That global warming is having a devastating effect on the Arctic isn’t in doubt but looking at the gorgeous snowscapes dotted throughout Arctic, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the real problems are a long way off. But hidden behind the snow and ice are big problems, affecting real wildlife and real people right now, and it’s their stories that are the focus of Parry’s book and the accompanying TV series.
From Rasmus, an Inuit hunter-gather, to Yegor, a Siberian reindeer herder, the people of the Arctic Circle are the human face of climate change and they know it. A war with nature is one we will lose, asserts Stephen, a Gwich'in elder, and he speaks as one who knows having seen the caribou herds on which his tribe depends decline by 50 per cent during his lifetime, thanks to the combined effects of global warming and pollution. Rasmus is similarly affected thanks to the impact of melting ice floes on the walrus population.
A traditional food animal for the Inuit, the walrus season is shortening and the beasts harder to find, thanks to habitat erosion. Polar bears too, another important source of food and clothing for the Inuit, are becoming harder to find and the situation isn’t helped, in the eyes of the people, by quotas imposed from the outside. While Parry avoids passing overt judgment on the hunting traditions of the native peoples, he’s clearly sympathetic to their plight and respects their right to kill and eat species most of us would consider off limits – seals, narwhal and so on. Since they kill relatively few, use the whole thing and look after the remaining animals, Parry's sympathetic stance is understandable. The Inuit don't kill for profit; for them, it is about survival in a land where nothing grows. The real villain of the piece as far as Parry is concerned, is oil.
Oil, oil companies and oil-users – that’s us by the way – have a lot to answer for and Parry makes this crystal-clear over the course of the chapter on Canada. The pollution it creates, speeds up global warming. Prospecting is encroaching on virgin land and wreaking havoc among local wildlife populations. Worst of all, is the extraction process which simultaneously pollutes and mangles its surroundings. The example Parry uses is that of the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta. Once a vast forest, the Athabasca mine is now responsible for 50 per cent of Canada’s oil production.
In stark contrast to previous pages, featuring the Gwich'in’s forests and rivers, the images of the area around Athabasca show polluted rivers, scooped out hillsides and mountains of toxic waste. He notes that villagers downstream have reported strange cancers but have been ignored by the Canadian government. Parry also talks to local Native American chief, Jim Boucher of the Fort Mackay First Nation, whose people initially fought the oil but are now part of the system. Clearly Boucher feels his people had no choice and considering the opposition - the Canadian government, international governments, big business - he’s probably right.
While it’s too late to do much about the ecosystem destroyed by the Athabasca oil refineries, what Parry has done is to show us what our appetite for oil has brought about: wholesale destruction, drastic changes to habitat and the endangerment of people and animals alike. By drawing attention to the wild beauty of the Arctic and the fascinating traditions of the people who inhabit it, Parry has shown us what we stand to lose. Now it’s our turn to do something about it.
Arctic, RRP £20, is published by Conway and is available to buy online at Amazon. The DVD, Arctic with Bruce Parry, is released on 28th February.
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