Plastic Beach

Svalbard’s crippling beauty is deceiving because the eyes can’t see what lies buried within the land. If they could, they might turn away. PCBs, heavy metals, plastics, and other toxic chemicals course their way through the air and water of Svalbard. The levels of these pollutants are so high across the entire Arctic as to imply the region is at the center of the industrial world. “What was once pristine has become a deep-freeze archive that stores memories of the industrial world’s pollution.” I would read months later in the heat of a New York summer, in Marla Cone’s Silent Snow. “This is the Arctic Paradox, arguably the most severe case of environmental injustice on earth.”

How does the “most severe case of environmental injustice on earth” occur in a place in which, small-scale mining aside, there is almost no industrial activity?

The same ocean currents that keep western Svalbard warmer than the rest of the Arctic also carry pollution into the region. This pollution originates in cities and industrial centers further south. Chemicals produced in these centers spread into rivers and lakes, which in turn are carried out into the oceans, or evaporate upwards into the air where they will be carried along by the currents that snake their way across the globe. Chemicals like PCBs, which freeze in cold temperatures and evaporate when warmed, eventually make their way north along the various natural highways of the planet. All roads end at the top of the globe, in the High Arctic. There, they finally come to rest. As time passes, more chemicals make their way north, continuing to pile up like the trash we would find on the beach at Smeerenburg.

One of the unique aspects of Arctic wildlife is that it is composed primarily of apex predators - animals that have little to no competition, existing as they do higher up the trophic food chain. With few smaller animals along the food chain to absorb toxins, the various chemicals that accumulate in the environment are quickly absorbed into the body fat of fish and the mammals that eat them. Same goes for the humans who live off those wild animals. While wild game makes up little of the diet for the mostly transient population in Svalbard, it is still a mainstay for native Inuits living in northern Greenland. This chemical buildup is responsible for making both the animals and native inhabitants of the region the most polluted on the planet. Dangerous levels of mercury, lead and other toxic chemicals are routinely found in the bodies of Arctic inhabitants. But when we landed on Smeerenburg on the fifth day of our trip, I knew nothing about this.

 Approaching Smeerenburg

Approaching Smeerenburg

The guides had picked Smeerenburg, a popular stop on many Svalbard cruises, so that we could have a chance to see the remains of the old whaling station and the walruses who routinely rest on the beach nearby. The sky was soft and blue when we landed, the sun not yet fully risen. A large huddle of walruses lay around the curve of the shore, resting on the beach as silently and still as a pile of small boulders. We approached, quietly, slowly, in a single line stretched across the beach before our guide Marte stopped us about 25 yards short of the pile. A flatulent stink rose from the herd as they lay prone in the morning light. Marte whispered that it was OK to take our cameras out. Cameras raised, the group began to snap away like tourists on safari. The refreshing blue light of the morning sky, the wisps of clouds that were disintegrating along the mountain tops across the bay, made the scene “picture perfect.” But there we stood, photographing with cameras and clothes constructed in factories so far away that nevertheless contributed to the pollution all around us that we could not see.

A walrus, as leathery and wrinkled as they appear in photos, yet with a threatening physicality completely absent in images, lifted its head to see what was going on and let out a loud snort in response before lowering its head back down. Cameras clicked loudly across the otherwise quiet landscape.

As the sounds of the cameras became sparse, one of our guides let us know that we could go with our guide Sally to explore the stretch of beach behind us or stay to observe the walruses. I opted for the whaling station.

 Timber foundations of a building at Smeerenburg

Timber foundations of a building at Smeerenburg

After walking around the calcified remains of the old copper smelting pots and filming the area, Sally offered us the chance to stay, or walk further down the beach to collect trash. I wanted to stay and see what else I could film, but as more of the group split off to join her, I felt I should pitch in and not worry about my camera, even though my reason for being in this place was predicated on filming it. I shouldered my camera and walked towards the group.

