SEASON TWO | EPISODE THIRTEEN
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Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I'm Amy Martin, and this is our final episode for this season. And I want to start out by making sure we've fully busted three persistent myths about the Arctic. And we're going to do that with the help of Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart.
Amy Martin Can you say just your first name really slowly?
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Yeah. Aqq-a-loo-raq.
Amy Martin Aqq-a-loo-raq.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Yeah.
Amy Martin Aqq-a-loo-raq.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Yeah. Very nice.
Amy Martin Aqqalooraq lives in Greenland. He's 22 years old, tall. He wears his long, dark hair in a loose ponytail down his back. And he has one of the coolest names I've ever come across. It's spelled with three Qs. I met him in a coffee shop in a town called Sisimiut: with around 6,000 people, it's Greenland's second largest city. Like a lot of people here, and all over the Arctic, Aqqalooraq is balancing multiple identities. He's a descendant of the Inuit people who first settled Greenland, thousands of years ago, and he's also a descendant of the Danish colonizers who came much later. The very first thing he told me about himself is that he's a “disgraced Greenlandic.”
Amy Martin So, tell me more. Why are you a disgraced Greenlandic?
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Well, first of all, I'm what people would say a nerd. [LAUGHS] I play a lot of games, and see a lot of series.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart I can't even ride a bike. I can't swim. I've never even shot a gun. I mean, the opportunity was given to me just to shoot at a bottle. And I was like, no, I'm scared. This is too loud. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin Greenland is the largest island in the world, and the least densely populated country in the world. Around 56,000 people live here in an area bigger than Mexico. But as we learned last time, three-quarters of this island covered by an ice sheet. So, if you're a Greenlander, life happens on a thin strip of land between the ice and the ocean. In fact, there are no roads connecting any two towns in Greenland, and Aqqalooraq says it's sort of expected that everyone’s learn how to hunt and fish. But he's just not into it.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart And I've never really killed any animal. I mean, I don't mind eating it. But–
Amy Martin But you don't really actually want to kill it.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart No, exactly.
Amy Martin Indigenous doesn't look one way or mean one thing. That's the first myth I hope we've helped to bust a little bit here. The word indigenous is used so often to mean “not modern.” But Aqqalooraq is indigenous, and he's also a multi-lingual millennial who plays the bass and the piano, loves jazz and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and, he says, watches way too much YouTube.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart That's also a nice way to learn other languages. I'm in the middle of learning Japanese right now.
Amy Martin Oh my gosh! So you speak Danish, Greenlandic, English, some Japanese–
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart A little Japanese.
Amy Martin Myth number two: the Arctic is a “frozen wasteland.” It's kind of shocking how often that phrase still gets used to describe the Arctic. In literature, in the news, just in conversation, people constantly use words like barren and inhospitable. But Aqqalooraq and I are walking together through neighborhoods of brightly colored houses. He took me to the Sisimiut community music center. Lots of shops here have work by local artists on the walls. The Arctic isn't a wasteland, and isn't empty. There's a lot of interesting and important stuff happening all across the Polar north.
And finally, myth number three.
Amy Martin Do you think about global warming very much?
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Oh yeah, sure.
Amy Martin What do you...what are you thoughts about it –
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart We can actually see it.
Amy Martin Aqqalooraq and I are standing on a hill near the Sisimiut harbor, looking down at the boat docks.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart I remember the ice used to expand all the way, way out to the sea. But now it, now we'd be lucky to have ice in the docks.
Amy Martin Wow.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Yeah.
Amy Martin So you know a lot of people in the United States say that they don't really think global warming is real. What would you say to them?
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart Well, you're welcome to visit and see how...how you think about it. I mean, it's so apparent here, we see it every day.
Amy Martin Myth number three is that climate change isn't real. It is high time for us to move past this one.
Aqqalooraq Heilman-Lennart You can't help but feel a little offended. That every day, you've witnessed great changes in the environment that you live in. People choosing not to believe it. You can feel a little offended.
Amy Martin We spent 18 months reporting and producing this season, we went to all eight Arctic countries, and we have thrown a lot at you here. You probably noticed that some episodes are kind of science-heavy, and others have focused on individual people or communities in the Arctic. Here in this last episode, we're going to do both. We're going to start in conversation with a leading climate scientist, who can help us place the Arctic in the larger climate story. And in our second half, we're going to go explore a Swedish forest, with someone who looks back in time for roadmaps into the future.
Jim White The Arctic is sort of the home of thresholds. The home of tipping points, if you will.
