In the ninth episode of the "Capitalism, Climate, and Culture" podcast series from GMU Cultural Studies, Christine Rosenfeld talks with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit advocate who has worked on issues related to climate change and Persistent Organic Pollutants. Watt-Cloutier was a Nobel nominee and has receive the prestigious Right Livelihood Award for her work addressing climate change as a question of collective human rights. Her memoir The Right to Be Cold narrates her life, beginning as a youth in a remote Inuit village.
Watt-Cloutier and Rosenfeld discuss some ways to highlight the cultural and human dimensions of climate change, the value of understanding climate change as an issue of collective human rights, and what will be lost if decisive action is not taken immediately.
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Sheila Watt-Cloutier: And whether you're an indigenous person or non-indigenous person, all of us are in this together and if we can understand the human aspect of it, the cultural aspect of it, the human rights aspect of it, then that will lead us from our hearts — not just our heads, from our hearts — to do the right thing together.
Because together we've got this.
Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Sheila watt Cloutier who's interviewed in April 20 19 by Christine Rosenfeld in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University. The Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training.
This year's colloquium series examines capitalism, climate change, and culture. The fall colloquium posed the question "how did we get into this mess?" while the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question: "where do we go from here?"
Christine Rosenfeld: Welcome to the podcast. Great to be here. My name is Christine Rosenfeld, I am an Assistant Professor over in the Geography and Geoinformation Science department here at George Mason University and also an alumna of the Cultural Studies doctoral program here at GMU as well. And today I'm very pleased to be here with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who has many accolades of which I'm I know I cannot do justice but among them include human rights and indigenous advocate, Nobel Peace Prize nomineem former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and author of the Right to be Cold: One Woman's Fight to Protect the Arctic and Save the Planet from Climate Change.
Sheila thank you so much for joining and sharing your time with us today.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: It's my pleasure to be here.
Christine Rosenfeld: So to start, I'd like to ask you to describe to our listeners impacts that Inuit have [experienced[ and continue to experience due to climate change, specifically how culture and cultural vitality is impacted due to environmental degradation — and also perhaps how cultural loss is countered amidst this degradation?
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Well one has to understand that Inuit culture is based on the ice, the snow, and the cold. For us, it's all about mobility and transportation and when that starts to become precarious, then it becomes an issue of safety and security, first and foremost. So it affects and impacts our lives on a daily basis: meaning, the ice is now forming much later in the Fall, breaking up much earlier in the spring, and it's it's not as thick as it used to be, because the ocean is warming from under[neath] as well. And so the ice forms very differently. And so the traditional knowledge of our hunters that have been with us for millennia in guiding us — with safety and the ability to harvest the wonderful organic food that we go out to the land to hunt and fish — is now all very unpredictable and we have more and more safety issues involved as a result of that: more hunters are falling through the thinning ice without really understanding or really fully knowing that that the traditional knowledge that has been there for millennia [and] has guided us in a very safe fashion, but now the ice is not what it used to be because it's forming very differently, as I mentioned.
And and so those issues are really the first challenges that we have in terms of safety and security: you know, we are a people who still hunt and fish on a daily basis. We are living in a modern world. We are working in modern settings. There's no doubt, but we remain extremely connected to the hunting and harvesting of our wildlife, as it is the highly nutritious food that feeds us and keeps us warm in minus 50. It's not Lipton Cup of Soup that's going to keep us warm! It's going to be the wonderful, rich — nutritionally rich — seal meat and caribou and fish that keep us warm.
We're out there are being connected to a way of life that we've known for millennia. And so those are the the bigger changes that are happening are around the ice. And the melting of the ice that's happening in the Arctic is connecting to what is happening to the rest of our planet because the Arctic sea ice is the cooling system. It is the air conditioner, if you will. And it's breaking down. And it's impacting negatively and changing ocean currents and and it's creating havoc, you know? The droughts, the floods, the intense hurricanes. All of that is really connected to what's happening in the Arctic because what happens in Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic: it is impacting everywhere else.
So all of these changes: new species of birds and animals and fish are making their way up. The tree line is moving forward. It's more lush where there used to be just very small brush. You name it. The changes are quite stark.
Christine Rosenfeld: And when you talk about [this] in your book, [you emphasize] also the impacts as you've just articulated to particularly hunting practices [and] how that is a conduit for transmitting cultural knowledge.
How is that being countered or offset today? What are some efforts or new practices to address that loss?
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Hmm. Well our the ingenuity of Inuit culture kicks in because after all, you know, the ingenuity of any culture that most people are not aware of is that we are the inventors of the kayak, you know, the boat that has been replicated worldwide that was Inuit made right from the beginning and the engineering and the architecture of that boat is just ingenious.
