In a blog written to mark World Water Week (26 – 31 August), Bishop Mark MacDonald, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop for the Anglican Church of Canada, writes about the dangers lurking beneath the frozen waters of the Arctic.
A potential danger has been recognised in the permafrost that lies throughout the Arctic north. The carbon that is likely to be released by the melting permafrost is thought to contain a potential multiplying effect on the warming global climate. Concealed in the permafrost is something that appears to have quickening consequences for a world that is already teetering at the edge of global catastrophe. Though this recognition is alarming, it is only a beginning glimpse of some of the veiled hazards found in the Arctic.
Over the years, I have been privileged to attend several global conferences and consultations on issues related to the growing ecological crisis facing our planet. As one whose life and interest has been deeply connected to the Arctic, I have paid close attention to others’ perceptions of the Arctic’s relationship to global climate change. While most understand that the Arctic is uniquely and severely threatened, very few seem aware of the human issues that are directly related to global warming. This lack of insight is related to the way global climate injustice intersects with the rights and life of the Indigenous Peoples that inhabit the Arctic.
For thousands of years, the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic – primarily the Inuit, but also the Sami and many of the Dene First Nations – have inhabited and thrived in this extremely challenging environment. These Peoples, wounded by the oppression associated with colonialism, now face a related and accelerating dispossession from land and culture. This is associated with the globalised injustice of human induced climate change. Like Indigenous Peoples around the world, these people, least responsible for the problems of a changing climate, are bearing the brunt of the injustice that travels in the wake of this global menace.
The impacts of climate change on Indigenous Peoples directly mirror what is widely reported about the impacts on Arctic environments and their animals and sea life. Many communities are threatened by eroding shore lines. Subsistence hunting and fishing, so important to food security and cultural survival, have been disrupted by changing seasonal patterns and the related impacts on the activities and life-spans of Arctic animals, sea mammals, and fish. Ice and snow conditions, essential to Arctic travel and life-ways, are unstable, unpredictable, and increasingly dangerous.
The Peoples of the Arctic, some of the most adaptable people on the planet, are being stretched by these conditions. It is a cultural disruption amplified by the on-going disruptions of the conflict between Indigenous life-ways and a relentless globalising economic culture – an economic culture which not only plays the key role in climate injustice, it also has a corrosive effect on the sustainability of Indigenous life and culture. The effects of the economic and spiritual poverty that has come with colonialism – the introduction of substance abuse, the breakdown of clan and family, and the introduction of suicide – have been exacerbated by the increasing negative impacts of climate injustice.
These Indigenous issues that lie hidden from view in the Arctic will have a massive impact on the moral and spiritual future of our planet. The issue of justice is obvious. We will decide and define the moral character of our future by our recognition or our avoidance of justice for the Peoples of the Arctic. Beyond that, the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic hold within their elders and their way of life a wisdom that has immediate and long-lasting import to future of human and ecological culture. Indeed, within the cosmology of the Peoples of the Arctic we may find a positive future for the life of our planet.
For the Christian churches, this has a special urgency. They have been present in the Arctic, for good and for bad, throughout the colonial era. They have, through treaty, proclamation, and baptism, promised their solidarity with the Peoples of the Arctic. In this solidarity we may find a renewed capacity, not only for our faithfulness to the Peoples of the Arctic, but also to our God who calls us, in Jesus, to live the values, ideals, and practices of a New Heaven and a New Earth. Hidden in the Arctic is an essential key to a renewed commitment to our faith and the universe it addresses. If we do not use it, it will be to the deep hurt of us all and all of life.