Amy Martin Jim White is a geoscientist with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Jim White So I wear two hats as a scientist. One is I'm a, I'm a paleoclimatologist. I'm someone who studies the past in terms of the climate system to understand what the planet is capable of. The other half of my research life, I'm a, I’m a carbon cycle scientist.
Amy Martin As a paleoclimatologist, Jim zooms way out and looks at big long-term climate trends. So, one of the things I want him to explain is how the moment we're in now compares to other times in our planet's history. We hear so many apocalyptic things surrounding climate change: what is the true shape and proportion of this problem? Jim says at least part of the answer to that is that we don't fully know.
Jim White I don't know that we know all of the repercussions that are going to happen. You can take away ice in your model and see what's going to happen but you don't know that you've… you know, because it's, it's really kind of what we call a “no analog,” or it's unprecedented. We don't know that we've we've got all the bits and pieces right.
Amy Martin That's not something you want to hear from a leading climate scientist.
Amy Martin But just because we don't know everything, doesn't mean we don't something. In fact, we know quite a bit. For instance Jim says when you examine the carbon cycle over hundreds of thousands of years, it's clear that we've added a lot of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere very quickly.
Jim White I can tell you if 400 parts per million CO2 is a lot of CO2. Haven't seen the likes of which for probably three to five million years.
Amy Martin The last time there was this much CO2 in the air was long before modern humans existed. But Jim says the Earth's atmosphere has held much higher amounts of CO2 in the past.
Jim White The planet has had a thousand parts per million CO2. Yes, there were dinosaurs roaming around, but, you know, they were alive. The mammals were small and they were getting stepped on, but you know.
Amy Martin So, if you want to place our current climate situation on some sort of apocalypse meter, Jim says it would be inaccurate to put it all the way at the farthest end of awful.
Jim White So, it's not as if we're going to make the planet uninhabitable.
Amy Martin But, we are heating the planet up so much, so quickly, that it could make it nearly impossible for human civilization as we know it to continue. And, we're taking down all kinds of other species with us. That's less bad than making the planet completely uninhabitable, but it's still really, really bad.
Jim White Probably the biggest downside for us is that we have built our food structure, our freshwater structure our economic structure around our existing climate, whether you, whether you know that or not appreciate it or not. It is very true. And if we change climate we challenge ourselves from the standpoint of all the basic needs that we have for food for freshwater for water for industry for water for power for all the things that we need.
Amy Martin Jim says it's not that it would be impossible for us to live in a warmer world, but what really threatens us, and many other species, is the rate of change.
Jim White You know as I as I tell people, speed kills. And the faster you change, the more species extinction you'll have and the more the downsides of climate change are going to manifest themselves.
Amy Martin This is the same point Joel Harper and many other people we talked to for this season were trying to make. Major climate changes in the past have mostly happened bit by tiny bit over tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. We're warming things up exponentially faster. We can measure it in terms of decades. And Jim says one way to understand why that matters so much is to look at the recent climatic past. For a paleoclimatologist, the recent past is like the last 10,000 years or so, and Jim says that's been a notably uneventful time.
Jim White Right, the ocean atmosphere system was stable for 10,000 years, pretty darn remarkable. So this is a system that has a bunch of wind whirling knobs and spinning wheels and they all were sort of in balance, like a, you know, a finely built Swiss watch for 10,000 years.
Amy Martin And as it happens, this is the same 10,000 years in which we have flourished as a species. Agriculture, writing, science – so many of the hallmarks of human civilization have been developed during this relatively calm, climatic period. And frozen polar regions have been a big part of that – they've been locking large amounts of carbon and fresh water in place, which affects Earth systems from the bottom of the sea to the top of the atmosphere.
Jim White And then we came along, and we say, OK let's take a whole bunch of carbon out of the ground and burn it and put it in the atmosphere and see what happens.
Amy Martin What happens, of course, is that we warm up the planet. Quickly.
Amy Martin I think this perspective on the last 10,000 is really important, because we don't really think about how much a calm, stable climate has impacted us. It's like with kids: if they are raised in homes without a lot of turmoil, they just think that's normal. They don't notice how much they're benefiting from having three meals a day and a safe place to sleep every night. It's only when you contrast that reality to less fortunate kids who are living with hunger or homelessness that you can really see what a difference that stability makes. For the last 10,000 years, our species has been nurtured in a relatively predictable climate. But now we're disrupting that. And the Arctic is one of the places where it's showing up first.
Jim White People should care about the Arctic for many, many reasons. Let's start with ice.
