A Climate for Wisdom?

“Why don’t researchers ever ask us about wisdom?”

Almost a year after I began talking with Jaypeetee Arnakak about Inuit ways of thinking about northern warming, he asked me this question. From his position as an Inuit policy worker and philosopher, Arnakak stressed to me that wisdom, or silatuniq in Inuktitut, should be of central importance to anyone concerned with climate change.


We have lost our way. The climate is in crisis. Might a more spiritual view of the climate help us change course? Here, an Inuit cairn (inuksuk) guides travelers on Whistler Mountain in Canada. Credit: Creative Commons/Evan Leeson.

Considering the significant changes that are occurring globally and in the north — a region that some describe as climate change’s canary in the coal mine — it may seem highly impractical to shift our attention from questions of how to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to that of wisdom. What may seem even more impractical is the argument I am going to make in this article: that a sustainable and just response to northern warming and global climate change may depend on our capacity to inspire climate research and politics with something akin to silatuniq.

For many who study northern warming and global climate change, there is an increasing sense of urgency that a comprehensive response needs to be initiated now; the time for delays is over. In Fall 2010, Lester Brown wrote in Tikkun that “we’re beginning to move in the right direction but we’ve got to move faster.” A year earlier, Paul Wapner expressed a similar sentiment in this magazine by quoting a 2007 statement from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Rajendra Pachauri that declared: “The next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

Whether we choose to heed such urgent calls for change or continue with our current political and economic inertia, significant change on climatic and cultural scales is on the way. In that context, do we have time for wisdom? To explain why I think an Inuit view of silatuniq is important beyond the north, it is helpful to start by going back to the events that led to the discussion in which Arnakak introduced this concept.
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As with many researchers who have headed north over the past decade to document Inuit observations of changing weather, land, ice, and animals, I was originally focused on Inuit ecological knowledge. For weeks we had been discussing the relevance of sila to northern warming. Trying to give me a broad sense of this term, he described sila as an ever-moving and imminent force that surrounds and permeates Inuit life, and that is most often experienced in the weather.

I came to our dialogues with knowledge from two largely divided academic disciplines: climatology and ethnography. Contemporary climate research often assumes that sila is a direct translation for “weather,” with it most often coming up in relation to unexpected weather phenomena. Meanwhile, Inuit ethnographies from the first half of the twentieth century described sila as the spirit of the air, upholder of the weather, and the breath source of all life on earth.

It was while discussing this divide in Western thought between the physical weather properties of sila and a more spirited sensibility that Arnakak brought up silatuniq. As he explained, the sila and climate surround our lives, and silatuniq is an inquiry into “the context and consequence of applying knowledge and/or how our interacting with the surround affects that surround.” This understanding seemed relevant to northern warming and climate change, for at their root, are these changes not the planetary response to industrial society’s exhalation of greenhouse gases?


A sustainable response to climate change "may depend on our capacity to inspire climate research and politics with something akin to silatuniq," the author writes. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/jezzer-hozzer.

Various world religions have struggled to define a wisdom that is inspired by an ineffable spiritual surround. Navajo tradition describes our internal winds as continuous with the external winds, and as such recognizes an immanent reality that influences human thought. In the Christian tradition, there is the ancient Latin sense of spiritus that connects the individual’s breath with a divine force. It is from this spiritual unity of inner and outer realities that wisdom inspires our lives. Comparable views abound in various religions and, I would say, are beginning to affect contemporary climate research.

Particularly symbolic of such rising scientific awareness is Charles Keeling’s documentation in the 1950s of the earth’s climatically changing respiration. Looking at carbon dioxide concentrations in the high altitude of Mt. Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Keeling documented an increasing planetary exhalation of carbon over the span of the twentieth century. Since then, climate scientists have documented an increase in carbon levels from about 295 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 379 ppm in 2005, an increase that coincides with our rising fossil fuel combustion. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report states, this level of carbon “exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm).”


Ice melts in Tasiilaq, Greenland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Christine Zenino.

Industrial greenhouse gas emissions have heightened the planet’s respiration and, consequently, sila’s northern warming. We are, in a sense, being initiated into the need for scientific research and political responses to be inspired by silatuniq. Blocking such an inspired alternative approach to human-climate relations are a host of political economic forces that are seemingly not much interested in rational, let alone wise, climate responses.

This issue plays out in a variety of ways, as I can clarify by first returning to my dialogue with Arnakak on silatuniq. What he was particularly concerned with was the tendency for environmental researchers like myself to focus on Indigenous ecological knowledge while marginalizing cultural and spiritual understandings. He saw this tendency as a kind of resource extraction of information that fits Western models focused on planetary economic management. Any understandings that conflict with such a model are discarded as a kind of cultural waste.

