philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska is an inland village of barely more than 300 people on a low pass in the Brooks Range. Well above the Arctic Circle, this frigid, treeless mountain range is North America’s northernmost, and the highest mountain range in the Arctic. I lived in the village for one month in the summer of 2016 to find out from residents, mostly indigenous Nunamiut Iñupiat, what kinds of changes they were noticing that may be a product of climate change. Their observations, I believed, should be valuable since most of them have spent their entire lives living and traveling across the surrounding landscape. The Arctic is the fastest warming part of the earth and thus climate change is having a disproportionate impact on the people of this region. The village is surrounded by a national park, and due to a complex set of laws and policies, only certain forms of access, such as snowmachine, are permitted inside the park for hunting, fishing, and gathering. Thus, changing climate conditions may have been altering resident’s subsistence access to the park. It was up to me to find out.

Conducting these interviews wasn’t always easy. This is no sleepy mountain town. People are surprisingly busy for being in such a remote location. And they don’t always convey information in the ways that you might expect, even though nearly everyone in the village now speaks fluent English. During the interviews, I was told about the changing migration patterns of caribou, strange permafrost formations, and unseasonable weather, among other things. Nearly every respondent also told me that they accepted the reality of climate change, but when I asked them what they thought climate change is and why it is happening, the response I got was unexpected: more than one individual told me it was due to the earth shifting on its axis, moving the sun higher in the sky. Their answer was based on firsthand experience they said—the sun is no longer where it used to be. One respondent also told me that climate change was causing more earthquakes in the area. My internal reaction was to dismiss these ideas that so clearly contradicted all that I knew about earth physics and climate science, but I duly recorded their responses and thanked them for their time.

During subsequent research, I stumbled across the film, Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change[1], directed by Canadian Inuit filmmakers. Throughout the film, this same explanation is offered—the sun has shifted position in the sky because the earth has tilted. It was now clear that this was a widespread idea, but why? How could remote communities scattered across the northernmost reaches of an entire continent be offering the same explanation? I contacted an anthropologist living on Baffin Island to see if she might know. Her only reply was that she had heard this explanation too, but had no idea where it came from. The mystery deepened.

A year later, I was listening to Missoula, Montana’s local NPR station. A new episode of This American Life came on, entitled “Things I Mean to Know.” The breakthrough came in Act III: “The Sun Also Rises… Over There.”[2] The episode includes a story of a researcher named Ian Mauro, who conducted similar interviews in villages across Arctic Canada, and was also involved in the making of the Inuit knowledge film. Here again, respondent after respondent told him that the sun had changed its course, particularly where it first emerged after weeks of darkness following the winter solstice. Ian believed the Inuit really were seeing what they said they were. After all, careful attention to these kinds of phenomena is crucial to thriving in an often harsh environment, where a meal is far more likely to be plucked from the sea, than to come from a store. Ian inquired of various scientists to see if anyone could offer an explanation. He pursued it even to the point of putting his credibility on the line. Eventually, he found a plausible answer.

The Arctic it turns out has long been a land of mysterious phenomena: mountains float above the ocean, and giant polar bears appear in the sky. The Inuit call this puikaktuq—“rising above the sea,”[3] though perhaps sometimes also endowed with a spiritual meaning. This play of light and perception was first recorded by the outside world in 1597 by a Dutch explorer, Willem Barents, and his crew, when they were trapped for a winter near the island archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. He calculated the expected date that the sun should first appear, but the sun instead rose above the horizon long before it was due. Multiple explorers would eventually encounter this same phenomenon, now named the Novaya Zemlya Effect. When conditions are just right, the cold air of the Arctic can bend light to produce inverted mirages, or to allow the sun to be visible when in fact it is still far below the horizon. Or in big words: “a large-scale temperature inversion with a sharp thermocline could produce total internal reflection within the atmosphere.”[4] Perhaps then, what the Inuit are seeing is an optical effect produced by changing Arctic temperature (and dare I speculate--atmospheric chemistry)?

Parsing out truth and falsity can be difficult. Any good scientist or philosopher can tell you that. Skepticism is important, now more than ever, perhaps, but so is an open mind. Our world is quickly becoming a place that may be unrecognizable to our ancestors even a generation ago. In such a world, it behooves us to listen, to rethink some of our assumptions, and to ready ourselves for oddities and transformations that may challenge our imaginations and even our sense of reality. Change is the essence of our era, and every perspective will be important to approximate where we are and where we are headed. So, open your mind and buckle up.

Now about those earthquakes…



[3] Kobalenko, Jerry. Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on Ellesmere Island. BPS Books, 2010, page 67.