Three things are on my mind right now: climate change, Beyoncé’s new video, Formation, and the value of lived experience in/as research.
Formation broke the pop culture internet this week. From close readings to solid feminist and queer critiques, and the Saturday Night Live parody of white angst, it’s the kind of work that provokes a strong response, for obvious and multiple reasons. In its seductively packaged way, Formation makes strong political statements about race and class in the U.S. It is both queer and feminist. Also, there are crawfish. Like these NPR bloggers, I watched it until my eyes turned red. Born and raised in the southeastern U.S. I have a complicated relationship with home. The racial and class politics are problematic in ways that often seem more pronounced than other regions of the country. At the same time, I miss the food, and what I mean by that is I miss the familiar sensory experience of the food. I smile when my parents use “y’all” in text messages. I like the gulf coast in December, when it’s quiet and still. And yes, I brought my favorite hot sauce to Finland, along with related and necessary condiments.
Formation is bookended by the striking image of Beyoncé sitting on a police car partially submerged in a flooded post-Katrina New Orleans landscape. At the end of the video, the car sinks, and we hear voiceovers sampled from the 2008 documentary Trouble the Water. Like much of the U.S., I watched the lack of constructive response to Katrina with horror, and I speculated on the possibility of the strategic flooding of certain neighborhoods to save others. I have family history in various parts of Louisiana, including New Orleans. My uncle lost his home in Katrina, although he did not lose his life, like so many in that unspeakable tragedy. Formation marks Katrina as a pivotal moment in racial and class awareness in the U.S. and it is of no small account that the vanishing land crisis in Louisiana is tied up with disregarded communities. Environmental racism and classism have never been clearer.
This week, while attending the Fulbright Arctic Symposium in Oulu, I had Formation playing on repeat in my head. Oulu is a city in Lapland—the North of Finland. The symposium was part of The Fulbright Arctic Initiative, an international effort to collaborate on interdisciplinary approaches to addressing climate change. Disappearing communities are a thematic in climate change, ranging from islands in danger of disappearance around the world to the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, loosely represented in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The Arctic Symposium at the University of Oulu included presentations by the seventeen researchers who are working as part of four teams: Energy, Water, Health, and Infrastructure. The primary research question of this collaboration is based on the acknowledgement that the Arctic is one of the most rapidly changing regions in the world. The Fulbright Arctic Initiative asks, what can we do to help Arctic communities adjust to the changes that are already happening, and how can we prevent further disturbances to the regions involved?
As Terhi Mösla, the director of Fulbright Finland, noted, “we cannot choose separate futures. In the end there is only one globe. We need solutions that challenge the traditional boundaries of academia.”
Being committed to interdisciplinarity, I am sold on this approach. For example, in the Water group, in addition to measuring changes in Arctic water levels (i.e. some lakes are disappearing, others are forming, and we don’t exactly know why), visual artist Itty Newhaus had a gallery exhibit as part of the symposium with work depicting the rapid changes that are occurring. In the Health group, Dr. Linda Chamberlain argued that climate change is a form of trauma that must be proactively addressed, and is working with www.communityresilliencecookbook.org to create resources for affected communities.
The U.S. ambassador to Finland, Charles C. Adams, reminded us that the U.S. often has trouble remembering that we are an Arctic nation. (We are? Oh yes, living three thousand miles away on the east coast it’s easy to forget that.) The U.S. became an Arctic nation 150 years ago after the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, although Alaska only became a state in 1959. Ambassador Adams showed a clip from President Obama’s visit to Alaska last summer, pointing out that he is the first sitting president to cross the Arctic Circle.
(On a side note, watching clips from this video was a highlight of the symposium for me, especially when Ambassador Adams noted that no matter who gets elected, President Obama will be greatly missed. Yes.)
Alaska occupies an almost mythical status in the U.S., most readily demonstrated by all of the reality television about it–representations range from a playground for intrepid explorers to a vast natural resource for fishing, or the temporary energy fix of drilling oil, drilling oil, and drilling more oil. The U.S. forgets about being an Arctic nation because there is not enough public dialogue or inclusive legislation regarding the people who have been living in Alaska for thousands of years.
One might wonder if Alaska, like the wetlands of Louisiana, and the North of Finland, or Canada, is only for tourism and mining resources, and the people who happen to live there are tangential to (though certainly interrelated with) these industries. At the Fulbright Arctic Symposium, Liisa Holberg, a rector from the Sámi Educational Institute in Northern Finland told us that the Sámi people have no representation in either the Finnish or the European Union parliaments. Instead, they have separate parliaments. The Sámi are an indigenous people made up of multiple tribes who in live in Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway. The total Sámi population is around 100,000. This seems not unlike the U.S. where Native Americans have separate tribal governing systems. There is no official representation in the federal government, instead we have what the Bureau of Indian Affairs calls “a government to government relationship.” Writing this post is an impetus for reading about governments that exist within governments in these various nations, re-learning swaths of important U.S. history, and trying to get a better understanding of indigenous politics in Northern Europe.
There was the bureaucratic talk I expected at the symposium about best practices for, uh, “arctic development”—traditional methods such as good old oil drilling versus windmills. The one thing that these energy developments all have in common is that they plow through indigenous people’s lands—whether in Alaska, Northern Canada, or Northern Finland. On a panel focusing specifically on indigenous communities, a representative from Greenpeace asked for suggestions on mitigating land use—especially for more traditional and arguably environmentally damaging resources such as oil—with the fact that indigenous people have become dependent on these methods. Liisa Holberg, the Sámi rector, said simply: “You stop. You give up on the sale of energy. At our Sámi school,” she said, “we use solar panels and are increasingly in less need of oil.”
The closing talk of the symposium was given by Dr. Kari Laine, one of the directors of www.uarctic.org, who asked, “what is knowledge?” While scientific knowledge about climate change has for many years been measured primarily by quantitative research, researchers are now finally, FINALLY, at a point where they realize that the people who live in these dramatically shifting landscapes are important and valuable holders of knowledge. Through historical memory and oral histories, indigenous people are able to provide researchers with ground truthing—lived ethnographic experience—about changes to the land and resources where they live. This knowledge is a crucial compliment for sense making of all of the scientific data that might otherwise have no life or meaning beyond the chart or graph of the page on which it lives. In her piece on ethnographic research and technology, Tricia Wang explains this as thick data (and yes, she nods to Clifford Geertz), which is “data brought to light using qualitative, ethnographic research methods that uncover people’s emotions, stories, and models of their world.”
For example, in Lapland, Sámi reindeer herding communities are helping scientists understand the impact of the warming winters on wildlife. Rapid changes in temperature cause layers of ice to form in between the snow. These ice layers result in wild reindeer having a lack of access to the ground and starving to death because they can’t graze, which in turn affects other wild populations. While the reindeer herders can feed their own populations of reindeer with imported grain, they are watching wild populations die in mass numbers—this can happen very quickly with layers of ice forming in only a few days. A quick google search on this topic confirms this as a phenomena across Nordic countries.
On the one hand, Dr. Laine made a powerful argument that scientists’ willingness to listen to indigenous people is the most important accomplishment in Arctic and other climate change research. On the other hand, I want to say, well good for you, scientific researchers, for finally recognizing that qualitative experience and lived experience are a key part of worldmaking.
We need multiple representations of the ways that changing climates are impacting local communities. We need artists, residents, and scientists working collaboratively. We need a broader understanding of knowledge formation.
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