We walked and talked along the beach, stopping every few steps to bend over and pick up the plastic netting that lined the shore, placing them in one of the large Polypropylene bags Sally had handed out to volunteers. At first, we only encountered green strands of plastic netting, often as small as an index finger. Like mushrooms sprouting after the rain, they poked up out of the stones and ground around us. Occasionally we’d come across single pieces of fishing net with an individual strand sticking up that seemed easy enough to pick up, only to find it betrayed a more substantial portion that would require two hands to violently pull loose, trailing long pieces of netting that had been buried deep in the sand. Sometimes whole chunks of net emerged like enormous plastic cobwebs after struggling to pull one of these lone strands free.

As we continued to walk down the beach, the pieces of plastic became larger. The previously scattered remains of net and trash coalesced into piles of debris that dotted the shoreline. Where you would typically expect to see piles of seaweed, there were piles of plastic.

At first, these larger items seemed helpful, as it made collecting them easier. But as we continued, a painful, frustrating monotony set in. The immensity of the amount of that much plastic on that small a strip of beach, on this remote an island, so far away from the world we’d left behind, settled over me like the knowledge of a dark secret. The surrounding landscape, in all its beauty, began to recede as my eyes increasingly focused on the ground and objects at my feet. Round buoys. A pair of high heels. Food containers. A gasoline canister. Coils of rope and nets larger than any we had encountered. Much of what we were looking at was the waste produced by fishing vessels, but some, like the high heels, were wild cards, lonely castoffs that roamed the world’s oceans, finally coming to rest on this stretch of shore.  The circularity of their presence became all the more apparent the more substantial the nets became. Where whales had once been ‘fished’ to be melted down for oil to fuel the nascent capitalist trade networks that would give rise to the Industrial Revolution, we now collected fishing nets that existed thanks in part to the process set in motion so many centuries ago on this island. The plastic the nets were constructed from could only exist thanks to the discovery of petroleum, and petroleum owed its use, in part, to the overfishing that whale populations had suffered from their contact with European people. A single piece of net represented a node in an infinite web of irreducible trash our species had only recently created.  The abstract was made legible here, and that legibility was damning.

Minutes passed. Time extended, drawing us tediously along the beach. A numbing present that threatened eternity. We continued collecting trash, gathering it all up into our arms like waste pickers in a landfill until they were full, then we made our way to Sally to deposit our haul into one of the large bags she carried.

“Every trip it’s the same,” Sally told me sullenly that morning as we stood on a rise near the shoreline, looking out over the beach. “We come and clean with every landing, but every time we come back, there’s more to clean. It never ends.”

 Sally holding plastic trash collected along the beach

Sally holding plastic trash collected along the beach

The further the distance we covered and the more the bags began to fill, the more I felt a growing sense of frustration. The process became mechanical, and I lost interest in talking with the people around me. There were only my arms, my legs, the unsteady surface of the beach below me, and so many pieces of trash that needed to be picked up. The more frustrated I grew, the more I felt a growing sense of pointlessness in this task I’d volunteered for. I should be back with the group that had remained near the ruins of the old settlement, filming the scene and the guides while the light was bright, instead of stooped over, picking up another piece of fishing net that would be replaced by another soon after I left. The size of the problem we were attempting to confront was so overwhelming that a feeling of nihilism settled over me.

In the same way the statistics of climate change often induce apathy, the act of picking up so much trash, in such a remote corner of the world, made physical the sense of helplessness that occurs when intellectually confronted with the severity of the environmental crises we face.

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Yet not long after the realization that we would never thoroughly clean this beach had turned to nihilism, it began to pass. The act of looking for, and picking up trash, secure in the knowledge that the task we were engaged in was Sisyphean on some level, began to numb my frustration. I could sense myself moving past the hope and pleasure of the morning, through the disappointment that inevitably followed, into a middle ground where the act became an act in of itself, carried out without attachment to a determined outcome.

Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently and convincingly for hope in the face of hopelessness that can settle over anyone who thinks too hard about the scale of the environmental and political challenges we face, but I’m not entirely convinced. Personal experience has led me to believe that hope is the partner of fear. Each is indelibly linked to each other, each a form of grasping for solid ground in an unsolid world. When we see that they are one in the same, we are free. Freed from trembling anticipation, we can step forward into life as it is. Maybe this is true courage.

The paradox of the situation we find ourselves in is that it is seemingly too big for either individual or collective action. There is on the one hand, the potential of individual choice - imagine if 50% of the global population that uses air travel decided not to fly again unless in case of an emergency, and of collective action on the other - imagine if governments banned the use of certain plastics, fossil fuels, rationed meat consumption and non-essential air travel by say, 2025. But individual and collective action are often intertwined. One can’t sort the two apart as easily it can be imagined. Or, as Timothy Morton points out in Being Ecological, climate action is a sorties paradox, because where do you draw the line between between the individual and the collective?

“Nothing that you did, such as starting your car, has had a statistically meaningful effect. Yet billions of car starting and bursting of coal into flame and so on have totally had an effect. There is an uncanny gap between little me and me as a member of what is called a species. The human species caused global warming…but species is exactly what you can’t point to. I find that I am and I am not human, insofar as I did and did not contribute to global warming, depending on what scale you think I’m on…”

In other words, when do individual objects, in our case, strands of plastic on a beach, become a heap of plastic? How many individual objects must be added before they become much larger than the sum of their parts? Or conversely, if we were to start pulling away single strands at a time, when would it cease to become a heap?

And this philosophical approach leaves out the political question entirely.

It is, after all, individual choices that at some point reach critical mass, influencing and guiding political systems, and vice versa. Individuals like myself, aware of the severity of the crisis, could give up flying, but I have yet to take that step. Politicians and policymakers have known since the 1980’s about how severe climate change could become, but made decisions not to act, partly because they did not view the issue as a political problem. (1)

This paradox was exposed in Nathaniel Rich’s massive “Loosing Earth” article for the New York Times Magazine, when he summarized an argument from Curtis Moore, a Republican who served on the Committee on Environment and Public Works in 1986 and was fully aware of the existential threat greenhouse gas pollution posed.

“Political problems had solutions. And the climate issue had none. Without a solution — an obvious, attainable one — any policy could only fail. No elected politician desired to come within shouting distance of failure. So when it came to the dangers of despoiling our planet beyond the range of habitability, most politicians didn’t see a problem.” (2)

The banality of our own inability to make necessary sacrifices, that is of people like myself and others who are fully aware of how severe the situation is, was best illustrated when I interviewed one of our guides, Kristen, on the slope of a glacier at Bockfjorden.

“In the act of living here, I go against everything I say. Because living in Longyearbyen, at the end of the world, is probably with one of the highest carbon footprints in the world, because everything in town is brought there. To get here you have to fly. So living in Longyearbyen, you live here because you love the Arctic, but it's probably the worst thing you can do.”

This is why confronting climate change appears so staggering, and thus unlikely to succeed. Civilization itself, as a social and economic model, is fundamentally antagonistic towards balanced resource management. This drive predates capitalism and could continue after its gone (3). While the distribution of resources could, and should, be vastly more equitably distributed, and acquired with less damage to the environment, so long as civilization itself exists, there will always be a threat of environmental overuse. No matter what “ism” that might someday replace capitalism, it will remain reliant on extracting resources to fuel food, construction, and cities. And these traits are driven just as much by individual desires for material security, and prestige, as the collective systems that under-gird the extraction and distribution of resources. All this said, the uncomfortable truth is that were governments able to find it within their interests, and power, to impose radical regulations on the range of issues affecting environmental destruction, the odds of averting major disaster would increase. And as hopeless as the situation may seem when you drill down into the climate scenarios that are already baked into our future, there still may be a slim window for popular, mass movements married to government action.

These issues are maddeningly complex, and beyond me other than simply try to outline a few of them in a small amount of space. I'm only scratching the surface. In some attempt at closing this entry, all I can do is offer my personal experience from the day.