Arnakak is not alone in making this claim; Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit climate activist and runner-up for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, similarly criticized the conclusions of an Arctic climate research project as being constrained by political and economic pressures from the south. Unlike climate skeptics, who tend to deny the knowledge of climate research, these Inuit critiques of an economizing tendency did not lead to a rejection of Inuit or Western climate knowledge and its linkages to economic concerns. In fact, Arnakak continually stressed to me that the issue is one of defining a balanced relation between knowledge, economic livelihood, and silatuniq. Such a balance is, in this view, central to a sustainable way of living.

While Watt-Cloutier went on to stress that “climate change is a cultural issue” for Inuit communities, my engagement with contrasting Inuit views made it increasingly clear to me that climate change is also a cultural issue in Western nations.

There is a pervasive and unbalanced tendency toward an economizing mentality that utilizes consistent scientific knowledge, and makes concepts like silatuniq seem soft and impractical. This issue was highlighted at the beginning of the environmental movement by the likes of E. F. Schumacher, and many others have reiterated it since then. From such a perspective, the issue goes beyond the power of the “industrial infrastructure” that Chris Hedges has argued “we need to target and take down.”


Hot sun melts ice at the edge of the Glenmore Reservoir in Calgary, Canada. Credit: Creative Commons/ocean.flynn.

While I agree with Hedges that a substantial organized resistance is needed, I suspect one reason it is so difficult to build such a revolution is that these economic institutions are merely the outward representation of a pervasive cultural belief system. Thinking about the limited public response to our looming energy and climate change crises, Paul Roberts in The End of Oil speculated that individuals do not want to see themselves “as extensions of an out-of-control energy system that begins at home, in our own cars and houses.” Our daily practices inform this economizing belief, a belief that I argue even influences our research of climate change and engagement of Inuit understandings. It is interesting to note that while silatuniq attempts to mirror its sila context, this economizing belief continually expands in a way that is today calling forth from that same context dangerous climate changes in the north and beyond.

There is one last vignette I want to look at which I think helps clarify the cultural challenge we face today. On the front page of a December 2008 issue of The New York Times was an image and caption that I think highlight our climatic situation. With newly elected President Obama a month away from power, the economic crisis hitting hard and the automotive industry in disarray, a full-color photo showed an altar of a Pentecostal Christian congregation in Detroit, a choir, three large white sports utility vehicles (SUVs), and a caption that read “praying for a miracle.”

Many questions arise for me when I look at this image. Are white SUVs a good symbol in a time of climate change and peak oil? What do they symbolize to these people who are most likely economically dependent on Detroit’s automotive industry? What if the SUV symbolized the inefficient energy practices of our auto culture that need changing? What if a different hybrid vehicle or mass transit symbol was placed on the altar? What is the relation of this American car tradition to my own Canadian nation, which recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest supplier of oil to the United States? What about its relation to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who described the Alberta tar sands as “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall”? Are there religious dimensions underlying not only the politics of oil and climate change, but also the debates about the validity of climate science? What about the potential adaptive and maladaptive value of religious traditions in relation to climate change? Our answer to each of these questions has implications for our lived cultural relation with the surrounding climate system.

As Paul Wapner writes, our current challenge “consists of nothing less than weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and transitioning to a clean economy.” President Obama had an opportunity in 2009 to enact a bold political agenda, equal to that of Roosevelt, when he called in the leaders of the automotive industry during the height of the economic crisis. Wapner urged President Obama to “undertake a huge public works program” that generates millions of green-collar jobs by investing “in hybrid and electric cars; better mass transit; solar, wind, and tidal energy,” instead of bailing out various industries. Such significant action has not yet materialized in the United States or Canada because the enemy we have to mobilize against is ourselves, and to do that our scientific knowledge and political actions will need to be inspired by wisdom.

In a 2011 Tikkun article on climate change, Wapner wrote that “Awe awakens us to the world.” It is a view consistent with the awe-inspiring silatuniq described here, and I think the preceding analysis clarifies two vital implications of awakening to our climatically changing world.


This article is based on the author's recently published book. Click on the image above to learn more!

First, we need to consider the way in which we are culturally intertwined with maladaptive political and economic behaviours that are creating injustices in various parts of the world — from northern ecologies to threatened islands like the Maldives.

Second, and perhaps more importantly for those of us concerned with moving beyond our present state of inaction, we need to engage with those cultural and religious traditions that can offer us inspiration, passion, and wisdom for making the changes required to become a sustainable and just society.

We have an abundance of scientific proof and policy options; what we lack is a wise sense of our situation and the resulting willpower to manifest cultural change that will push our political and economic leaders forward. There may be a void of political leadership in response to climate change, but there are myriad alternative grassroots climate responses.

Perhaps it is a visionary municipal government, green Christian activities like the What Would Jesus Drive campaign, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, Bill McKibben’s 350 campaign to reduce carbon levels, or the Cochabamba People’s Agreement, which represented visionary responses to climate change from around the world. There are a host of activities, rituals and understandings that can inspire and build passion, but for them to embody wisdom they will need to be culturally relevant, informed by accessible climate knowledge, and politically engaged.

(To return to the Summer 2011 Table of Contents, click here. For an attractively formatted, ready-to-print PDF of this article, click here.)


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