Amy Martin Jim has spent a lot time on the Greenland ice sheet. And when I ask him why we should care about the Arctic, he puts sea level rise from the melting ice at the top of his list. And he mentions many of the other things we've been talking about this season, too: the people who live in the Arctic, resource development, international relations, along with permafrost thaw, sea ice loss and several sciencey things we didn't even have time to get into.
That's why Jim says the Arctic is the home of thresholds: because so many different factors are converging in this region that are on the cusp of significant change. And he says what we're called on to do in the face of this is to grow our capacity for long-term thinking.
Jim White It takes a long time to undo what we've done.
Jim White And it's a huge challenge from a policy perspective because we are such instant gratification creatures. We would we would like to be able to pass a law, do something and have it fix the problem this week and if not this week maybe next week. That's not the way your planet works. Your planet has built in long term impacts from a carbon cycle point of view from a climate point of view. That's the way your planet functions. And if we don't start thinking on hundred year time scales, we're not going to be able to even address the problem. And we certainly won't be able to solve the problems until we start thinking in 100 year time scales.
Amy Martin We're capable of thinking on those time scales; in fact, we seem to enjoy it. Think about all the books and movies that take us into the deep past or the distant future. But that thinking is not incorporated into our economies or our public policy. And Jim says that's going to have to change.
Amy Martin Do you think that this is sort of a growing up time for the species.
Jim White Oh! I hope so.
Amy Martin I mean it strikes me as kind of like the Galileo moment where it was like, “Oh my god we're not the center!” And it was you know deeply disturbing and ultimately open up into this hold an era of innovation. Is it possible that we are, have to get through another type of fundamental paradigm shift just about our identity as humans right now?
Jim White Yes. As a matter of fact I think that that's the way it works. We are challenged to our core, and we either respond to that challenge we adapt and respond to that challenge or we don't. You know, there are certainly many times there's many examples of societies that no longer exist because they didn't adapt. But there's also abundant evidence out there that we are adaptable.
Amy Martin And this, again, is where it comes back to the rate of change. Like Jim said, speed kills. And he wasn't just talking about other species.
Jim White Imagine, you know, tens to hundreds of millions of people who don't have a place to go. You know, that is fertile ground for radicalism, for people saying, you know, “I can make your life better, all you gotta do is pick up this AK 47 and follow me.” I mean it's just, you know, it's just, you don't want it that many people who are desperate.
Amy Martin The food we eat, the water we drink, the land we live on – all of those things will get disrupted, not just once, but over and over, if we allow the climate to continue careening out of the equilibrium that we've enjoyed for so long.
Jim White Now you look at what the world is like today with hundreds of thousands of refugees and imagine that multiplied by many times over. So everyone should care about the Arctic for that reason.
Amy Martin We often talk about climate change in scientific terms, or in the language of governance and policy. But this issue is about suffering. Human suffering. We're talking about refugee crises of epic proportions. We're talking about hunger and disease. If we continue to ignore and deny this problem, we're heading into a downward spiral of scarcity, fear and violence.
So finding the motivation to tackle climate change really shouldn't require any particular ideology or political agenda: all we need is the instinct to move away from pain. It's just common sense, as simple and fundamental as pulling our hands away from a hot stove. That's the reflex we need to employ in the face of climate change: not altruism. Self-preservation.
We'll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin Lars Östlund wants me to eat some lichen.
Lars Östlund This is cetraria islandica, it's the Iceland lichen.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I'm Amy Martin, and I'm in northern Sweden, following Lars through a forest on a warm June day. Walking with him is like taking a guided tour through a three-dimensional encyclopedia. He seems to know the history, use, and meaning of everything around us, including this lichen he's offering to me. It's a vivid green, with a rubbery sort of texture. I give it a nibble, and it doesn't taste too bad. It doesn't taste good, but it doesn't taste too bad.
Lars Östlund And this is what was used by people in the past to stretch their food, and you could actually dry it and crush it and put it when you baked bread.
Amy Martin Almost a flour-like thing–
Lars Östlund Yeah. And it contains some good stuff, some carbohydrates and some proteins and stuff like that.
Amy Martin This forest is about an hour outside of the city of Umeå, where Lars works at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. He's a forest historian; while some people study history in books, Lars goes out and studies the forest itself for clues about the past. It's dark and dewy in here. We brush past large ferns and step over mossy snags. Long strands of pale-green wolf lichen stretch down from the branches of the pine trees.
Amy Martin This looks, kind of like in my childhood vision of, like, European fairy tales, this looks like this kind of forest.
