Thursday, December 3, 2009

A “home” by any other name…

In Shishmaref, Alaska, they have a tradition where perhaps several newborn children will be named for someone who has recently died; each child then assumes some of the characteristics of the person who died. If the deceased was a good hunter, then the child will be raised to embrace this legacy. This cultural tradition imparts a sense of connection to the past, and continuity to the future.

I came across this cultural meme, illustrative of the lives of the Eskimo people who live in this part of Alaska where they cling to a meager subsistence along the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, in an article on CNN online.

The article ( is notable for several reasons: first it attempts to recount these cultural traditions and conditions that threaten a small community of 600 people; and second, for the tenor and character of the online response the article generated. The latter surprised me in its callousness to our shared condition, regardless of one’s belief of the etiology of global warming.

A brief synopsis: the article provides a compelling account of the impact climate change is having upon an older adult couple in this Inupiat Eskimo village: the changes in their lives and community, the death of their youngest son as the result of an accident attributed to changes in environmental conditions, and a remarkable depiction of the cultural destruction that parallels the environmental change.

Houses in this village exist on the thinnest of rocky crusts, on a shore that is separated from the mainland by a mostly frozen inlet. Warming trends have resulted in the erosion of the permafrost causing houses to fall into the sea, and many villagers to relocate to the opposite side of this island. The community is considering uprooting the village to an entirely new site, currently undetermined.

The article explores the difficulties this poses for these villagers and the incipient cultural loss (they have their own traditions, rituals, dances, dialect), and connects it to a larger, phenomenon—a wave of global climate refugees. From the article… “A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that 31 Alaskan villages face ‘imminent threats’ because of coastal erosion, flooding and climate change. At least 12 are at some stage in the relocation process.” How much of this is directly attributable to human caused climate change and global warming is unclear…and to many of the article’s respondents, unimportant.

Surprisingly, response after response online eschewed human causality or even the possibility of it, instead focusing on the recent controversy: Climate-gate. Apparently, a few scientists have been reported as colluding to prevent the sharing of some information that might contradict evidence for global warming (unfortunate). Critics have cited this as evidence not only of the refutability of climate change data, but also as further evidence of global climate change as a conspiracy to promote global governance, and threaten national sovereignty (huh?).

It’s striking that many people seem ready to believe in some pan-global collusion more readily than to consider that environmental change may be occurring, and to support the need for sustained, dispassionate and non-partisan debate on the causes and implications. This imperative seemed lost on the article’s respondents.

And the Inupiat lesson on cultural continuity in the first paragraph seems lost on these as well, as was the human condition that binds us all, whether we call Shishmaref, Alaska, or Syracuse, NY…home.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

1 comment:

  1. I'm beginning to expect trenchant, literate entries from this author. Now if only it were more widely read.....