Walking along the beach that morning, bending over to pick up trash every few steps, felt both maddening and liberating. While it would be easy to cynically write the morning off as a feel-good exercise - the waste would come back, after all, we were actively choosing as individuals to lessen the amount of trash on Smeerenberg, and we were actively choosing to do so together. In doing so, we tentatively stepped into the void of climate catastrophe and without hope or fear of failure or success, did what had to be done.

Even if the outcome of all the forces we have set in motion overwhelms us, there is no reason not to keep trying to clean up the mess we have made. It is the absolute least we can do and we owe it to ourselves, if only to die with some self-respect, and perhaps without total condemnation from future generations. And although the future is bleak, it still contains multiplicities.

 Nanou holding a clump of plastic.

Nanou holding a clump of plastic.

Footnotes

1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-change-losing-earth.html

2. This seems to imply that without the rise of a popular, radically re-distributive political and economic movement, or a Stalin like dictator in the US and China, that has an unlikely zest to confront the world’s environmental challenges by gradually shutting down the different sectors of our fossil fuel dependent economy through force, we are screwed. This seems more likely than a representative Republican system voting in politicians who would support the potentially extreme economic sacrifices that would necessitate leveling carbon emissions. For more on this issue see Climate Leviathan, by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright. The political solutions are woefully limited, and I’m skeptical of the ‘more democracy will save us’ solution proposed by people like George Monbiot. To further the point - these words from Mayer Hillman, an influential British social scientist, “Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/26/were-doomed-mayer-hillman-on-the-climate-reality-no-one-else-will-dare-mention

Creating workers councils on the floors of a Ford plant and including them in a profit sharing scheme will improve their lives and communities in the short term, but if the Ford plant keeps producing gas guzzlers, then their children are still cursed with an uninhabitable planet. That said, a necessary step forward seems to call for a rapid transitions to a commons based approach for managing land and resources that will eliminate the ability of industry to offload negative externalities onto populations. If democratic processes offer any way forward, it would likely come in a return to commons based resource management.

3. "We are all still Mesopotamians" in the words of Timothy Morton. While the Left isn't factually incorrect to point to European imperialism and capitalist systems as being responsible for the current environmental crisis, focusing exclusively on those elements creates a limited historical analysis that misses the deeper roots of the crisis we are undergoing as a species. Farmers from Anatolia displaced indigenous hunting and foraging European populations after all, whether through force, interbreeding, lifestyle example, or some combination of all these elements, the evidence is still being collected, but the fact remains the model of hierarchical, patriarchal, slave based societies that utilize large-scale, mono-crop farming to secure increased population densities and complex city states, seems to have originated in the Middle East as a result of climatic changes that brought on the Neolithic period. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. It's this Neolithic model that is the real crux at the heart of the current dilemmas.

See SCOTT, JAMES C. AGAINST THE GRAIN: a Deep History of the Earliest States. YALE UNIV PRESS, 2018.

Fire and Ice, On Whales and Oil

“Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.” W.G. Sebald

The world we inhabit exists because of fire. Fire produces heat and heat produces energy, fueling the otherwise impossible project of civilization. The mastery of fire marks one of the distinct differences between humans and all other species.  Without it, we never could have cooked our food, leaving our physical and mental evolution foreclosed. Without it, we never could have spread across the planet. Our ingenuity in its application has made nearly every technology we’ve innovated possible.

And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire. - Hesiod

Fire is our gift and our curse. Gifted by the gods, our earliest cultures saw fire and the technology it brought, as something bestowed upon us by outside forces. This mythology raises questions as to whether our use and pursuit of fire and the technology it allows for, is driven solely by our own self-interest (1).  But, as combustion is essential to civilization, we have always pursued it.

In search of sources to keep this flame alive, English and Dutch whalers began venturing into the seas around Svalbard in the 17th century. They came seeking whale oil to use as fuel for household lamps. Compared to fossil fuels, what now may seem like an innocuous and low impact source of illumination, would drive the bowhead whales that lived in those waters to near extinction in roughly 200 years.

