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Churchill, Manitoba - Canada // October 25, 2015
Before we talk about the Arctic, let me take you on a visual trip to South Asia — far away from sea ice and polar bears. You begin high above, taking the perspective of a soaring ibis bird.
Below you the nation of Bangladesh stretches from horizon to horizon — a nation of 150 million living on river deltas that drain the Himalayan range. To the south the Ganges and Bhramaputra Rivers stretch to the coast — rice paddies and slim brick kilns line their riverbanks. On the skyline comes Dhaka a city of at least 14.4 million living on developed wetlands. Here, roughly half are living in poverty — most are exposed flood risk. Most cities here are less than 4 meters (15 feet) above sea level, making them prone to river and coastal flood risk, especially in the south. You are losing height now and the details of apartment buildings, billboards and pooled water come into focus. The heat, smell and sounds of the world’s most densely populated city overwhelm the senses. You touch down in likely the most vulnerable region on earth to climate impacts.
Dawn breaks and you are on the roof a long boat headed upriver. A surreal Haor wetland passes by, mist and soft light giving the landscape the aura of an inland sea. A village appears off the bow, perched on an island between two river braids. The boat lands at a school -– a wing of the building sits twisted and broken over the riverbank. Kids are at school inside the remaining building, making their way to class this morning on bamboo bridges built by brothers and dads over deep flood waters. The market beyond is entirely underwater, only steel roofs peak above the waters.
Most folks here are fishers and farmers, their livelihoods are tied to water — but more precariously, land. Higher peak river flows from the two rivers and increased shipping traffic has sped up erosion of the river banks. Where a dozen homes once stood, the water runs fast and deep. Mothers are at work nearby hand building bamboo barriers to ease the loss. You step off the roof of the boat and into the school. You are met by the principal and a few young teachers — they speak to a future here. When asked what they would recommend to a community in a similar position, the school principle responds, “ Start planning to relocate right now ”.
The community is loosing its land base, very quickly. In the past decade 20 families have already been forced to relocate — severing economic and social ties to the community. They come back for Eid and other major holidays to touch base. In other villages, moms have lost their lives trying to save cattle. Full fishing boats and nets have been lost in floods. These events change livelihoods, or the connected way that people get by. Some are forced to shift livelihoods due to losses in major flood events. Others never fully recover. Higher waters and bigger storms increase physical risk for families — ultimately what is at stake is the future of the village.
The locale and story may sound strange, but this is not a dream, nor fiction — this is life on planet earth in 2015. The village is real, one of the 7 field sites from the Gibika (Livelihoods in Bengali) project, an initiative run by the United Nation University, Munich Re Foundation and the cutting edge ICCAD research group led by Dr. Saleemul Huq. Saleemul was, and remains, a major player in UN climate negotiation, ushering in a a way for vulnerable regions to address loss and damages related to climate change. Loss and damage, things that is beyond adaptation is the focus of this work — think lost species, arable land, water supply and entire nations. The visit was real too, part of my research with United Nations University on that mechanism, formally called the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.
Making the Arctic Connection
So what does the Arctic and polar bears have anything to do with a village in Bangladesh? A warming Arctic will change life here indefinitely, most palpably increased physical flood risk to humans and families much like my own. A loss of sea ice not only changes critical hunting habitat for polar bears. More water volume from melting ice raises total water levels, bringing higher waters during coastal flood events. A planet without a working air conditioner, the Arctic, warms further, sending bigger runoff from the Himalayan glaciers to these river deltas and villages. It’s estimated that 18 million people may be displaced to coastal flooding alone, some are already displaced from more powerful cyclones and coastal flooding.
According to the World Bank‘s database, the average American emits four times the metric tonnage of carbon than a Bengali yearly. There is no argument who has contributed the most historically to today’s situation. A 2C( 3.6F) rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels will be damage a lot of what we care about. Other things will be lost entirely — this goes equally for species like Nanuuq (Inuit for polar bear) and people living in exposed regions with little alternatives. This is dark stuff, but we cannot stop there.
We, as humans, have a finite amount of doom, gloom and shame to spend on climate change. To stay constructive, acceptance of the situation and positive reframing is needed –- its not just technical emissions negotiations, this is also about human rights and preservation of remaining biodiversity on planet earth. Living scenarios like the one offered in Bangladesh and leading research from PBI lead scientist Steve Amstrup’s on polar bears this year show us what is at stake. So, what can we do?