We are the people who can build a home out of snow. Imagine this: warm enough for your babies to sleep in, your mothers to birth in, all of that. The ingenuity: once again of all of that! So, with the rapid changes that are happening. You know the adaptability of our hunters — our seasoned hunters and elders — who can navigate through these kinds of rapid changes is quite remarkable to still the same.
It's not that we should be just thinking about oh, let's just adapt because we've got it in us to be able to do that. Yes, of course we do. But that shouldn't be the issue. You should also be addressing the mitigation and the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions. Because there will come a time and there comes a time, many times, that that doesn't necessarily — isn't necessarily there for us, because it happens so fast: the rapid changes that are happening, creating the unsafety and the unpredictability of situations for us.
But the ingenuity [that] —- going back to that — allows for the adaptability of our hunters to navigate through different scenarios of routes, for example, hunting routes to go further and more distant routing to get to the same hunting and fishing grounds that they have been able to get to before. However, that comes with a cost: the economic cost to that is that the longer routes that you have to take to get this to the same food source will cost you more on fuel and ammunition and supplies to get there.
And also it becomes more precarious. Because those are different routes that you had now have to take and so there's all these situations that are arising. Often times, as I say, we lose people in that process.
But again, the adaptability issue is one that is is kicking in and we're trying our darndest to but you know, it's not always safe.
Christine Rosenfeld: Yeah, thank you. Can you talk about the origin of the phrase "the right to be cold," that you go over a bit in your book?
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Hmm. Well, you know when we started this work, we were not just working on climate change issues because for us everything is interconnected. We had been working on Persistent Organic Pollutants: the toxins that ended up coming up through the with the weather patterns and into our food chain, and we had to deal with that. We had to address and be part of the United Nations negotiations on putting a human face to a very chemical story because that's the crux of the work that I do: humanizing the issues and putting a human face on it — a heartbeat to the issues that most people tend to see, as you know, academic, or political, or economic, or scientific issues.
[That's] the work that I have been doing [with] many others, but I led the campaig in those days, when I was elected as chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which is a council represents Inuit in Greenland, in Alaska, in Canada, and in Russia. We are a hundred and sixty five thousand strong at the top of the world in the four countries. And that's where we live.
To defend the rights and interests of Inuit at the international level is much of the work that I did in the past. And so, you know, trying to get the world to understand that we count and we are important at the top of the world's a daunting task, of course. For years and for decades under the umbrella of the ICC, the Inuit Circumpolar Council and other organizations, we have been trying to defend our way of life.
Because as the ice goes, it is our right to health, our right to educate our children, our right to safety, our right to our homes — all of those rights that are already entrenched in international law. [That] is something that we have been trying to defend for a long, long time and that we continue to try to defend.
And so there was a point in time I was being interviewed just as we were starting to launch that legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that indeed the inaction — at the time, it was the United States — the inaction to protect the rights of Inuit of the Arctic as a result of the not taking it seriously to lower the greenhouse gas emissions. We started to really make this a human rights issue.
And so we [undertook] two years of preparation. We worked on this legal petition, a hundred sixty seven page legal petition with seven hundred and some odd legal footnotes to it. So you can imagine the kind of work that went into that! And we worked with two American organizations: the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington DC and with Earthjustice.org in San Francisco.
So the legal teams had gotten together to piece the legal part of all of this, but we brought in our hunters and our elders to make this a very powerful piece of work. And so what we were doing — and as I was explaining all of this work that we were doing on this — I was in Milan, Italy, I believe when we were going to the United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change to announce that we were going to take the route of connecting legallythe issue of climate change to human rights. And that the human rights of the Inuit were we're coming at a cost here, as a result of that. I was saying "our right to health, our right to to educate" — all of those things that I have just mentioned. The journalist said "so in a sense, you're really defending your right to be cold."
And I said, "that's it!"
That is it and that's what really it was just one of those moments that it all just gelled together. And that became the the work that I continue to do — and that became the title of the book that I wrote — was that our human right to be cold ,and not that we're wanting to be shivering outside and cold: that's not the point. The point is that the Arctic's environment, the wildlife, the people — we thrive on the cold. For our livelihoods, for our health, for everything.
And and we train our children on the ice and snow in a powerful way for life. Not just for harvesting skills, but for life skills while you're out there on that ice or on that land: you're waiting for the snow to fall, the ice to form, the winds to die, the animals to surface. You are teaching patience, you are learning patience. You're learning how to be courageous. You're learning how to be bold under pressure, to withstand stressful situations, to be persistent, not to give up, how not to be impulsive, how to develop your sound judgment, and your wisdom: that's the hallmark of Inuit culture is to teach wisdom to our children.