While it’s original discovery is not entirely settled, the first historical record available confirms the Dutch explorer William Barentsz spotted Spitsbergen in 1596 while searching for a Northeast passage around Russia to the Pacific. In 1604, an English whaling ship set anchor at Bjørnøya, Bear Island, which sits halfway between Norway and the archipelago. The English landed to kill walruses but discovered bowhead whales in the waters around the small island. The whales' presence would bring the previously uninhabited and unexplored region into the fold of European consciousness, first as a region to be mapped, objectified and exploited for the resource it provided and second, as a gateway to more northern and unexplored portions of the globe. After the whales were exterminated, it would become a source of fur pelts for the European market, and when that resource was depleted, its mountains would be discovered to hold coal deposits that could be extracted to fuel an industrial civilization that was spreading around the globe. In time, the Arctic region would become one of the most visibly affected landscapes by this massive release of energy that has occurred over the past two centuries. Thus Svalbard, an isolated, barren and predominately frozen chain of islands, has become inextricably linked to heat.

By 1612, Dutch, English and Spanish ships were traversing the ocean around Spitsbergen. The English Captain Jonas Poole reported that same year that whales were so numerous around the seas of Spitsbergen his ships nearly had to plow through them.

“They look very beautiful when the Sun shines upon them, the small clear Waves of the Sea that are over him glisten like Silver,” wrote Martens in his diary.

Initially led by a small number of Basque whalers, who had an established whaling tradition, the crews grew increasingly self-sufficient in whaling techniques in a short period of time, and the numbers of ships and men off the coast of Svalbard soon exploded. Within 80 years, those waters would offer no resistance for passing ships.

After whale stocks were depleted by the mid 17th century in the easily accessible fjords and bays of Spitsbergen, whalers were forced to take their hunt to the open sea, which required a more strenuous effort. Despite the challenges of open sea hunting, the whaling industry grew. Near the end of the 1600’s, there were hundreds of ships crewed by thousands of men in the sea around Svalbard in search of whales. 

 Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen - Abraham Storck, 1690

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen - Abraham Storck, 1690

The whale slaughter worked like this. After spotting a whale from the crow’s nest, a long, wooden skiff was lowered off the side of the tall ship. Six to eight men rowed out over the open waves of the ocean, their only guide a hump occasionally rising and falling through the water. As gulls and cormorants squawked overhead in the cold summer air, the men rowed furiously to close the distance between themselves and the whale. Then they slowed, pulling up their oars and gently rowing as quietly as possible, in order not to spook their prey, as they drifted and bobbed slowly towards it, the black hump a symbol of mystery, fear, excitement, and death on the open water. If the whaler's had sufficient experience, they would try and wait till the whale surfaced to expel air from its blowhole, at which point the whale was rendered temporarily deaf. With a thick, metal, V-shaped harpoon tip attached to a long, wooden pole, a man at the front of the boat drew his arm back and then snapped it forward, plunging the spear into the exposed surface of the whale.  If it was well aimed, the spear punctured the layer of thick blubber that encapsulated the whale, tearing into its flesh. Then, all hell broke loose. If the crew had judged their distance correctly and had some luck on their side, the whale plunged below the surface of the water, as the harpoon line spun around the loggerhead it was secured to, smoke rising off the cord from the speed and tension of its rapid unraveling, before the boat lurched in the direction the whale swam. “The Whale doth swim sometimes away with some thousand fathoms of Rope-line, swifter a great deal than a Ship can sail, or a Bird can fly, so that it makes their Heads giddy…” wrote Martens. The boat and crew were at the mercy of the whale as it raced through the dark waters beneath them, the vessel rising and falling as it was rapidly dragged through the waves, the crew clinging to whatever they could hold fast.