Us Acting Now
Last year was the first year since the industrial revolution where the global economy grew while emissions stagnated. This is fantastic. In places like the European Union emissions actually dropped. In a months time we will have a first stop on the road to a decarbonizing planet at COP21 in Paris (stay tuned for the next blog). Some of this was good climate policy, yes — but humans and our behavior, millions of people making low-carbon choices every day was certainly part of this. Each human has a unique capacity and an agency to act on climate, from the electrical engineer to the musical composer.
First, its good to take account of what you do well — for me that could be storytelling and regional planning. I have no doubt you can list off a handful of your talents and can find ways to connecting them to keeping polar bears alive and reducing flood risk to families in vulnerable regions. To get things started, here are 5 things we can do right now to continue to reduce emissions and support the well-being of the Arctic and Bangladesh.
- Every day routine. Bike more, carpool, share rather than buy, eat regionally (Salmon, Kale and Elk oh my), fly less, reduce hot water use for laundry and showers – lots of co-benefits here…
- Support emissions reduction in your community. Talk to your local planning department or business, they have plenty of policy tools here like the new common greenhouse gas protocol for taking stock and finding ways to reduce emissions.
- Use cooperative buying and action. Even college students have made a big impact by group shopping at selected stores, a percentage of the daily profits earmarked for store upgrades to reduce emissions or as a donation to NGOs working to keep the Arctic cold.
- Professional Focus. How can your work or project selection focus on solutions and efficiency measures? Think: carbon capture, more efficient energy transmission, building complete communities with less car travel, poverty reduction in hazardous areas, inspiring film, arts and writing.
- Divest from carbon related investments. This is where we put our money where our heart and sense is. Changing an IRA or other investments away from oil and gas to renewables and efficiency improving companies supports the transition into a livable planet. Beyond ethics, it’s also plainly becoming a better investment as solar now actively competes with non-renewable energy production.
Enter The Arctic
The sound of air safety instructions in Inuktitut rings through the cabin of Calm Air Flight 535, a thin veneer of ice on the tundra ponds below signal the beginning of freeze up. Bears below pace the shores of Hudson Bay, they will be able to hunt seals from the ice soon. Stepping onto the windswept main street of Churchill Manitoba after a two-year reprieve from North for graduate school in the rainforest, I cannot be more excited to be cold and to begin a season of filmmaking and policy prep for Paris.
Words: Christopher Carter and Dulguun Davaanyam // May 21, 2015
Prelude: In 2014 we traveled to Mongolia to research the EITI and to produce a short video documenting the state and future of the EITI initiative in Mongolia. In its production, we were exposed to a cross-section of stakeholders, from policy makers, to miners, to families—from the boardrooms of Ulaanbaatar to the heap leach piles of Boroo Gold. This is a compilation of our written memos and completed film outcomes of our project.
As a former Soviet satellite state, Mongolia has experienced a tremendous transition to free markets and democracy over the past 15 years. Most recently, has been the realization of the country’s vast mineral wealth. In the past decade, foreign investment and mineral development has led to a doubling of the share of extractive industries in Mongolia’s GDP. Yet despite this new wealth, indicators of human development have risen only nominally. We understand today that nations with an abundance of natural extractive resources can experience the so-called “resource curse,” a phenomenon which leads to even less social and economic development outcomes than in resource-limited nations. Meanwhile, excessive dependency on mining can lead to loss of alternative value-added and traditional nomadic economic activities, a phenomenon also known as the “Dutch disease.”
To help address and fend off these concerns, since 2004 Mongolia has been participating in the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI provides a platform for empowering civil society, ensuring a stable atmosphere for foreign investment and quelling the negative implications of extractive development. In the summer of 2014 we travelled to Mongolia to investigate how the EITI is being implemented there and what challenges it faces at it seeks to mediate and mitigate the country’s growing development of its minerals wealth and the potential “curses” and “diseases” such wealth threatens.
When EITI reporting was launched in Mongolia in 2006 mining companies and civil society had little knowledge of or interest in it. However, civil society was quick to recognize the value of the report, using it for instance to protect local people’s rights in the Petro China Dachin Tamsag case, suing the company and successfully securing payments for environmental reclamation. Today the mining sector in Mongolia receives high expectations from citizens interested to know how mining revenues will benefit them.
In its current state the EITI in Mongolia simply reports payments made and received between extractive companies and government bodies. The major question that remains is how the money is being spent in areas such as education, health and other core development needs of Mongolian communities. While sub-councils are emerging in mining regions, further reporting on how mining revenues are invested in social and community development will assist in making the lived effects and benefits of mineral development more transparent.