Lars Östlund Yeah, there has been there has been a few books with exactly this setting.
Amy Martin Lars has taken me on this adventure without telling me exactly where we're going. It feels kind of like a treasure hunt. He leads me to an old Scots pine tree, with a large, squarish scar on its trunk. It's almost like a little window has been carved into the outer bark revealing the smooth wood beneath.
Lars Östlund So this is a Sámi bark peeling scar. A Sámi woman was collecting inner bark from this tree exactly at this time of the year in 1821.
Amy Martin You'll remember from earlier this season that Sámi are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia and western Russia. And Lars says this woman was harvesting cambium here: a layer of sticky, highly nutritious stuff that grows between the heartwood and the bark.
Amy Martin How do you know it was a woman, and how do you know the exact time of year, and–
Lars Östlund We know it because, it was a woman because it was a job for women and children to do this. And sometimes we see lower scars where the kids didn't reach as high up–
Amy Martin But this scar is one of the higher ones, so–
Lars Östlund It's very likely that it was a woman doing it. And we know this was taken in 1821, we have cored it and dated it. And we know the season because you had to catch the exactly right time when you collect the bark. Because there is a short window of time when the tree sets free the sugars and starts the growing season so the sap is flowing in the tree. And then the tree has a short window where it does not produce any toxic elements in the sap.
Amy Martin The Arctic has a very short growing season, so people up here had to get really smart about how to get all the vitamins and minerals they needed. Lars says the people who migrated into Scandinavia long after the Sámi also tried to harvest the cambium. But they didn't understand how important the timing was.
Lars Östlund So early earlier in the season the sap is not flowing and you can't get the bark off. Later in the season, the cambium is full of things which are really bad for your stomach. So if you collect bark in August, like the farmers did in times of scarcity, you did it at the wrong time and you got stomach aches and you got sick from eating it, to some extent. But the Sámis knew exactly when to do this.
Amy Martin So, June of 1821.
Lars Östlund Yeah.
Amy Martin Right where we're standing.
Lars Östlund Right where we're standing.
Amy Martin There was someone here, what would she have been doing? Can you make the motion actually? Like, how does it work?
Amy Martin In June of 1821, Napoleon had just died. Beethoven was getting ready to compose his ninth symphony. And here, in front of this tree, a Sámi woman got out her knife, and started cutting. We can actually still see the traces her blade left in the tree.
Lars Östlund So, she would cut through the outer bark here on the sides. And then she would take the bark, with the outer bark and the cambium, and lay it probably on the rock like this.
Amy Martin That's amazing.
Lars Östlund That's amazing.
Amy Martin That's an actual trace of an actual person holding an actual knife. Right where we are.
Lars Östlund And the fantastic thing. This is not an artifact collected and brought somewhere else. We know that here. This place, this tree. This tree is like a negative of, of the action.
Amy Martin Sámi people didn't fell the trees they used – they left them standing so they could harvest cambium from them again, and again. They knew they needed something that this tree had.
Lars Östlund And if you eat too much lean protein, like the reindeers are in the winter, you get some illnesses because of that.
Amy Martin Yeah, I mean I imagine you would get scurvy, right?
Lars Östlund Yeah. And the interesting thing is that the Sámis never had scurvy. The farmers had that. That was a big problem for the colonizing farmers in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. But there is no known record of scurvy from the Sámi people.
Amy Martin Lars says they have verified bark peeling scars that are 3,000 years old in Scandinavia.
Lars Östlund I am absolutely sure that this use of the forest has been going on for much longer than that. Probably since people came here after the Ice Age.
Amy Martin And Lars says using the trees this way can actually make them stronger.
Lars Östlund A scar like this is good for a pine.
Amy Martin Really?
Lars Östlund Because it produces some substances which prevents rot on the wood. So this is actually for the most part good for the tree. So you could come back and re-harvest a tree on another side, and then, and then you could make a bark-peeling scar on the side here. And then on the other side. The tree, maybe it doesn't like it, but it's not complaining too much. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin I didn't know this before I met him, but Lars had actually spent time studying bark peeling scars in Montana, where I live. It turns out many Native American tribes have a tradition of harvesting the cambium in almost the exact same way as the Sámi.
Lars Östlund For me as a forest ecologist from Sweden, and then you go to Montana, it’s a little bit, you get a little bit...emotional...it's fantastic to see that.
Amy Martin It's beautiful.
Lars Östlund It is beautiful. This is something uniting all the Northern peoples on the, on the Earth that they have used trees for food like this.
