoonah high schoolers Cecilia George and Mary Jack, artists Heather Powell, Michelle Kuen Suet Fung, Chantal Bilodeau, and Allison Warden at the ferry terminal in Ketchikan. Photo by Peter Bradley.

This article originally appeared in the Capital City Weekly on June 22, 2016.

We were at the Fish House in Ketchikan early in April, talking about climate; the room was full and the conversation was lively. Outside, the berries were blooming and the snow was gone. Ketchikan was the third stop of the Tidelines Journey, a nine-town ferry tour organized through my work at the Island Institute, a Sitka based nonprofit dedicated to fostering resilience by promoting creative, collaborative explorations of the connections between place and community. I was traveling for the month with a group of storytellers, artists, and culture bearers, all of us working in our own ways to better understand the relationship between the changing climate and our changing cultures. A week into the tour it was becoming clear that other people in Southeast Alaska are as preoccupied with climate change as I am.

For my entire adult life there’s been an environmental alarm in the background of my consciousness, sometimes faint, sometimes loud, but always buzzing away. I’ve come of age alongside our society’s growing recognition of climate change, and I think about it every day. I’ve heard people compare that feeling to what they experienced during the Cold War — a looming threat of global proportions far beyond their control or even the daily experience of any individual. The ferry tour was a way to step back from the distancing global perspective of climate change — the unprecedented environmental disasters, the ugly politics, the terrifying forecasts — to try to capture the Alaskan perspective on the ground.

Toward that end, we hosted conversations in nine coastal communities on the ferry network. We asked people to share observations about changes they’ve seen in the land, what they expect to see in the future, and what climate change means to them. We were excited to have these conversations because of the incredible eloquence of Alaskans when it comes to describing the natural world. As much of the country and world has gone through rapid urbanization and domestication, many Alaskans remain attached to seasonal rhythms, taking direction from seasonal cues and activities, engaging with wildness as a daily practice.

Tidelines Ferry Tour (2)
Allison Warden speak with three classrooms of students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School in Juneau as her rap persona, Aku-Matu. Photo by Simone Machamer.

We believe that the world needs to hear those sorts of perspectives, and all of that knowledge and experience made for expansive conversations on our ferry tour. What we learned is that when Alaskans talk about climate change, there isn’t much that we don’t talk about. We talk about migration and exodus, blueberries and cedar, carbon and nitrogen. We talk about the snow-melt and the spawning salmon. We talk about higher tides, glacial rebound, and green mountaintops. We talk about forest fires and algal blooms and seabird starvation. We talk about steamer clams and the red tide and the forced decline of longstanding subsistence practices. We talk about jobs and lifestyles, about dependence and independence, about war and collapse and expansion and contraction and carrying capacity and our capacity for caring, about unpredictability and the difficulty of adaptation. We talk about winning and losing. We talk about grandparents and grandchildren. We talk about language and the words we won’t need or will need more than ever.

As the tour continued, we came to realize that most of us don’t have the scientific tools to differentiate between climate-related changes and the other forms of environmental imbalance that we’re witnessing. That’s why when we talk about climate change, we can’t help but talk about seals loaded with lead, about wastewater from cruise ships, tailings from mines, and coastlines riddled with trash from around the world. We talk about how mountain lions have arrived on Kupreanof Island as a result of moose arriving as a result of willow growing as a result of humans logging. We talk about science, but we also talk about storytelling, about tradition and about technology, about responsibility, and about regret.

As the tour unfolded, the conversations about climate change started to feel more and more like conversations about the values of Alaskans. We learned that the forces that have defined Alaska’s financial growth and expansion in recent decades are not the forces that define Alaskans as people.

At the Public Library in Petersburg, at the Salvation Army in Kake, at the Elks Lodge in Wrangell, and at the Center For Coastal Studies in Homer, we heard a great yearning to maintain the connection to the land that defines us as Alaskans. We heard people express that disconnection from nature and the unwilding of humanity have sparked climate change among a suite of other social ills. We heard people talk about finding hope in the idea of committing to ancient strategies and technique in the modern world. We heard the idea that culture and language grow out of place, and that within a language are keys to long-studied ways of living rightly in a place. We heard that intergenerational knowledge, communal wisdom, and hard-earned intuition capture more of the spirit of a place than technology can, and we heard that respecting the land as a vast, uncontrollable, and powerful entity is an essential part of moving forward.

Tidelines Ferry Tour (3)
Weaver Teri Rofkar and her husband Denny on the ferry between Juneau and Kodiak.

As a state, Alaska is reeling from the collapse of oil and coming to terms with the precariousness of our financially dependent relationship on this extractive industry. As people, however, Alaskans are reeling from the idea of collapse of the ecosystems on which our well-being and chosen lifestyles depend, coming to terms with the precariousness of our reciprocal relationships with the rich web of life.

As people the world over try to understand the implications of a warming world, Alaskans have an opportunity to share our knowledge about the wealth of the world around us, and the importance of establishing and maintaining sustainable practices that honor the earth. The world needs to hear the voices of people whose daily practice includes measured, close observation of the patterns and movements of the vast ecosystems they are part of.

Often, people feel small, insubstantial, and vulnerable in the context of climate change.

We’re used to that combination here, though it comes in a different form: awe. It’s a breathless feeling of tininess that we can experience standing atop a mountain, or rocking in heavy swell, or interacting with a bear. At our final event of the tour, at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer, we asked people to share their stories of awe. Those stories of humble respect for the whims of the wild seem essential as we come to terms with climate change and talk about the damage that humanity has wrought by trying to tame and control the planet.

Tidelines Ferry Tour (3)
A beautiful scenery seen from the ferry during the Tour. Photo by Chantal Bilodeau.

At the Island Institute, we’re working to find more ways to gather the knowledge that Alaskans have about climate change, and share it among Alaskan communities and with the wider world. Our next step is to create a radio and podcast series. Through these stories, we hope to inspire our listeners with the lives of the adaptive people and species that will continue to have a close relationship to the land in the midst of change. We also hope to catalyze a larger commitment toward becoming more engaged participants in, and observers of, the broader natural world around us.

We’d like to hear from you. If you’re interested in sharing your perspective, observations, or ideas about what climate change means for you or for Alaska, please emailradio@iialaska.org or write to Island Institute / PO Box 2420 / Sitka, AK 99835.

______________________________

Peter Bradley is the Executive Director of the Island Institute, a Sitka based non-profit which runs a variety of artist residency programs, community conversations, and storytelling events, along with the Sitka Story Lab, a creative writing and storytelling program for youth. You can reach the Island Institute by emailing peter@iialaska.org, writing to PO Box 2420 / Sitka, AK 99835, or calling 907-747-3794.

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