Further, the EITI report still presents a complex accounting spreadsheet of payments, reconciliation, donation and discrepancy reporting that does not easily present itself as approachable and useful to the everyday citizen. Here knowledge translation and communicative practice is critical in identifying what stakeholders in civil society desire from the report and mobilizing it into appropriate mediums.
The development of mineral resources can lead to one of two legacies, either one of corruption and failed governance or one of an empowered civil society and investment of revenues into comprehensive human development. The further successful adaptation and use of the EITI, led by civil society, may ensure the latter.
In the second part of this video, we examine how the EITI, and more specifically the EITI report, can and has had an impact reducing the negative social, cultural, and environmental impacts of mining by empowering civil society and stakeholders with the knowledge the EITI reports represents.
March 10, 2015
Words: Christopher J. Carter and Kade Leachman
From 2011 to 2012 Kade Leachman and I worked on a film project. Kade was in the 8th grade at the time and had the opportunity for an independent project . With some guidance he directed, shot and edited a documentary about his personal relationship with dyslexia. The finished 15 minute film was called “The D-Factor”. The project made it the front page of the Bozeman Chronicle and the completed film premiered to a packed house at the Museum of the Rockies auditorium.
It was a really valuable learning experience for me as a filmmaker and facilitator. I learned to listen and let the story emerge in someones own voice rather than rushing to tell it myself. This has proved invaluable introduction to positionality in research and film, working with people who may be experiencing something you will never experience.
Kade’s passion for film continues and he has gone on to produce a number of short narrative films. We touched base as he was wrapping up his high school coursework to talk story and what goes into film. The following is a transcript from some discussions we have had as he was working on researching the craft of documentary storytelling.
1. KL: How long have you been making films?
CC: 12 years
2. KL: How many films have you made/worked on?
CC: I have completed over 50 films, mostly short non-fiction/documentaries, some are much better than others but all valuable in my own education. Ten of these are in foreign languages (Arabic, Spanish, Tagalog, Inuit/Greenlandic, Mongolian and Kazakh).
3. KL: Which film was your favorite to make? Why?
CC: “Modern Native Warriors” for sure. It is a documentary film on Indigenous Americans serving in the US military, often in the same divisions that dispossessed their ancestors from their land. It was such a powerful project because it dealt with some very core identity and policy questions. I brought technical skills to the table and the story/direction came directly from the personal experience of co-director, an Ojibway woman and veteran of the first Gulf War. The process was intense and I was exposed to colonialism at home and abroad, as well as gender and race politics in an intimate way. We were nominated for ‘Best Documentary Short’ at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco for the film in 2012.
Close behind this is a short film I am in post-production now. It’s called “Our Lens” and about risk in ski alpinism, shot in the French Alps. The story looks at the paradox and value that greater than dying in the mountains is having not lived fully. It is shot from my perspective as a young skier who’s heroes continue to die around him. Lots of existential terrain and some of the most aesthetic footage I have ever shot. Often, it is the journey that the production takes you on that makes one think fondly of the film.
4. KL: In your mind what aspects of the story and production go into making a successful entertaining documentary?
CC: For me these aspects are categorized in content and process. Successful documentaries make me ask important questions and may not pander to be a crowd pleasing film. In a way I think documentary helps me as a filmmaker/human make new connections. Entertaining stories do indeed need a conflict or a sort of timeliness to pique interest and for me entertaining documentaries illuminate complexity and power of humans to seek alternatives, innovate and adapt. From a technical standpoint envisioning the hardware requirements and financial ramifications of the documentary will help ensure that the project is completed. In terms of cinematography, I am a believer in strong visual language, questioning expectations and creating recognizable pattern. I think that reducing the amount of words often strengthens the core ethos or tension of the story.
5. KL: What is a documentary that you think has great qualities and why?
CC: I really enjoy “Tokyo Ga” by Wim Wenders, namely for its reflexive and poetic qualities. It examines nostalgia in an age of “ global-nowheres” through a reflection of the classic works of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu and modern Tokyo. At the core it speaks to the impact of global culture on traditional societies, the degradation of family, transformation of national identity,and the positionality of the filmmaker in creating reflexive images.
6. KL: How do you chose the topics of the films you make?
CC: I think I am drawn to issues and problems first, especially with my films on policy and development. Given this curiosity I am magnetically drawn to documenting the stories and people surrounding these issues. I like problems and complexity. Especially around identity, place and change. Sometimes the topics choose me. I like to take on projects that will deepen my understanding of something. Often these are in relation to climate change and colonial issues, I find often that what needs to change is myself.
