Hometown U: Trio offer perspectives on climate change

Hometown UNovember 9, 2013 

Climate change is so overused in our contemporary conversations that its mere mention can turn off an entire audience. Into that weary space came this: a panel discussion on the topic, with views from an artist, a philosopher and a social scientist.

Their audience was students and faculty, field biologists and community members. How did it go?

The philosopher

Raymond Anthony is an associate professor of philosophy interested in climate ethics and environmental justice. He broached two concepts, environmental mourning and the ethics of hope.

Public and emotional expressions of grief at witnessing the death of existing life forms or systems is environmental mourning. Hope is the belief that a good outcome is still possible, despite the evidence so far. Together, he said, these two emotions have the potential to expand the way we think and talk about climate change and even entertain solutions.

Unfortunately for us, he said, mourning for lost species and places has been silenced in the public sphere. Pointing to philosopher Judith Butler's work, we have tacitly agreed to constraints on what is worthy of our concern. "Some lives are grievable," he said, "others are not."

The list of the less worthy is already long: women, racial and sexual minorities, indigenous people, economically and politically marginalized groups and those living with HIV and AIDS. Now, declining diversity on the planet is likewise deemed dismissible.

These exclusions matter, Anthony argued, because stripping concern cancels emotion, and emotion is where action comes from.

So where exactly does hope come in?

If we mourn our losses openly, we see that we aren't alone in our melancholy or even despair, Anthony said. From here, feelings of emotional solidarity can arise and push us to act ethically and responsibly.

As David Hume, the 17th century Scottish philosopher wrote, "There is no action without an emotional impetus."

The social scientist

Maryann Fidel is a UAA researcher working with the Bering Sea Sub Network, a community-based observation team gathering details on climate change from rural and indigenous "high harvesters" in Alaska and Russia.

The network's goal is to improve awareness so that communities, scientists and governments can do a better job of predicting, planning and responding to the changes.

Information is gathered through interviews that locals arrange and conduct with hunters. Fidel cited specific responses:

Extreme weather events: "The skin tents were damaged because of storms."

Unstable ice conditions: "I had to work hard to tow the walrus a mile to find good ice" for harvesting.

Greening of the Arctic: "We can't see the animals hiding in the brush."

More vegetation on sea cliffs: "The birds, especially murres and kittiwakes, prefer bare rock.

Changing migration patterns and timing: "We used to catch anchovies in May. Now it's the end of June."

Surviving in the Arctic has meant knowing when to expect migrating animals for food. That traditional knowledge is proving less reliable than it once was.

Fidel said rural residents have a deep connection to the land and animals they see changing. One man told her: "The seals I hunt have been endangered. The walrus I hunt might become endangered. Makes me think I might become endangered."

The artist

Marek Ranis is a Polish artist and an assistant professor of art history at the University of North Carolina. He's in Alaska as the 2013 fall artist in residence for the Anchorage Museum's Northern Initiative.

He said the philosopher's notion of environmental mourning resonated with him, though his word for it is paranostalgia. Coming as he does, first from Europe and now from the southern U.S., he said many people in both places feel very removed from climate change and still maintain a romantic notion of the Arctic.

He showed a film that combined the sound track from a stock car race team's radio chatter with video images of icebergs floating in a calm and pristine fiord in Greenland.

Here, he said, he was exploring the relationship between pop culture -- how we entertain ourselves and spend our resources, and how we view nature.

With paranostalgia, "we have this duality, romanticizing the Arctic but driving big cars and enjoying sports like stock car racing."

Ranis said he came north planning to study climate refugees. Instead, he's been lured by a prevailing attitude he's noticed both here and at conferences in Greenland: the Arctic as the last colonial area to be developed. He's started calling it a "feeding frenzy."

"Corporations and business are shaping the conversation and controlling the issue much more than any governments are," he said.

The audience

The mood at evening's end was sober and unsettled. One remark that lingered came from a field biologist who described how demoralizing it is for scientists like herself to spend an entire career documenting environmental decline.

"I came in just as you started talking about mourning," she said. "I've never heard that term. I never had a word for this before."

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

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