THE BLOG

A Tale of Two Continents

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Ilulissat, Greenland -- I'm back in the New World, even though I had to get here by way of the Old. The symposium, "The Arctic: Mirror of Life" which brought me here to this Greenland settlement, originated farther east, in the Old World, when we took off from Heathrow Airport with the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Churches, Bartholomew I, the "Green Patriarch." Bartholomew has been holding these symposia on "Science, Religion and the Environment" for more than a decade, each year exploring the issues in one of the world's oceans or seas. (Last year, the Amazon qualified.) Yesterday, in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI specifically endorsed the Symposium and led prayers for "greater respect for God's creation." Three days earlier, he led an eco-friendly youth rally, attended by an estimated 500,000 faithful, in which the Pontiff called on world leaders to act "before it is too late."

The Patriarch's leadership, and the Pope's appeal, are not the only signs that the Old World has leaped ahead of the Americas environmentally. Flying over the coast at Liverpool there is a nice, neat off-shore wind farm dotting the Irish Sea. On the flight itself, the only available paper is The Times of London, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid. This isn't the New York Times or the Financial Times, mind you -- it's a tabloid. But it covers the Pope's ecological appeal. And it has a lengthy and thoughtful story on how the BBC has decided that its job is to educate, not motivate, and that Live Earth-style mass appeals (in British terms, "campaigning") are not what a media outlet should do. Then there is a full-page ad by the Saintsbury grocery chain. The entire selling point is that Saintsbury's organic carrots cost exactly the same as its competitor, TESCO's, but that Saintsbury's packaging is biodegradable. The tag line? "Same prices. Different values." And the front-page, full-color story covers new studies showing that food additives are almost certainly part of the story of hyperactivity and learning disability among children and runs with a half-page follow-up telling readers precisely which artificial additives are implicated. (Interestingly, about half of the bad actors are banned in the US already -- so while Europe's sensibilities may have leaped past ours, regulations still lag.)

On the flight we are given a brief brochure on Ilulissat which explains that its inhabitants have a foot in both the Old World and the New. "We get the news as fast as anyone. We see the results of global warming, caused by the past two centuries of western industrialization, of which we are also a part. ... Taking part in the modern world, and at the same time preserving the essential Arctic survival skills, is demanding." And what are those ancient skills? "Being able to make your own decisions -- as in the old hunting days. Sitting in the qajak (kayak) one had no time to ask before shooting -- the hunter had to be self reliant... Quick decisions, and swift competent movements, based on your own judgment. That is the ideal .... however, the coin has a back side to it. Brought up in the spirit of Illit aalajangissuat a person can be very much alone ... some get stronger in this individualistic oriented process of learning how to be an up-to-date Greenlander -- others do not."

Ironically, the core meaning of llit aalajangissuat -- it's up to you -- is rendered pointless by global warming -- it is no longer up to any one of us, it must be up to all of us together.