7. KL: In each stage of storytelling what techniques or approaches do you use?
Researching and writing the story
I am generally pretty inductive with storytelling and move quickly from research to shooting.I begin often by doing a lot of research on the topic and the mode of filmmaking I want to employ. For the content and story I use a bit of a mixed approach, including some participant observation, some statistics, reading law and policy and try to take in as many visual forms and stories referential of the topic. I do like to fill out a documentary project proposal( from Michael Rabinger’s book “Directing the Documentary“) to help distill the idea and potentially capture some funding to sustain the project. If I am working with a client I facilitate this process and try to dig down into the ethos of their work to tell a deeper story. I generally don’t write scripts.
CC: In general I like technical simplicity/compactness but as high of audio and visual resolution as possible. There are always tradeoffs but I liken it to transfer the “fast and light” approach of alpine climbing into storytelling. It affords me to think more about story and mobility. I gain a lot of my technical insight from Dan Chung’s website HDSLR NewsShooter. I have definitely had my fair share of wireless audio interference ruining interviews, corrupted CF cards and interviews that could never be replaced. None have gone terribly as far as form is concerned.
Making the interviewees feel credible to the viewer
This starts by putting in the time to get to know the interviewee. Making a meaningful attempt to understand the person, their background, what makes them tick, when and where they are comfortable? Have they had some trauma that you need to acknowledge or be sensitive to? How would they like to be portrayed?
Post production and editing to make the film flow
Not enough can be said about a relationship with a critical but constructive editor/story advisor that was not involved in shooting. I find that by post-production I am too close to the content and perhaps exhausted by then and need some clarity from an external source. The flow of my films is often driven by soundscapes, I will start the editing process by listening to a lot of audioscapes, electronic environments and field recordings. This sets the pace for cutting and I can generate a sort of histogram story intensity.
8. KL: Any funny stories about an interview that went terribly?
CC: My favorite funny story was when we were shooting “Modern Native Warriors” on the Crow Reservation. We were in the middle of a long recording session and the content was heavy and sad. We were shooting in a compact house and I really had pee, so I cut the tape and stepped quickly into the nearby bathroom. However, I couldn’t find a door, to avoid a catastrophe, I just started to go. The man’s wife started giggling and said, “hey what do you think this is a farm? Close the damn hideaway door”. Pure comic relief. I saw them at a Pow-Wow a few months later. The husband walked over with a friend, smiled and said “here, meet Chris, he’s the whiteboy who will use the bathroom in your house with the door wide open”. I still laugh pretty hard when I reflect on that. Funny the situations filmmaking will put you.
9. KL: Any other stories or advice you would like to add?
CC: I think filmmaking is a lifetime pursuit and craft. You will have different things to contribute at different times in life. Sometimes you need to step away, gain some perspective, learn new stories and just live. When you have an important story to deliver, you will make it happen. But, it is always good to keep your tech skills sharp so you can flow readily if need be. Lately I have been making “Done In A Day” films to keep the film process alive as I complete grad school in regional planning.
10. KL: Anything else?
CC: I like Victor Kossakovsky’s rules for filmmaking namely; “Don’t film if you can live without filming” and that “Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots”.
That’s it for me, good luck with the paper and great to hear from you Kade.
Words: Christopher J. Carter // December 8th 2014
It seems counter intuitive to fly to South America to sit in a military installation to negotiate climate change action, but so it goes in the world of the UN Climate Change negotiation process.
As a delegate of the Youth Arctic Coalition and Polar Bears International I am following the 198 parties into negotiations in Lima this week for the week 20th meeting of parties (COP20). Their task is to prepare a draft text for Advancing the Durban Platform (ADP), a binding agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions that may keep the planet from warming even further. As an advocate for arctic environments and self-determinism of its people amidst rapid change, my interest was to understand what makes these talks tick, why it has taken so long to reach a binding agreement and why this year matters more than years previous. As a graduate student in regional planning my aim was to understand the role of science in forming policy at the highest level.
The 5th report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change speaks to speed of Arctic change as, “mean Arctic sea-ice extent decreased over the period 1979 to 2012, with a rate that was very likely in the range 3.5 to 4.1% per decade. Arctic sea-ice extent has decreased in every season and in every successive decade since 1979, with the most rapid decrease in decadal mean extent in summer (high confidence)”. According to science, most of this sea ice change was caused by our consumption, industrializing, modernizing, flying around the world to climate talks etc .
Polar bears, reliant on a sea ice platforms to hunt in shallow waters, are not faring well either. Polar Bear International chief scientist Steven Amstrup has documented a decline in polar bear populations over time. A recent paper published in the Journal of Ecological Applications by fellow scientists notes, “we already see a decline in the body condition and total population of polar bears, especially in the South Beaufort Sea. At current trends, Arctic sea ice – will be nearly gone by 2100. By 2050, polar bears will likely be gone as well”.
