11/27/2012 3:55:13 PM

The Cape, Camera and Cause

In small-scale societies, close friendships and a resource-savvy relationship to the environment can mean everything. People must take on multiple roles to make things work and a humble understanding of surroundings and their limitations can prove indispensable. This week at Cape Churchill was no exception for me.

Setting up at nightfall in the oscillating snow of a ground storm took our team of 12 more than six hours to assemble camp. Then, everyday-life at close quarters in a remote setting with fellow large carnivores set in. These times offered me reminders, often taxing, of my own desire for open space, that my actions are directly interrelated to the well-being of others and that being mainly self-supported, I (we) have the ability to observe how much a society of this scale, in this part of the world, can consume. Being in such a society brings its own benefits, tight friendships, appreciated talents, new responsibilities, and a pragmatic understanding of the conditions at hand. But this small-scale model of society is just that. The larger scale society we spend a majority of time in includes a much different scale of interplay between people, processes, and resources that requires active agents and policy that must reflect a changing world, not to mention the downright cute (make that-biologically remarkable) bears right outside the window.

Far away from the frozen landscape of Cape Churchill, Manitoba on another peninsula in the Persian Gulf, UN policy talks on global warming are beginning in Doha, Qatar. Will it bring about more stalemate as nations quarrel over details such as an even playing field for cutting carbon emissions, wasting precious time in the meanwhile?

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN environment programme, warns, "While governments work to negotiate a new international climate agreement, they urgently need to put their foot firmly on the action pedal, to take substantive systemic action."

As political economy can be used to explore how regimes of values emerge at the political level and can inflict change on a systems level, here in our microsociety, I wonder what makes scientists want to participate in our own bottom-up method of social change.

This past week I have had the pleasure to spend time with some of the people who help to inform it. PBI and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources scientist Dr. Martyn Obbard notes, "people who develop policy clearly set the trends for where society is going, so it's really important that they be provided with the best available scientific information that researchers like me working with polar bears can provide them with."

While Martyn's work informs policy at the regional level, it's the inspiring of action through media, educational outreach and solutions that continually motivates his work with PBI. When PBI was founded 20 years ago, by photographer Dan Guravich and a passionate group of polar bear enthusiasts, making images and information available about polar bears to inspire socio-environmental change was at the heart of the matter. Today it's safe to say that not much has changed—and today PBI retains a rare independent media stream that grants real people unparalleled access to real science, from technical papers to film and lesson plans.

On the large scale, addressing climate change can seem abstract, distant or hard to care about—but like the fine coffee shared with the Tundra Buggy® mechanics, it's a blend. It will take a combination of abilities to illustrate and engineer a solution. As someone involved in image making, I think about the responsibility of the image and how images impact people.

As Noam Chomsky noted in his writings on Language and Freedom, "Social action must be animated by a vision of a future society, and by explicit judgments of value concerning the character of this future society."

While I'm uncertain how the images we make in the field will consciously or unconsciously affect critical consciousness in the viewer about climate change, I hope the images and stories we make in the field inspire others to re-envision their own character, impact, and ultimately rethink what they would like a future society and environment to look like.

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