Online Only: Click here for Franklyn Griffiths’ itinerary and full disclosure of kilometres traveled. Also, hear Franklyn Griffiths’ November 22, 2007 lecture from the “Breakfast on the Hill” broadcast on CPAC.T
he cake for the most horrific climate change horror story surely goes to James Lovelock. In The Revenge of Gaia
(2006), he hints at a world that’s become so unbearably hot that almost all of our billions have died off. How this happens is not made fully clear. But it’s easily imagined as the end result of a runaway global warming that leaves the benign climate of the last ten or twelve millennia in the dust. The few of us who have survived, no doubt well-armed and capable, must relocate to relatively habitable areas on the face of a superheated planet. Equipped with a book of knowledge written in indelible ink on everlasting paper, we head for the Arctic. Reduced there to a mere handful, perhaps even to a few breeding pairs, the last remnants of humanity are left to persist in the High Arctic for 100,000 years or more, until the Earth becomes benign again. Lovelock implores us to see that none of this happens. He ends his plea with a vision.
A band of survivors is gathering in the desert for the trek to come. Their camel rises and belches, and they set out on an unspeakable journey to a new polar centre of civilization. If they make it, there will be camels in the Arctic. If not, it’s the end of civilization, and very possibly of the human species.
Note that today’s Arctic indigenous peoples are nowhere to be seen in this vision. The continuation of civilization would owe nothing to acknowledged masters of survival under conditions of extremity. Instead, it would come in remnants from the south and on camels. All this is metaphor, of course. Only blockheads take such things literally. Still, there’s something symptomatic going on.
In Lovelock’s and other recent studies of collapse, catastrophe, and the like, civilization figures as a value to be protected and preserved. In my view, civilization is a one-word mission statement for the human contribution to climate change. When we seek out the deeper sources of climate change, civilization — a conception invented only in 1757, just as we were putting ourselves on to fossil fuels in a big way — emerges as the basis of the planet’s present predicament. To think of packing civilization onto the backs of camels for preservation in the Arctic is to have learned nothing. It is to dwell on hard science when it is humanity, its practices, and how to alter them that should have first claim on our attention. It is to construct a scary endgame when what really counts is an understanding of what holds us back from justifiable fear in the present.
In what follows, I consider the human experience of a changing planetary climate through the eyes of those who thus far are most directly exposed to it, Canada’s Inuit. In the preface to a marvellous book, Unikkaaqatigiit Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada
(2006), Jose Kusugak, past president of the national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, refers to the fearful possibility of “having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit.” He does not speak of an overwhelming catastrophe that might come from the loss of a livable climate. Nor does he envisage a future in which smarter behaviour somehow allows us to remain basically as we are. Instead, he alludes to change that’s sufficiently severe to compel his people to surrender a treasured way of life in order to survive.
The scenario here is not a horror story written to secure prompt reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or an account of getting by with green technology and switching off the lights. Given the very real uncertainties that attend the magnitude and the rapidity of what is now happening to human existence, it’s a cautionary tale that should govern us in imagining the near future of our species. The new prevailing narrative ought to be one in which we are able to say, “Even if proven wrong, we did the right thing.” It is one in which we treat nature with renewed respect and, in so doing, see whether we might reinvent what it means to be civilized.
the climate dew line
With something like this in mind, I travelled from one end of Canada’s Arctic to the other — from northern Labrador to the mouth of the Mackenzie River — between late April and early June. Seeking out and gathering impressions in encounters with Inuit from Nain to Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit to Igloolik and Arctic Bay, and on out to Yellowknife, Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, and Paulatuk, I flew some 24,000 kilometres in twenty-five flights. How many tonnes of CO2
were laid down I will not estimate. Hopelessly compromised am I, but so are a great many of us unless we happen to be ignorant of the issues, in denial, or actually in favour of climate change.
Canada’s 46,000 or slightly more Inuit are to be found for the most part in four far-flung areas marked by varying degrees of self-government. Inuit also live in the provinces to the south. Starting in the eastern Arctic, the first of the Inuit regions is Nunatsiavut, in northern Labrador. With a little more than 4,500 Inuit and some 2,000 settlers, it is the smallest and, owing to generations of coexistence with Europeans, perhaps the most racially integrated of Inuit lands. Heading west, the distance is short to Nunavik, in northern Quebec, which has a population of about 8,000 Inuit. In the centre of Arctic Canada we have Nunavut. The largest territory, with an Inuit population of roughly 23,000, the area is so big that Europe from the Channel to the Bosporus could be put into it with room to spare. In the far west, we encounter the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, in the Beaufort Delta area, with a population of some 3,500.
The climate varies in each of these regions — so much so that it’s impossible to conceive of climate change in the Arctic as a uniform process. When the phenomenon is reduced to warming, the surface effects on land and animals are furthest advanced in the Inuvialuit region. Of all Inuit it was the Inuvialuit who first took climate change seriously, this with a path-breaking video co-produced with the International Institute for Sustainable Development and presented to Kyoto delegations at The Hague in 2000. Today, the Inuvialuit are planning for the relocation of coastal communities threatened by intense storm activity and rising sea levels. Meanwhile, the sale of bikinis has, so to speak, taken off in the Inuvialuit region. Inuit in bikinis.