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Winner of the 2018 SAANZ Student Blog Competition
A year or two ago I took a bus to Taupo. I took notice of the strange rock formations that punctuated the landscape as I was travelling through the Mamaku Plateau. I was enthralled with their peculiar shapes, which compelled me to think about how the land might have looked while it seethed with volcanic activity. My thoughts then drifted to how the region must have looked lush with indigenous flora and fauna before they were ultimately decimated to give way to pastoralism. Thinking about the idea startled me because for such a long time I thought that the rolling green pastures of Aotearoa were natural. I had given little thought to how the process of colonisation affected the land. Clearly, our impact on the ecosystem has been normalised for such a long time that it was difficult to perceive how it could have been any different.
In a way, climate change operates in a related manner: it is a gradual, environmentally catastrophic process that is difficult to really discern. If climate systems are by nature variable, how can we subjectively know what is ‘normal’? In many ways, climate change can be compared to the most recent tsunami that battered Japan: the disaster was so vast and incongruous that it was difficult for residents to grasp what was actually occurring (Solnit 2013). What is different about climate change is that it is far more subtle; it is a prolonged process that occasionally manifests as periodic trauma, like a sustained drought that causes social unrest and war, or an extended heatwave that results in the death of thousands. While climate change is profoundly destructive and immense — similar to the tsunami — it is also imperceptible; it is simply too abstract a threat.
Nevertheless, despite the urgency to mitigate the effects of climate change, what little action that is being done falls substantially short. As Naomi Klein (2017) declared: we have simply ran out of time to conservatively mitigate the effects of climate change. Changing lightbulbs or switching to a hybrid car is grossly insufficient for the task at hand. It is, as Foster, York and Clark (2010) demonstrate, inadequate because capitalism is predicated on the exploitation of both people and the planet. For capitalism to function, it requires continual inputs, which is derived from both social and natural forms of the commons.
Yet, replacing capitalism for another mode of production risks replicating the same environmentally destructive tendencies. Archaeological studies have demonstrated how humans have long distorted and dominated natural processes in order to suit their own goals, which engenders ecological havoc in the process (Diamond 2005). Capitalism amplifies this human tendency, which means that the problem is not merely the mode of production, but ontology: humans to a large degree see nature, as well as each other, as expendable. Thus, to avert the looming ecological crisis, we must alter how we interact and perceive other people as well as the environment. Alternative and indigenous ontological perspectives thus offer us a potential means out of this seemingly intractable dilemma.
But where do we look? The Canadian Arctic in particular stands out as an exceptional site to study the relationship between geopolitics, economics, the environment and how indigenous communities navigate contemporary realities while healing from a history of colonialism and assimilationist policies.
The Arctic is important because it offers us a glimpse of the future for the planet should we fail to sufficiently address the ecological crisis. The region is ‘expected to experience some of the earliest and most profound climate-induced changes, largely because of their large cryospheric2 components that also dominate their hydrological processes and water resources’ (Bates et al. 2008, 106). Thus, the form water takes is a crucial component of how the Arctic ecosystem functions. However, due to ecological disruptions associated with centuries of capitalist development, the region’s stability is already unravelling (Medalye and Foster 2012). The Arctic is undergoing profound changes that are impacting Inuit communities and the ecosystem, which furthermore have consequences for the rest of the planet. In this sense the Arctic and the lives of Inuit function as a barometer for the overall health of the planet: if they are struggling to cope with the changes to their environment, it is only a matter of time for the rest of us.
Even so, while the prognosis of climate change is not favourable to long-term human habitation on this planet, climate change in the Arctic is producing new opportunities for capitalist expansion. The form water takes in the region is crucial in determining whether or not economic activities, such as resource extraction or prolonged maritime transportation, is viable (Medalye and Foster 2012). Ice has historically represented as a barrier to accumulating wealth, and as it melts new extraction projects are proposed as more ships venture into the region. In other words, climate change, an environmental consequence of capitalist accumulation, is causing substantial geophysical transformations in the Arctic, which in turn is opening new spaces for exploitation.
Yet, the very communities that are subjected to profound political, economic and environmental pressures present humanity with an alternative worldview that may aid us in the task of overcoming climate change. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), or Inuit traditional knowledge, incorporates values and principles of respect, tolerance and cooperation together as a holistic practice and philosophy (Wenzel 2004). Rather than assert that humanity as above or somehow superior to nature, IQ positions humans within nature and stresses the importance of our interconnections and interdependence. An important component of this worldview for qallunaat, or non-Inuit, is that it recognises that the environment is intrinsically connected to all aspects of human life, including the economy. Thus, because we cannot separate nature from humanity, any activity we may engage in must take into account whether or not it actually is sustainable and serves society.
Clearly, the capitalist mode of production is problematic and is having dire consequences for both large swathes of the population around the world, as well as the environment. However, those seeking meaningful change must go beyond the subject of the economy and address how we relate to both other people and nature. It is clearly not enough to consume our way out of the global ecological crisis. Furthermore, while it may prove to be significant, it is insufficient to merely adopt a more sustainable economic paradigm. Ontology is crucial, and if we fail to reconsider how we relate to other people and species on this planet, we risk losing incalculable biodiversity and our capacity to sustain ourselves.
Chris Owens is a student at the University of Auckland and recently submitted his MA thesis.
Bates, Bryson., Zbigniew W. Kundzewicz, Shaohong Wu, and Jean Palutikof, eds. 2008. Climate Change and Water. Technical Paper of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Diamond, Jared M. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail Or Succeed. New York: N.Y.: Viking Press.
Foster, John Bellamy, Richard York, and Brett Clark. 2010. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York, N.Y.: Monthly Review Press.
Klein, Naomi. 2017. No is not enough: resisting trump’s shock politics and winning the world we need. Chicago, I.L.: Hawmarket Books.
Medalye, Jacqueline, and Ryan Foster. 2012. “Climate Change and the Capitalist State in the Canadian Arctic: Interrogating Canada’s ‘Northern Strategy’.” Studies in Political Economy 90(1):87-114. doi: 10.1080/19187033.2012.11674992
Solnit, Rebecca. 2013. “Why is it so hard to grasp climate change?” Salon. October 7, 2013. https://www.salon.com/2013/10/07/why_is_it_so_hard_to_grasp_climate_change_partner/
Wenzel, George W. 2004. “From TEK to IQ: Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and Inuit Cultural Ecology.” Arctic Anthropology 41(2): 238-250. doi: 10.1353/arc.2011.0067