Gretel Ehrlich on the Arctic

Author Gretel Ehrlich spoke at the GYC meeting about her travels in Greenland with the Inuit. This is a delayed update on that speech for anyone who is following the GYC posts.

A slide show of gorgeous ice, dawn skies reflected in open waters sweeping back to buttresses of frozen blue, an Inuit man in polar bear pants flicking a whip towards his pack of sled dogs. These are the images which Gretel Ehrlich places before us –  though, as she explains, all of these pictures contain stories deeper than one first suspects. The ice, so awe-inspiring, is melting; the reflection of the sky in the open water is likewise a reflection of a catastrophe for the Inuit way of life, for it is impossible to travel to hunting grounds by dogsled over open water; and the whip, Ehrlich stresses, is only ever used as a gentle reminder to the dogs, who are the Inuit’s partners in survival and who are never actually beaten.

Ehrlich’s speech is a powerful reminder of what we are losing as climate change progresses, and she makes powerful, eloquent statements. On her more-than-a-decade association with the Greenland Inuit and her observations of their existence on the ice, she says, “The extinction of tradition goes hand in hand with the extinction of animals” and “Gone is a way of knowing the world.” Our willingness to stand by and let this happen, she says, is “the moral equivalent of suicide.”

I agree, and her speech, like her writing, is moving and skillful. Yet I was left with an increasingly familiar sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the talk. Several years ago I was in the audience at the Yale School of Forestry while William Cronon, the renowned environmental historian, spoke of the environmental community’s “addiction to apocalyptic narratives,” and the damage that this addiction does to our credibility and appeal. He argued that the constant stories of overwhelming crisis that worked so well in the early days of the environmental movement have now become simply overwhelming rather than inspiring. He also argued – a more subtle argument, but one with which I agree – that narratives of apocalypse inherently come with narratives of ‘final solutions’ (his words, and he acknowledged that he was using them, “in full knowledge of the associated obscenity.”) These solution narratives suggest that we still believe in the static, linear nature of systems – that once we fix this one big thing, everything will be fine. This obviously disappoints expectations (the task of protecting the environment will never be finished, a thought that sometimes makes me want to jump off a cliff, but oh well….) and the underlying assumption reflects a massive flaw in our cultural capacity to deal with complexity.

Clearly, none of this is Gretel Ehrlich’s fault, and of course the suffering of indigenous groups, the loss of knowledge, livelihood, and relationship with the environment, must be acknowledged and mourned. But writers have to figure out a way to push the narrative beyond the grief and the loss. The human capacity to go out onto the Arctic ice and figure out how to make a living there in the first place reflects a tremendous adaptability and creativity, and it is to that sense that writers and storytellers must now appeal. And by ‘storytellers’ I mean not just writers, but the environmental advocacy community that was present at the meeting and that, through their framing of issues to their constituency, plays a powerful role in steering the course of perceptions and, by extension, the political events and social currents that surround environmental issues.

At the very end of the question session, Ehrlich acknowledged that we must begin to make changes “with creativity…” This doesn’t mean that we ignore the tragedies, but it does mean that we move towards looking honestly at the future and the choices that are involved. And it means that we move this narrative to the center of our storytelling efforts. Only by acknowledging that we do have these choices – that we can stand by and let wildlife and ways of life go extinct and that to do so is a choice for which we have responsibility – do we fully understand that our willingness to do so is, indeed, the moral equivalent of suicide.