“The Sea is our Garden, and our Garden is Dying”

How A Native Alaskan Hunter Impacted How I Viewed Climate Change

As our research team pulled on thick fleece layers and hi-vis coveralls to prepare for a day in the cold, merciless wind, our Iñupiat Native-Alaskan polar bear guard Tony simply zipped up the light jacket he was wearing. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was studying Arctic sea ice at Point Barrow with my father’s oceanography lab. Tony’s job as a guide with the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation was to offer research support to scientists, which in this case could entail being the only person standing between the team and a hungry polar bear. This didn’t seem to worry Tony, though. As he leaned against the wall, LL Bean Comfort Mocs on his feet and a Dallas Cowboys baseball hat on his head, he mostly just seemed amused at how cold we found what he considered to be mild summer air.

Point Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States and a hub for researchers hoping to understand climate change. It is also a dumping ground for bowhead whale carcasses that have been stripped for food by Iñupiaq hunters. Not far from where we were setting up a research station, bones as big as buses were piled on top of each other, towers of rubbery skin, bloody sinews, and rotting blubber. The revolting smell was a siren song for polar bears who often scavenged the piles for leftover scraps of meat. If we encountered any bears and couldn’t escape, Tony carried a rifle as a last defense.

Although we were setting up our research station with the hopes of gaining a better scientific understanding of the ice, Tony already possessed a deep knowledge passed down through generations of hunters that transcended the scientific. He could spot a seal on an ice floe far out at sea, knew the meaning of each groaning of the ice, could estimate the speed and thickness of each floe. He was the true expert in a group of “experts.”

Soon, Tony began to share his knowledge with us. “Every summer there is less ice,” he said, gesturing out to sea. He explained that the seals and walruses that live on the ice and compose the majority of the Iñupiaq diet were getting harder to find and more dangerous to capture. As Tony stared out at the ice, all traces of amusement left his face as he said, “The sea is our garden, and our garden is dying.” His means for self-sufficiency, his ancient lifestyle and connection to the earth, was dying along with it.

When I left Tony and returned to college in Chicago, his words spurred me to further action. I attended meetings of the environmental activist group on campus that was working to get a coal plant shut down. I was interested, but skeptical — how was that going to help Tony, whose community needed direct, large-scale help? At the time, I thought it would be more useful to contribute a serious research report to a global dialogue than to stage a local protest over a Chicago coal plant. Instead of heading out on the pavement, I stayed inside the Ivory Tower, where there was free coffee and the promise of global influence.

Perhaps this choice shouldn’t have surprised me. My father’s professorial belief in peer-reviewed rigor shaped my ideas of what solutions to climate change might look like — more research, better technology, and broader education.

For a while, this approach decreased the burden I felt to take action on climate change. I explored community forest management strategies for use in rural Kosovo, helped to refine an integrated assessment model of climate change, and wrote about the food-energy-water nexus in relation to women’s rights in Bangladesh. I compiled data, delivered reports, and presented findings — but nothing ever seemed to come of it. At best, my work might have a small degree of impact years from now.

At the same time, the news got worse and worse — Barrow was now lining the edge of town with sand bags to hold back the rising ocean, which had already swallowed some homes. I thought about Tony, and about the people like him for whom climate change wasn’t something happening years from now, but today. Was hiding away in my tower, fixated on deliverables and deadlines, really the most effective way for me to work towards change? Was I really doing my part to help Tony and his people?

My father’s words, which once rang so optimistically true to me, no longer did. The research-based solutions that I had put so much faith in before now seemed insufficient. Although I retained my belief in the importance of innovation in solving pressing global problems, I began to think that without major economic and social movements to complement it, little change would actually occur. That was a daunting and remarkably depressing notion. I felt lost, ineffective, and unimportant.

But then I reconsidered the environmental activists who I had previously not joined. Turns out, their anti-coal campaign was successful — the plant had been shut down for good. Why did I think that my “global” research was more valuable than their local actions? After all, weren’t all environmental issues ultimately local? I began to realize that shutting down a coal plant in Chicago could help someone like Tony, by decreasing emissions, setting policy precedents, and accelerating a shift to sustainable fuels. Maybe I didn’t embrace activism before because it was difficult, or because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, or because I wanted to be agreeable. But I decided I wanted to cross the threshold of fear and discomfort to do my part in my corner of the world in order to ultimately benefit us all. I’ve found that climate justice activism can bring the world towards real, tangible change, and can bring me a sense of accomplishment I couldn’t find solely through research. I hope Tony would approve.