A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
A great many people would be familiar with this quote, and it's a paraphrased iteration something Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once said. In the original quote published in the Washington Post in 1947, Stalin was apparently referring to deaths in the USSR as a result of widespread famine. I don't wish to remove the quote from its historical context, but instead use its essence to explore something else.
As we grow up, we learn how to adapt to, and live with, the effects of change. I believe the world — and our place in it — is dynamic and in a constant state of flux. A lot of other people probably believe the same thing, because it makes sense right? So when we speak of our mother earth, it's understandable that people are a little suspicious of talk of the global warming and climate change as if it's some new phenomenon. As far as we can tell, the earth and its complex ecosystems have been changing since time immemorial. If I was standing in this exact same spot 20,000 years ago, chances are I would have been stuck under about a thousand metres under a gargantuan torrent of slow-moving ice.
Since I arrived in Alaska over a month ago, I've heard many different stories from many different people. The theme that unites them is the understanding that things are changing, and they are changing fast. Each little anecdote is, in some way, a tragedy. In each story something is being lost forever.
"It looks so different the day after the cruise ships leave for the summer." Alex stared down into the murky water as we walked the Iron ore dock in Skagway, a little town that sits on the Taiya Inlet in SE Alaska. The sea had been recently stirred up by the evening departure of yet another enormous boat. Across the water the echos of voices reverberated, interspersed with bursts of laughter. Three men cast their rods into clearer depths, tempting a few salmon to take the bait, their patience reinforced by the potential for a delicious and nutritious meal. We stood for a while, directing them to the location of the biggest fish from our high vantage point on the pier. In the end, all three went home empty handed. I went home with a thought lodged in my own head. How do thousands of salmon, in the midst of an epic migration, navigate the four or five aquatic metropolises that enter the inlet every day for four months?
A few hundred kilometres down the inside passage of Southeast Alaska, just outside of the city of Juneau, Alaska, I was lucky enough to hike around Mendenhall glacier. I tried my best to absorb the sheer enormity of the frozen river from various vantage points, which were many kilometres apart. We managed to make it to the foot of the glacier, and ducked in under some ice caves to place ourselves directly under the mass of ice. It was an eerie sort of world, and breathtakingly beautiful. As fresh snowmelt searched for the easiest route through the surrounding ice, it painted moving patterns in the sky-blue ceiling. I'd never seen anything like it before.
For the duration of our time under the ice, I was crouched or squatting over to avoid head collisions with the frozen roof. Later, in a local bar, Eric and Kay showed me a photo taken April of this year. The photo showed Eric standing tall in those same caves. In three months, the glacier had receded immensely. This change can be attributed in part to both a reduction in the size of the glacier during the summer, and the fact that the glacier has been receding for centuries. Along the duration of the trail out to the Western side of Mendenhall, rock cairns displayed the ice limit of the glacier in five year intervals. The closer we got to the glacier, the further apart these rock cairns were located. The distances were increasing exponentially, the rock cairns like solitary outposts scattered across the bare sections of ancient rock. There must have been at least seventy-five metres between the cairns representing the 2006 and 2011 limits. The rocky outposts painted a picture of a rapid retreat. Terns and gulls shrieked at each other on the rocks below as a lone bald eagle soared overhead. I listened to the sound of the wind rustling the bright green leaves on the young alder trees and stared across the expanse of blue ice that lay before me
Sometimes it might seem like the world is dying a million deaths. We as humans continue to exploit our finite natural resources at great cost. We subject our fragile ecosystems and food webs to extreme pressure from increasing world population. But the paradigm through which we view these deaths is mostly statistical. Climate change is seen as an ominous and seemingly unstoppable threat, and maybe it is. But this idea seems to only cause distress and promote fear. I believe we can address these changes in a way that encourages hope and belief in the potential for a brighter future for human's and the earth we inhabit.
Thanks to the people I have been lucky enough to meet in my life, I choose instead to see our current situation as a collection of tragedies. Tragedy is part of what it is to be human and often in our experiences of dealing with tragedy, we are gifted a greater understanding of the world and our place in it. Tragedy can test our very limits, threatening to drive us into a spiral of despair. But in tragedy there lies a profound resilience of the human spirit. Out of tragedy springs hope.
We need to treat the sufferings of our mother earth as a collection of tragedies, instead of discounting their power through our heavy reliance on statistical analysis. Indigenous peoples across the globe have passed down stories of their mother earth over thousands of years. These stories speak of a profound love and deep connection to that which gifts them the beauty of life, and they musn't be forgotten.
The Earth is our mother, for now. I fear if we keep ignoring her calls, she may not wish to care for us in the years to come.