Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In the Empire of Ice

I am reading Gretel Ehrlich's In the Empire of Ice. Her earlier book, This Cold Heaven is one of my all-time favorites, but it is clear from this new volume that heaven is rapidly becoming purgatory, if not hell. Not to put too fine a point on it, global warming is genocide for the circumpolar peoples.

Their resistance to technology and globalization has been uneven, but in the end, even those most resistant—the Greenlanders, who have prohibited the use of snow machines except in emergencies—are losing their culture. It is due not only the disappearance of the ice; it is the chaotic weather: unpredictable winds, rain, summer storms, all of which were unknown until recent years.

Ehrlich surveyed arctic peoples from several countries under a grant from National Geographic. Everywhere the same report: polluted land, water, air, food; unreliable ice; erosion; the loss of language and culture because the activities to which the language is tied are no longer viable. "'We do not live against the tundra, against the reindeer. We move with it,'" [says a Russian reindeer herder] "Over and over he intimates how quickly the 'open soul' of the herder can be corrupted." (p. 118)

"'When the cultural authority of the shaman was eliminated by missionaries, when our sovereignty was dismissed as unreal because we did not practice land ownership, a culture of dependency resulted. When you lose the power of the hunt, you lose the power of belief, language and narrative that drove us. When we no longer live on the land properly, we lose our dignity. The wisdom of the land and the hunt builds character skills. It teaches patience, courage, sound judgment, and to be bold under pressure. These are qualities people need everywhere—these traits are transferable. The hunting culture is a modern tool kit to adapt to the world. There is no better measure of genius than to survive here, to be hospitable to what others think of as an inhospitable climate, to become one with the place, not to conquer. We Inuit embrace the cold. I don't ever remember being cold, just happy.'" (pp. 142-143)

Life has been torn from its moorings. "Culture is 'a product of biology,' biologist E.O. Wilson has written. When we lose an ecosystem we are losing our thumbprint uniqueness, our way of knowing the world and our strategies for survival." (p. 227)

"The biological and metaphysical were understood as wholes within wholes, the one never precluding the other." (p. 232)

"'The world is peaceful on its own,'" remarks one of Ehrlich's Greenlander friends, "'if only we didn't bother it. People don't need power. When I look at our dogs running, that is their happiness, and for all of us, to eat enough, that is happiness as well. . . .We used to get walrus up there. Now we get musk ox. But the meat of both animals is good. [However, only the marine mammals have the vitamins and minerals necessary to life that fruit and vegetables supply in the south]. Oh, it is so beautiful up there! Yes, I think we will survive somehow, maybe just on beauty.'" (pp. 278-279)

Ehrlich acts as surrogate on behalf of all of us when she writes, "I want to beg forgiveness from my Greenland friends for the vandalism and greed of the so-called developed nations, where only profit counts, where decisions are not made with the biological health of the planet in mind but only the material wealth of a few. Where true poverty is enforced on even the wealthy, where the social standard is to live and work in a fixed place. Where the moral implications and social injustices of the crushing demands of extreme capitalism are daily overlooked and denied. Where the 'I' is king; were the 'getting' is done at the expense of others; where the concept of 'we' is considered a form of weakness.

"It was here, in Greenland, that I had my first taste of true civilization: where the demands of capitalism are held to a minimum. Where the conscious choices of what an ice age society might keep of its traditions were added to what they deemed useful from the 21st century—harpoons and cell phones; helicopters and kayaks; and far beyond a simple striving for survival, gratitude for the natural beauty of the place and its importance in their daily lives.

"Here, people's basic needs are met first; matters of buying and selling come last, if at all. This is a society based on sharing, self-discipline, patience, modesty, resilience, flexibility, and humor, and a sophisticated understanding of the circular continuity, the transmission of ecological knowledge that keeps traditions alive." (p. 281)

Read this book. It will shock you; it will make you weep; it should make you ashamed. Tell all your friends about it. These cultures will shortly disappear along with the character lessons we in more temperate climes so badly need to learn about basic human decency, and what it means to be human in the first place.


Post a Comment

<< Home