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Harnessing Culture to Address Arctic Issues

By Chantal Bilodeau

A few weeks ago, I returned from a trip to Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic, where I spent five days working on my new play Forward. I had been invited by Hålogaland Teater to participate in their ArtLab program, which provides 25 hours of rehearsals followed by a public presentation of the work-in-progress.

Set in Norway, Forward presents a poetic history of climate change, from the initial passion that drove explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the Arctic, to the consequences of over a century of fossil fuel addiction. Forward is the second play in a series of eight that examine the impact of climate change on the eight countries of the Arctic.

While I was in Tromsø, Norway made the news. Dealing with falling oil prices and shrinking output from its operating wells, the Norwegian government announced that it was moving the Arctic ice edge north, inviting firms to drill for oil and gas further inside the Arctic Circle. A few weeks later, an article appeared in The Guardian reporting that in 2014, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, where surplus wealth produced by petroleum income is deposited, divested from 40 companies because of their high carbon emissions: 32 coal miners, five tar sand producers, two cement companies, and one coal-based electricity generator.

This is paradoxical to say the least. On the one hand, Norway is taking action that will pump more CO2 into the atmosphere and put the fragile Arctic ecosystems at risk. On the other hand, it is greening its investment palette and setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. Of course, both decisions are first and foremost driven by economic concerns. Norway must keep its economy running, its people fed and employed. But both decisions are also brought about by the threat of climate change and a concern for the future.

How could a handful of artists address these issues? What could we say that hadn’t already been said, and why would anyone listen? Every day, we are bombarded with news about melting ice and drowning villages, warming temperatures and declining wildlife, continental shelf dispute and potential environmental disasters. And by all accounts, it is only going to get worse. Climate change is so depressing that we have become numb to it. And the last thing we want to do is go to the theatre to be told once again that we messed up.

Yet artists have something very real to offer. Playwright Henrik Ibsen knew this when he wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882, in which a physician discovers that the local tannery in his town is contaminating the water used for the public bath. A full century before climate change became a mainstream conversation, Ibsen was writing about environmental disasters, contrasting short-term personal gain with long-term public responsibility. He was writing stories that encouraged audiences to reflect on their values. He was questioning the culture.

Culture is who we are. It is the particular set of behaviors and values that define us. Or, put another way, culture is the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And the one way where we get to experience the full force of these stories is through works of art.

So here we were, eight artists in a black box theatre, in a small town north of the Arctic Circle, trying to tell a story about climate change. A story about how an Arctic explorer fell in love with Ice (embodied as a character in the play), and unwittingly opened up the Arctic for development. A story about people having good intentions that led to unintended consequences. A story about who we are in all our glorious imperfection. But Forward is also a story about hope. It is an invitation to collectively grieve for what we lost, for what we continue to lose every day, so that we can forgive ourselves. It is a reminder that if we come together as a community, we will find a solution.

A policy is only as good as the culture that supports it. Yes, we need our governments to create binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, we need our corporations to be held accountable for the damage they inflict on the environment. But the real, deep change that we so desperately seek will only come about once we shift the culture. That’s what I and seven other artists tried to do up in Tromsø. We tried to tell a story that contains the kernel of a better future.

*****

*****

Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator. She serves as the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle and is the founder of the blog, Artists and Climate Change

[Photos courtesy of Clay Myers-Bowman] 

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