Amy Martin It's amazing.
Lars Östlund It's amazing. This is a very long standing relationship between people and trees in northern locations. This tradition is really deep in history.
Amy Martin I met Lars at the very beginning of my reporting for this season, and I've gone back to this day with him in my mind many times since. I think the experience gave me some sort of fuel I really needed. Talking about climate change can be hard because thinking about it is hard. It's so huge and heavy. It's kind of paralyzing.
But walking around in this forest with Lars made me feel closer to the pathways out of that paralysis. Seeing that bark peeling scar, standing there in the forest, right where that Sámi woman stood – it's a reminder that all over the world, human beings have figured out ways of thriving on this planet without ruining it. In a time when we're surrounded by evidence of how destructive we can be, it feels really important to remember that that's not all we are. I said earlier that solving climate change is about self-preservation. But maybe it's also about deepening our understanding of what the self is.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen You have some kind of thinking that the human being destroys everything, which is like, really wrong way of thinking, I think.
Amy Martin This is Risten Turi Aleksandersen, from the Sámi reindeer herding family you met back in episode six. And this conversation happened in northern Norway, when Risten and I first met.
Amy Martin I have to confess that I think this is something that I am learning to kind of deconstruct. Because, and I think it just comes from, there are so few examples in my own experience where we haven't destroyed something. So without even thinking about it I've had the bias that, like, human equals destruction, you know?
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Yes, yes. And maybe you can feel so – not depressed but you can feel that well, okay, what can I do to change this? And then I think it's important to empower people to, okay, well we can do a lot, and we can change. We need to do that. We just need to do it. We can't wait.
Amy Martin In a way, it's actually really freeing what you're saying because, because I think one thing that happens to people about climate change is they think, “Well, we ruin everything, so this is bound to happen.” But you're saying, “No we don't have to ruin everything, actually. It's very possible to be human and not be such a destructive force.”
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Yes, and looking at, what can be important in life? Instead of always focusing on the material things, we try to focus on relationships between people, and make that something important in our lives. And, and maybe that will like, that could also help against this loneliness. There are some many people who are lonely. You know, we don't need a new phone every year, we don't need a new car every year, we don't need all this stuff. We need each other, I think.
Amy Martin Climate change is already changing the Arctic, and it's going to change all of us. But is there any chance that it could change us for the better? It looks to me like in order to survive climate change we have to find different ways of relating to each other and to everything around us. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Amy Martin What's the name for the rope, in Sámi?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen This?
Amy Martin Yep.
Amy Martin I'm up on the mountaintop where the Aleksandersens herd their reindeer, with Ulf Isak, Risten's son. We've been practicing throwing a lasso, and I ask him to teach me the Sámi word for it.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Suhoppan…
Amy Martin ..
(back and forth)
Amy Martin This is the edited version – we went back and forth like this for a full minute or more.
(back and forth)
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen You need to try harder.
Amy Martin Ulf Isak is ten years old. He speaks three languages, and he navigates between two different worlds on a daily basis. He has a Norwegian life and a Sámi life. Hanging out with him and his family feels like getting an education in the skills we're all going to need in the future. Flexibility, determination, and the ability to weave several different worldviews together in order to adapt and survive.
Are we going to break our fossil fuel addiction before it breaks us? Do we have time to prevent catastrophic change in the Arctic? Can we use this climate crisis as a catalyst for becoming a more just and humane species?
I don't know. I believe those things are possible. But one thing is certain. If we're going to get there, we have to try harder.
Amy Martin [LAUGHS]
Reiulf Aleksandersen [LAUGHS] That was the best. Try harder.
Amy Martin I’m really not putting in enough effort here.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Suhoppan…
Amy Martin …
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Suhoppan…
Amy Martin Do it slow.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Su-hoppan.
Amy Martin Su-hoppan.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Yes.
Amy Martin OK. You’re a strict teacher.
Amy Martin Making Threshold is very much a team effort. Huge thanks to Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki for leading that team with me. They all wore way too many hats to name. Michael Connor and Nora Saks provided crucial editing assistance. Frank Allen, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein and Zach Wilson serve on the Threshold advisory committee. Rosie Costain and Maxine Speier helped Nick with fact-checking. Zoë Rom and Jackson Barnett put in countless hours as interns. Our fabulous music is by the mighty Travis Yost.
Thanks to everyone at our home public radio station, Montana Public Radio, for all of the support. Special thanks as well to Peter Thomson and PRI's The World, the Park Foundation, and to our major sponsor, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
And finally, thank you for listening.