Our goal with The Polar Sea was simply to look at global warming throughout the Arctic, where it is most obvious and spectacular; but that’s more easily said than done. Greater than the complications of filming in the Arctic was the challenge of sorting all the relevant issues. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere you know the Arctic is reshaping your weather and if you consume media you know polar bears are losing the sea ice that they live on. But behind the plain-to-see scientific facts are many astonishing stories about the impact of climate change on the biology, culture, economy, politics, and society of the northwestern Arctic.
Anyone who tries to understand climate change quickly realizes that its interpretation is influenced by context. Not surprisingly, many people in the coldest region on Earth welcome warming. But the reasons they do so are surprising and their attitudes and responses towards climate change will, in turn, affect all of us. (For example, if northerners are strongly supportive of oil drilling in the Arctic, southern populations may not be able to prevent it, despite environmental campaigns to “save the Arctic”). So to grapple with these additional story layers, we had to look at the history of the region. For the Inuit, recent history has been a series of profound, destabilizing shocks—and if you don’t know that you cannot grasp what climate change now means in the Arctic.
Our colleague Wolfgang Bergmann of ZDF/Arte – who initiated this project — suggested that we use the narrative line of travelling the Northwest Passage to organize our story. It turned out to be the perfect unifying element because it wraps all the other stories in an unprecedented reality. It was simply not possible to sail the passage ten years ago as it is today. In the transformation of the passage — from an inaccessible grail to a new chic tourist destination – we see reflected a larger truth: the Arctic we travelled to make The Polar Sea is totally new; it has never existed before, at least not since the dawn of humanity.
“The Arctic we travelled to make The Polar Sea is totally new; it has never existed before”
During the course of our 10,000 kilometre adventure, we met a wonderful range of characters travelling, or living throughout the passage. The five directors who worked on the series and the crews who filmed it have extensive Arctic experience, but we were very aware of how our viewpoint as visitors differs from that of people who live there. Arctic dwellers see a land that provides, feeds and warms them, while outsiders see an implacable wilderness to be fought. So our goal, on this journey, was to learn as much as we could and try to present a fair approximation of the differing viewpoints.
What we learned from following sailors attempting the Northwest Passage is that the Arctic is still the most demanding landscape on Earth and the ocean much more so. Most people who try to sail the passage fail. Even cruise boat tourists get stranded and Arctic rescuers die when they meet trouble in this huge and remote land.
“Travelling the Northwest Passage turned out to be the perfect unifying element because it wraps all the other stories in a reality that is unprecedented”
From scientists we learned that we really are in a world that has never existed before. The “pristine” Arctic air, diligently measured for decades has increasing amounts of atmospheric carbons. The result is a warming affect, whose consequences are visible in many other ecosystems: from the tons of ice pouring off Greenland glaciers, to the changing dates that guillemots lay eggs, and the thousands of caribou dying in starving herds. But it is not only these changes nor the cascade of consequences that will flow from them; what truly makes this a new world is that in the Arctic we can see that the cause of all this mayhem – greenhouses gases into the atmosphere – is now being facilitated by feedback loops the ultimate result of which we cannot see. Just when humans are finally accepting that we are the cause of global warming, we now confront a larger, scarier truth: we have unleashed global forces far beyond our control and we will struggle for generations to cope with them.
Of course, what we learned from people who live in the Arctic is most striking of all. It is, in the end, their perspective which makes the story of climate change so striking. They are living in a place where its impacts are so profound and obvious that it is like being inside a time-lapse photograph. Moreover, it is one of the very few places inhabited by people who are acutely attuned to noticing what is going on in the natural environment. The biotic webs in New York City are also undergoing dramatic change, but very few people notice. Personally, many years of travelling with aboriginal hunters has taught me to trust their instincts and perspective. Inuit have spent thousands of years closely observing and living intertwined with their environment and have very little experience with the distancing mechanisms of technological civilization. When the hunters tell me that the world’s life systems are breaking down I take them very seriously – and I realize that a profound reaction is required.
“What we are witnessing is not just the dawn of the Storm Age, but the early signs of an era of massive extinction”
What we learned from Inuit hunters is that the ruptures in Arctic food chains are much more complex than previously thought and have consequences that ripple in many directions. The hunting lifestyle – as shown in many of the stories in The Polar Sea – has been so undermined in the last half-century and the resulting problems are so profound, that many now welcome the potential financial benefits they believe global warming will bring. Whether or not those benefits turn out to be real – and there is much evidence to think not – arguments around them will shape how northerners respond to their changing world.
We all know how fragile technological civilization is – how easily the lights go out, the oil runs dry, the machine breaks down. During the Cold War, those who imagined the worst spoke of humanity being “bombed back to the Stone Age.” What our friends in subsistence communities are telling us is that we will not, in fact, be so lucky. The earthen fruits that made it possible for people of the Stone Age to often live a comfortable life are disappearing. What we are witnessing is not just the dawn of the Stone Age, but the early signs of an era of massive extinction. And – all polite politics aside – anyone who does not understand that is simply ignorant or stupid. We cannot allow the ignorant or stupid to set the course we must now sail. Because the other truth one learns from hunters is the necessity to face reality unflinchingly and adapt to it.
“As our hero Richard Tegnér learns in the end, we have no choice but to adapt to our changing climate”
Inuit have no problem with the concept of struggling with larger forces. They did it in relation to their natural environment and then again to survive the onslaught of technological civilization. As our hero Richard Tegnér learns in the end, we have no choice but to adapt to our changing climate. This entails trying every possible method to reduce greenhouses gases as well as the adult wisdom to understand that, no matter how hard we try to change, we must still learn to cope with countless storms, tragedies and dislocations.
In other words, our era, and that of our children and grandchildren, will inevitably be the Age of Adaptation. The history of the Arctic offers us good lessons on how to manage such an age. It is arguably the most hostile environment on Earth yet humans have thrived there for thousands of years. If humanity is to survive another century we will need to face the fact that our planet’s life systems have been thrown into unprecedented chaos and we will need to summon all of our wisdom, sensitivity, intelligence, knowledge, and courage to adapt to their evolution.
In the end, our adaptations will be very complex but they will certainly be aided by each of us trying to embody the soul and spirit of the hunter, travelling alone on empty tundra, with nothing to keep him – or her – going but confidence in the ability to survive, the tireless will to struggle forward and the wisdom to be guided by what the environment itself has to tell us.
This post is also available in: French, German