Meanwhile, human settlements in the Arctic are already feeling the impact of shorter hunting seasons and a trending increase in extractive industry interest. Indigenous elders in Alaska have referred to the change as “a friend acting strangely”. Ice free summers have already yielded a three-fold increase in arctic shipping activity. Most adaptation projects in Arctic communities today focus on retaining the subsistence food livelihoods that remain and reducing the exposure to larger storm surges, higher seas and the potential contamination from a marine oil spill.
We understand what is at stake and why action at the highest political level matter, but entering the complex of circus-like tents, portable buildings and hundreds of negotiators from around the world in suits of all makes and models it is easy to lose sight.
Entering a negotiation session is like taking a dive into an alphabet soup with acronyms like INDCS, LDS, SIDS and the ADP flying through the air. Lost yet? With dialogue focused on responsibilities of the developed (generally big greenhouse gas emitters) and the developing (generally low greenhouse gas emitters) world, it is hard to see where exactly the future Arctic is represented outside of its respective national and central governments. Do the hundreds of negotiators and organizations present know the rate of change that the Arctic’s 13 million residents and delicate sea ice habitats are undergoing?
Curbing the earth’s warming to 2 degrees centigrade is at the core of where science meets mitigation policy here. This is understood to be a threshold for ecological systems and even some built infrastructure. A unified effort to reduce emissions at this level will make major strides to keep polar bears around and reduce further risk in communities of the north.The goal for this summit is to have a draft binding agreement ready for COP 21 in Paris; this will have a positive impact on sea ice habitat and human settlements in Arctic regions.
While climate negotiations at this level have been ongoing for decades, it has has yet to produce any binding agreements. However, achieving a binding agreement at this level will set the tone at the highest scale and will reaffirm that nations around the world take climate change mitigation and action seriously. As of today, high level dialogues have begun. With China and the United States, the world’s biggest GHG emitters, at the table for the first time in years, ambitious action is possible. As now full rooms of negotiators, review and discuss documents, notably the ADP, line by line, make their positions known and critique words like [shall/should ]for hours, the pace is slow but hopefully steady.
As an NGO observer with the International Institute of Sustainable Development representing the Youth Arctic Coalition and Polar Bears International I have done a lot of watching, listening and learning. I have been able to offer a few small insights in climate adaptation working groups with the congress of indigenous peoples and Small Island Developing States namely around social vulnerability and UNDRIP best practices amidst climate change in coastal regions. Namely they are working to develop robust language around consent and human rights protection and impact in Advancing the Durban Platform (Mitigation) and the Nairobi Work Plan (Adaptation). Learning from these groups and watching the negotiations I hope to walk away with an understanding of how people find shared value and make good action policy.
At smaller scales, cities, researchers, designers, families and individuals can make major contributions to keeping polar regions cool, especially in the resource consuming global north. While I opted for a lift to Lima Peru in a 757 aircraft (last minute) over a multi-month bike tour (preferred) what I am learning is how policy is negotiated, power paradigms affect representation and where voices of the under-represented and most impacted can be heard. It has been very informative. In a time of rapid change in the Arctic, active dialogue and a timely agreement at this level to curb warming and fund adaptation counts, even if it takes a flight.
Want to get involved? Sign our petition to protect polar bear habitat addressed to UN Executive Secretary Figueres here.
CLIMATE ACTION PLANNING IN HAGONOY PHILIPPINES
The Illume: Chaos and The Colonialist Within
Christopher J. Carter // October 19,2014
The following is a collection of visual and written reflections that emerged during studio work with municipal planning departments and barangays (communities) of Bulacan Province Philippines. As a form of reflexive practice I hope these entries elicit thought and discussion on the positionality of international planning work and the role of planner as an interlocutor in colonial and post-colonial spaces.
In ‘towards non-Euclidean planning’ John Friedman writes about planning professionals in a new age who, “seek specifically to connect forms of knowledge with forms of action in the public domain”, implying a collapse of the time-space continuum and departure from mere engineering. In my own perception of practice I see planners fulfilling a liminal space where technical, empathetic, inter-cultural and analytical capacities are demanded simultaneously where they must act as interlocutors of resource mobilization in action planning. Entering this planning studio focused on climate adaptation as a western, white, educated, middle-class, male Ibang Tao (outsider) I am inundated by thoughts of what it means to be a ‘planner’ in a post-colonial context. Classic International Development scenario. Can this be done better?