And so all of those remarkable ways in which we teach our children are now being minimized as a result. So as the ice goes, so too does the wisdom of the people. That, for me, is what keeps me going — is remembering my childhood. A traveling only by dogteam the first ten years of my life, traveling with my family in a close-knit community that remained very connected and bonded to one another [and] to its food source, to its environment.
That just keeps me going. You know, I'm like the Energizer Bunny that just won't stop, even at this age. Now, although I get tired, it's still something that's really important to me, because it's the human cost of this issue that I try to bring to the world and how important Inuit culture is to the rest of the world.
Christine Rosenfeld: Well, that's a good quality to have: you are serving us well in your your battery-like energy.
So just to stick with the concept of adopting a human rights framework, which is obviously what you forward just now and in your book. What have been some of the challenges associated with that framework? Or did it stick right away, in terms of your policy work and other advocates you work with and for?
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Well, you know, I think I've always said that the the doctrine of collective human rights brings people together and it brings cultures together. It brings countries together. It brings us as a common humanity together. And so that's why I continue to keep pushing the fact that human rights is the way to go.
It's not just about writing dry reports that nobody's going to really connect to it's not just about focusing on the wildlife either. You know, there are many situations that have arisen in the past many years where the the people of the south — of the people that don't live in the Arctic — tend to understand the wildlife of the Arctic more than its people.
So to try to get the world to understand that the issue of the challenges that the people of the Arctic faith is not just about polar bears is really a tough one. There are big companies that have capitalized on the romanticizing of the wildlife of the Arctic, rather than focusing on the people that are really negatively impacted. And it's not to say that we don't value [these animals]: of course we do ... We are very connected. The land is us. We are the land and the land is us. And our Wildlife are very much a part of who we are. And we have a natural conservation as way of dealing with our life for sure, with a great deal of respect. But at the same time, you know, these big companies that have romanticized our wildlife, it sells their products, but it [also] taps into the emotional stances of people rather than the reality of a situation that polar bears are not frolicking around on the ice drinking Coca-Cola. One is lunch by the way.
And so it just feeds the misunderstanding, you know more so, and deepens that misunderstanding — to oftentimes, you know, even the the misguided animal rights movements that have really done, you know, some damage to — much damage to many of our cultures in that way. And so I try to bring in that understanding that if we keep it at the human level not just the human dimension, the human face, the heartbeat, but the human rights angle to it all, then I find that people can connect to that a much better and that we can all stand together in trying to address these issues as a common humanity.
And so, the human rights angle is not just, some cliche or something that was important 10 years ago when we launched the petition: no, it is [important]. You know the United Nations, Amnesty International, and many other organizations now have [accepted this], because our petition was ahead of its time. [...] People didn't quite understand what this was [or that] climate change is a human rights issue: "What is that?" And and you know, we even had someone at Amnesty once [say,] "she's doing what?" until he got it and he thought "oh, yeah, we're used to seeing individual rights being violated through violence or torture, but [...] we don't fully understand it that it can be that collective rights are being violated." Such as culture, such as people who rely on the well-being of their environment.
And so it brought a better understanding in that way and it continues to bring a better understanding. I mean, I launched that petition in 2005 and the other day I was at a talk and they said "oh" — and it was it was fellow indigenous people, but not Inuit, but in other parts of the southern part of Canada,[who] said "I never would have thought of it as a human rights issue." And this is like, how many years later? More than a decade later. So it's still an educating process. It's you know, I call these my "teaching moments" — not in a aggressive or confrontational way because I've always tried to engage in the in the politics of influence rather than the politics of protest. For me at that brings better the way in which we can understand one another through this lens of partnership.
Christine Rosenfeld: So in your book I enjoyed how you incorporate so much personal narrative throughout and this probably relates to the last question you just answered, but why have you chosen to do so? And what role would you say narrative has played in your efforts in raising awareness and combating effects of climate change?
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Well because it is in one lifetime that I remember what it was like. It's not like — yes: many stories from my grandmother, from my mother, you know — but in one lifetime, in my living memory, I remember what it was like traveling by dog team safely, hunting, and harvesting, and fishing safely, and being grounded by nature and the beautiful Arctic world that I've come from.
I didn't know any English till I was starting school at the age of six. We lived very traditionally with barely anything: nothing, you know, but yet we didn't feel like we didn't have nothing. We were just enriched by culture, and the bond with each other, and the community, and by our tradition, and our wonderful — what we call — our wonderful country food. Country food is very bonding.
It's a real connecting to one another, not just to each other, but to our ancestry, to the hunt, the ceremony around that, you know, the first hunt of our young men, all of these things that I grew up with and I write about in the book were precious moments. I was there when the changes started to happen.
