Climate, Culture, Change: Inuit and Western Dialogues with a Warming North
There is no denying the unique vantage point of Timothy Leduc’s new book, Climate, Culture, Change: Inuit and Western Dialogues with a Warming North. Your first clue is right there in the subtitle: that’s dialogues with, not about, Canada’s northern ecology.
The thesis of this book is that the Arctic is not a region to be studied at an objective remove, or subjected to policy decisions and industrial developments designed to protect southern notions of economic development and sovereignty, but a being who demands of us a relationship that is both ethical and spiritual. That being, in the language of those who have lived there the longest, goes by the name Sila, as the shaman Najagneq told anthropologist Knud Rasmussen in 1924:
Sila [is] a strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact all life on Earth – so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas or small, innocent children.
This is, as you may have guessed by now, a deeply unorthodox book. Its many lessons are folded into a story Leduc recounts about the Western climate researcher George Wenzel and an incident that took place while on a three-day hunt with an Inuit companion from Baffin Island. The two men came across a polar bear that acted in a strange manner when it emerged from its den. Wenzel was intrigued by the fact that his Inuit companion spent three hours studying the bear’s behaviour, as if it was a piece of changing, and increasingly uncertain, polar bear activity across the North.
Because the world around us is beginning to act in non-ordinary ways, Leduc infers from this story that human beings of diverse backgrounds need to come together to talk through the ramifications of what is happening. And, before responding to Sila’s changes, our first move might actually consist of bearing witness and recalibrating our own worldviews.
Leduc sees climate change as an occasion for new thinking, and – in one of the book’s many mythic turns – the basis for an initiation back into the old-world idea of the Earth as full of agency and active powers. He implores us to take Inuit cultural authorities at their word: that Sila is not a metaphor, but an entity whose existence has been confirmed through a non-Western- epistemology as rigorous as our own. He proposes that even if we reject such ideas, our consumerist behaviour still contributes towards one half of a dialogue with the North – albeit a dysfunctional one.
Ultimately, this book has less to do with the Inuit with whom Leduc himself conversed than it has to do with how we need to change the ways in which we think. Leduc’s radical, to-the-root rethinking and reframing of the climate crisis is uncompromising and exhilarating.
This is also a difficult book, written in an academic language that in places may frustrate the intelligent beginner. Hopefully, he will address this in the future because his work aspires to an important place in the ecosystem of environmental ideas. A contract professor in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, Leduc is one of the only intellectual decendents of a whole generation of ecological philosophers – the likes of Vine Deloria Jr., George Sessions, Paul Shepard, Gary Snyder, and, in a Canadian context, John Livingston and Neil Evernden. Their critiques do away with light tinkering around the edges of the modern industrial paradigm in order to challenge its ground-floor assumptions about reality and the place of human beings in it. How come Leduc is one of the few left to hold the ground?
The take-home message of this book is this: Finding our way through the climate crisis will involve a lot more than negotiating where to plant wind turbines, or remembering to take the blue box out to the curb. We arrive at Sila’s historic challenge dragging a lot of baggage with us, much of it inherited from Enlightenment thought patterns. We’ve been conditioned on so many levels to see the Earth as a set of resources, subject to human management and manipulation. The idea of the North as a living being – Leduc’s main point – may simply not make sense within the assumptions we live by. In other words, even if there is a way out of the climate crisis, will we recognize it?
Climate, Culture, Change, Timothy Leduc, Ottawa: Univeristy of Ottawa Press, 2011, 288 pages
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