I have traveled and expelled 2 tonnes of carbon in transit to study climate adaptation and capacity building in the Philippines. This fact brings to my mind the blinding notion of my own consumption and privilege and brings critical inner-discourse that I hope complicates but does not inhibit my own capacity building for future professional work with communities and governments.
As William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden writes of ‘planners’ becoming ‘searchers’, I am eager to explore how planners become interlocutors, mobilizers of resources, technical analysis and equity in the development of human settlements amidst the pastiche of colonial layering and natural resource change. While planners can be articulate facilitators of how a future society may become through action planning today, I aim to explore how and why it is done in this context, who is engaged and my alignment within.
It’s mid July and things stop making sense. The neo-colonial instrument of planning, an imposition of progress makes its incisions, burdened by the gills, lungs, roots and benthos of ecosystem services supporting aquaculture and the nearly 130,000 people of Hagonoy. The formal exposure to more than 40 stakeholders in 9 Barangays this past month has been inspiring, troubling and grounding. The seemingly eternal raising of roads, limited retention of storm waters from aquaculture and the historical absence of planning provide discord. But people deal, claiming they have already adapted.
On the coast implementation and reinforcement of well-intended legislation such as the Fisheries Code and Clean Water Act of protected areas were immediately called into question when accounts of mangrove destruction, dynamite fishbombing and leaching of unlined dumpsites into waterways at the hands of a three separate Barangay Governments surfaced. This is where “things” and “rational planning” fall apart for me.
As a foreigner in this context our alignment with outside solutions has surfaced, most graphically with the Barangay secretary of the exposed coastal community of Tibuguin. Over lunch he appealed if we are prepared to help his community. I am unsure if this expectation is rooted in years of embedded colonial discourse of aid or a frustration with the pace and level of support from the government.
Given IPCC projections of sea level rise these communities will not exist in 10 years without major infrastructure fortification. My response was a withered “ we will contribute nearly 300 hours of research this month to adaptation efforts with the local and provincial government planners. We aim to compile our findings and present clear policy direction for action planning”. It felt like a terribly weak response, reflecting the field of planning’s often round about and delayed effectiveness, superficial alienation from present needs.
Driving past the American Embassy in Manila en route to the theatre at the cultural center of the Philippines I was struck by the oppressive language and brutality of its built form and intended services. As a citizen of the nation that has contributed to the burden of neocolonial impact, environmental state and planning system of the Philippines I could not help but feel a sort of transnational alienation. Once inside I saw an exhibition, one image struck me innately.
In this image an astronaut (American flag on the left arm) leads a draft animal through a field at mid harvest. A farmer contributes a load to the animal, a second farmer looks on passively. The lush highlands stand solidly beyond. The frame seems just after an exchange of gaze of the ultra “progressed” and the “traditional” existing at once from converged planes.
The piece spoke to my condition of trying to make sense of what I was seeing, a linear rational planning system overlying a non-linear psychology. Infatuations for celebrating the heroes of modernity (plastics, urbanity, free markets) while the subsistence and organic forms of society and production remain largely ignored. These ideas of PROGRESS indeed bring burdens. What have we forgotten in our development? How can we integrate what sustains and guides us? I walked beyond, into a partially lit theatre, I was handed an unlit candle.
Objectives in the local political environment tend to be hard infrastructure tangibles, road dikes, short-term emergency provisions, pacts to build infrastructure upwards forever, or just long enough to perhaps persuade the next election. To address the “burdens” of the present state, I see a reification of local needs and preferences made clear to decision-making and finance and granting perspective of long term thinking to shift planning from coping to survival, guided by local values such as bayanihan (togetherness) and dominant discourse that “everyone is effected in the same ways” when much priority is focused on short term survival. Using a rational planning system in this situation can seem trivial and inappropriate but it is the working frame.
Our alignment with LGU planning departments indeed addresses the “burden” of neocolonial development in providing research capacity and strengthening local action amidst climate change but is it the wrong approach? Talking with Dennis over dinner he mentioned the differences between Mag Handa (to collectively prepare and feast-tagalog origin) and Mag Plano (to plan- spanish origin).
If adaptation is culturally bound and intergenerational, strong and sustained vision is necessary to collectively illuminate resilient strategy amidst disaster cycles and short-term schemes. Today will it be local governments that Mag Handa towards climate resilience? If colonialism has “officially” ended, how do planners hailing from Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic backgrounds like myself tactfully navigate persisting differentials and psychologies of imperialism? The candle remains unlit in my shirt, its combustion capable of bringing light, illuminating a tare of meaning amidst my own inner colonial chaos. ▒
In small-scale societies, close friendships and a resource-savvy relationship to the environment can mean everything. People must take on multiple roles to make things work and a humble understanding of surroundings and their limitations can prove indispensable. This week at Cape Churchill was no exception for me.