And the impacts on our health and our social issues were just tremendous. So for me it's to give back and honor where I've come from to be able to do this work. Each day, I face myself in the mirror and say I am honored to be doing this work, use me at your will, whoever that is, whatever that is out there that that we are connected to on a cosmic level. And for me,[...] My life and my work are one of the same, you know, there is no disconnect between that.
And the other question on this is that everything is connected and I always say that it's all interconnected: environment, health, the social issues, all of those are interconnected. Someone once asked me — even in our communities — why do you spend so much time on environment when we have so many social and health problems. And my immediate answer was there's no disconnect between any of that.
If we think we have problems and issues now in dealing with our health and social problems, take away our climate and our environment and the ice and you ain't seen nothing yet, in terms of what the challenges will be like in the future. You know, what our children — that as we prepare them [...] for the challenges and opportunities of life on that in that cold that ice and snow. I mean you take that away [and] it's going to be very difficult for us. If [...] we think it's difficult now, which it already is. We are known in the Inuit world to have the highest suicide rates in North America.
You know much of that is from the tumultuous changes that have happened, the historical traumas that have happened, which very few people know about and I've written that in my book. We have to understand that that trauma as well that the human trauma that has happened to Inuit and to the indigenous peoples not just of my own country of Canada, but in this in this country of the United States, and many other countries is the same trauma that we're inflicting upon our Planet, which is a living breathing entity.
And so, if there's a takeaway in any of this, it is that human trauma and planet trauma are one and the same. Children who've been through trauma who have not had the opportunity to heal and been given the mechanisms to cope and deal with that that trauma are going to come out with erratic behavior, and unpredictable ways, and violence, and so on. The [...] earth is reacting the same way, as we have violated it so much in so many ways. It's erratic, unpredictable, and [reacting with] violent storms. If we could understand that humans and our planet are both living entities and are reacting in the same way! And so we can come away with understanding that human trauma, planet trauma: one of the same.
Christine Rosenfeld: So to close a bit of a pedagogical inquiry: given that some of our listeners, myself included, are instructors of various courses at the college level, could you share with us how best we might approach teaching about climate change impacts both within and outside of the Arctic? And what the key takeaways you would want to leave students and young people today with are?
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Mmm. Well, I think I've said a fair amount already that that would answer that. But at the same time maybe I can add the fact that it is really important to not see these things as separate from yourself, as — whether you're a student or a teacher — but that we are all interconnected as a common humanity. And as I said earlier, the Arctic is very much connected to the rest of the planet.
In fact, if we save the the Arctic, if we protect the Arctic, we save the planet. And and when you think that about all of the things that are happening up there in terms of the melt - especially the Greenland melt and how it's creating a sea level rise in other places in the world. You can't get clearer than that in understanding the connection of what's happening in the Arctic that's affecting at the human level the human cost the melting of the ice.
You knowthe human cost with Inuit on the culture that we live in to the people who are now being relocated as a result of their homes going under the sea because of the sea level rising. And so we have to understand those human connections and how important that is, but also the fact that the world and the politics will keep playing themselves out as though it were just the only thing that matters is politics and economics.
You can't silo these issues and it's important not to silo them and to understand that it is a whole that we're talking about. And the whole is our connection to one another. And whether you're an indigenous person or non-indigenous person, all of us are in this together. And if we can understand the human aspect of it, the cultural aspect of it the human rights aspect of it, then that will lead us from our hearts— not just our heads, from our hearts — to do the right thing together. Because together, we've got this
Christine Rosenfeld: Thank you so very much for sharing all that you did with us today, and we certainly look forward to hearing your talk shortly.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Thank you. Nakurmiik.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, which is a production of the Cultural Studies colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies department with support from the Department of Communications, the Global Affairs program, the Department of History. the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Woman and Gender Studies program, and University life. We thank WGMU for the use of their recording studio.
This interview was conducted by Christine Rosenfeld, an assistant professor in the Geography and Geoinformation Sciences department and an alumna of the Cultural Studies Ph.D program.
The episode was produced and edited by me, Richard Todd Stafford, a candidate for the PHD in Cultural Studies. The colloquium series has been organized by Professor Roger Lancaster.
Learn more about the Cultural Studies Program at GMU.
Read more on Sheila Watt-Cloutier's Right Livelihood Award profile.
References in this podcast
Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. The right to be cold: one woman's story of protecting her culture, the Arctic and the whole planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2018 .
Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. "Speech to the IACHR" https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/library/legal_docs/testimony-before-iachr-on-global-warming-human-rights-by-sheila-watt-cloutier.pdf">Earthjustice.org.
Music: Kevin MacLeod "Acid Trumpet," used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Interview: Christine Rosenfeld
Audio Production, and Transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Promotions and marketing: Severin Mueller
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster
June 13, 2019