Setting up at nightfall in the oscillating snow of a ground storm took our team of 12 more than six hours to assemble camp. Then, everyday-life at close quarters in a remote setting with fellow large carnivores set in. These times offered me reminders, often taxing, of my own desire for open space, that my actions are directly interrelated to the well-being of others and that being mainly self-supported, I (we) have the ability to observe how much a society of this scale, in this part of the world, can consume.
Being in such a society brings its own benefits, tight friendships, appreciated talents, new responsibilities, and a pragmatic understanding of the conditions at hand. But this small-scale model of society is just that. The larger scale society we spend a majority of time in includes a much different scale of interplay between people, processes, and resources that requires active agents and policy that must reflect a changing world, not to mention the downright cute (make that-biologically remarkable) bears right outside the window.
Far away from the frozen landscape of Cape Churchill, Manitoba on another peninsula in the Persian Gulf, UN policy talks on global warming are beginning in Doha, Qatar. Will it bring about more stalemate as nations quarrel over details such as an even playing field for cutting carbon emissions, wasting precious time in the meanwhile?
Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN environment programme, warns, “While governments work to negotiate a new international climate agreement, they urgently need to put their foot firmly on the action pedal, to take substantive systemic action.”
As political economy can be used to explore how regimes of values emerge at the political level and can inflict change on a systems level, here in our microsociety, I wonder what makes scientists want to participate in our own bottom-up method of social change.
This past week I have had the pleasure to spend time with some of the people who help to inform it. PBI and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources scientist Dr. Martyn Obbard notes, “people who develop policy clearly set the trends for where society is going, so it’s really important that they be provided with the best available scientific information that researchers like me working with polar bears can provide them with.”
While Martyn’s work informs policy at the regional level, it’s the inspiring of action through media, educational outreach and solutions that continually motivates his work with PBI. When PBI was founded 20 years ago, by photographer Dan Guravich and a passionate group of polar bear enthusiasts, making images and information available about polar bears to inspire socio-environmental change was at the heart of the matter. Today it’s safe to say that not much has changed—and today PBI retains a rare independent media stream that grants real people unparalleled access to real science, from technical papers to film and lesson plans.
On the large scale, addressing climate change can seem abstract, distant or hard to care about—but like the fine coffee shared with the Tundra Buggy® mechanics, it’s a blend. It will take a combination of abilities to illustrate and engineer a solution. As someone involved in image making, I think about the responsibility of the image and how images impact people.
As Noam Chomsky noted in his writings on Language and Freedom, “Social action must be animated by a vision of a future society, and by explicit judgments of value concerning the character of this future society.”
While I’m uncertain how the images we make in the field will consciously or unconsciously affect critical consciousness in the viewer about climate change, I hope the images and stories we make in the field inspire others to re-envision their own character, impact, and ultimately rethink what they would like a future society and environment to look like, especially those who call the developed world home.
Out the window and under the wing of the twin-prop driven puddle jumper, frozen taiga and oxbowed rivers stretched to meet the horizon, filling the frame with a swirled mosaic of a thousand tones of white, grey and green. Heading to the Canadian subarctic making films for PBI for the first time I was unsure of what I was getting myself into. I knew there would be bears, I knew it would be cold, but beyond that I was a newbie with a camera in a pair of oversized surplus boots.
Stepping onto the two story tall research buggy I am met by a sort of arctic all-star team as the last rays of a rare sunny day fade to orange. Dead ahead is Ian Stirling, a scientist who has dedicated nearly 40 years of research in the polar regions to better understand behavioral ecology and population dynamics, most notably on polar bears of the north. To my right is Søren Koch, ambassador of the World Wildlife Fund Denmark and premier wildlife photographer, to my left is Dan Cox, director of the Arctic Documentary Project, lensman of two National Geographic covers and PBI’s principal photographer; BJ Kirschhoffer, cold weather tech wizard and purveyor or fine fur mittens settles in behind the wheel.
Pushing off the launch deck, the buggy jolted and bounced across the frozen tundra. As we entered a field of radio banter and frozen cratered lakes, you’d be pardoned if you thought your mars rover had gone astray, landing instead on a cold desolate outer planet. Merely two hours onto the frozen landscape you get the feeling like you are getting out there. Precautions are taken to limit human time on the ground, a few minutes too long shooting without gloves could mean serous tissue damage. It’s a raw place where things could get fatal fast. However in these places, elemental hazards bring their own rewards. Here, unparalleled access to polar bear populations and the raking winter light of the north provide two ingredients that make for spectacular image making. However, working with scientists like Ian and these world class photographers, making images becomes more than mere aesthetics.
As Ian noted in a paper for wildlife professionals and researchers,” the similarities between traditional nature photography and conservation photography are many, the most outstanding difference lies in the fact that the latter is born out of purpose”. Scientists like Ian have dedicated a life’s work to understanding and conserving the animals at the earths poles, taking head on the philosophical management challenges of today and the environment of tomorrow. He notes, ” the need for the kinds of images that touch people’s hearts and change people’s minds is growing…we need to advocate for shooting the whole scene and not just the select pieces that we, the architects of the image, choose to show the public.” As a documentary filmmaker and social scientist this critical evaluation fascinates me, the necessity to make documentary images that capture and communicate the complex interplay of humans and the environment around them- to elicit social change.
With an early start this morning we followed bears into the first light, streaming video to classrooms and homes in the lower latitudes via remote controlled cameras and a patched IT network. To think that this is what conservation communications has become- live visuals from the far north, accessed from any computer or data phone in the world- is truly remarkable, however it’s arguably a necessity. Ian notes, “In the long term, the loss of an iconic species such as the polar bear is but a symbol of much larger and hugely significant changes that will occur in many ecosystems throughout the world if the climate continues to warm; especially if, as projected by the IPCC, such warming is largely a consequence of excess anthropogenic productivity of greenhouse gases. The tasking of societal change to media, storytelling and the power of the image by environmental scientists armed with a half century of data is a powerful if not overwhelming notion. But, it’s worth having a crack at and that’s something I can raise a glass of scotch to.
It’s dark now and the temperature is falling far below zero fahrenheit, winds are picking up as a blizzard moves in for the night. Beyond the rock spit north of camp, pack ice is forming, bears pace below the decks, waiting impatiently and ravenously for ice to fully form to begin hunting. Old hands say this is the most pack ice and coldest temps they have seen this early in years, let’s hope it keeps up.
Ninety years ago filmmaker Robert Flaherty released Nanook of the North, a silent film completed with an Inuit family on Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec. Chronicling “life and love” as lived “in the actual arctic”, it was immediately hailed for its documentation of an “exotic” people at the brink of tremendous development and social change. It was also considered the world’s first documentary film.
As I head north this week to make films in the Hudson Bay on climate change and polar bear research with Polar Bears International, it is wild to think how much the medium of documentary and non-fiction filmmaking has changed since its Arctic inception nearly a century ago. From written inter-titles and the live scores of the past, to IMAX and participatory films for policy made by the Inuit of today, things have changed and so has the environment.
Today, the people and ecology of the Arctic face a dire and uncertain future. When pack ice does not form, polar bears and the people of the north have difficulty securing food sources. When tundra thaws additional methane is released into the atmosphere increasing positive feedback loops. PCB and Mercury has been transported by ocean currents invisibly from industry and populations of the lower latitudes northward, into the fatty tissue of marine and land mammals, causing reproductive, neurological, and immune system dysfunctions in Arctic populations. This interconnectedness of the North to activity of other world regions is undeniable, what is to come has been projected, what is happening is undeniable.
The simple act of flying to the arctic to make movies, emitting 1,342 lbs of CO2 enroute, seems ludicrous to the critical eye. However in a continent where 2/3 of the countries did not sign the Kyoto protocol, the US and Canada remain two of the top ten consumers of energy per capita in the world. There is no doubt that individual or systemic change in our own nations, in other words, “worrying” about changing climate and acting on it, can have real impacts.
Aside from an idealist philosophy on climate change and conservation, we are all headed into uncertain, thawing and flooded ground(insert Bloomberg cover here) and it will take all sorts to innovate a livable future. As skiers, filmmakers or anyone else who likes to travel, our sustained curiosity will take us into other world regions, emitting carbon along the way, returning home with our eyes a little bit wider than when we’d left. However, these experiences allow us to see our regions with new eyes and as the philosophy of Howard Zinn notes vis a vis You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, complacency or non-participation isn’t an option and the pursuit of truth(s) requires active agents.
Stay tuned for videos and stills from the field.
Let the field notes begin! Heading into a year of ski and film projects, this blog will be a platform for dispatches, trip reports and other filmmakery from the field to share the experience behind the lens and on skis. My hope is give a little perspective of what goes into the process, from the aesthetic to the downright bizarre.
Stay tuned and enjoy,
-Christopher J. Carter