This ride could last for hours if the harpoon was not well placed. Behind them, if the weather permitted, the tall ship raced to catch up.  Eventually, the whale would exhaust itself, and as the boat came to a rest, they pulled themselves along the line towards this alien Other. Suffering unimaginable pain, as whales have an unusually sensitive nervous system, the whale floated gently along the ocean surface. This buoyancy earned the bowhead the nickname the Right Whale, as it was the easiest to hunt. The boat drew close, and crew members plunged their lances deep into its body, aiming for the lungs or heart. Blood spurted into the water around it, and the whale lurched away again, slowly this time. As the water around its black body filled with red foam, it began a death spiral that grew tighter and tighter, before it finally expired.

Often, the hunt did not go so smoothly. Martens wrote:

“I did never see nor hear, that out of his own Malice he endeavour'd to hurt any Man, but when he is in danger; what then he doth is of necessity, and then he doth not value a man no more than a Sand, nor a Longboat, for he doth beat them all into Splinters.”

The whale, in its injured thrashing after the initial harpoon thrust, may have swiped the boat with its tail, tipping it over or smashing it, sending the crew into the Arctic sea, where they had little chance of survival unless the mother ship could rapidly cover the distance.

Despite the slaughter the whaler’s initiated from the 17th century on, it did not go unchallenged by the environment. Between the whales and the weather, the hunters put their lives on their line by merely arriving in Svalbard. Even if they survived the hunt, there was always the possibility the weather turned during the day, stranding the men at sea during a storm in their small whaling skiffs, where they might drown beneath the storm black water as they tried to return to their boats. Their graves, marked by piles of stones to secure the coffins that could not be buried beneath the ground, can be found around the shores of Svalbard. I could not locate any records confirming the total number of deaths - it's doubtful any were kept, but the Norwegian Polar Institute’s guidebook to the region states that on the northwest corner Spitsbergen there are burial grounds containing hundreds of graves. In all my time there however, I would only see one. Four, long pieces of wood sat on top of yellow hued green moss and lichen covered ground. The stones that had once secured the lid now sat inside its frame, pieces of broken wood beneath them. Over the centuries, the wood of the coffin had taken on the color of the rocks inside and around it - spotted, stained blacks surrounded by soft, pastel whites and streaked with various shades of grey. The straight lines of the wooden frame holding the round rocks inside were the only remaining trace of a human presence. Death and the land merged into a singular, subtle monument. In this same region where so many had perished chasing fuel, the Dutch had built what would become the largest of the summer whaling camps, Smeerenburg.

As we approached from the south, the sky was dark, the large, orange moon still resting on the horizon. To the west, isolated mountains rose out of the cold waters of the open ocean, their pointed tops tied to the Dutch name for the land itself, spits - pointed, bergen - mountains. To our east, the mountains of the mainland ran straight into the sea, their surfaces patterned by blacks, whites, and grays. A school of jellyfish passed along the starboard side of the boat, moving quickly through the pale green water. The cold was bracing against my skin. Exhausted from jet lag, poor sleep, and the stress that follows, I felt dislocated, awed by a new world, out of my mind. My eyes teared up. My body became excited. Where was I?

What had the whalers felt when they first passed along this same route? With no Google and no National Geographic to give them a sense of where they were headed and how the land would appear? Their records only detailed weather and wind directions, the tack of their sails, violent encounters with polar bears and walruses that end with the animal tortured, butchered and skinned. Fear is the only emotion recorded in their logs. A singular presence.

 "The train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg". Painting by  Cornelis de Man  (1639)

"The train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg". Painting by Cornelis de Man (1639)

Built on a flat island covered by small rocks and ringed by the sea and mountains of Fuglefjorden, situated near the top of the northwest coast of Spitsbergen, the site had once been a seasonal camp for Dutch whalers. Although a fort existed alongside 17 other primitive buildings, all that is visible now are the calcified remains of whale oil that built up around the base of the copper smelting pots in semi-circles that appear like ancient rocks stained black by the smoke of a ritual fire. Already abandoned when Martens visited in the summer of 1671, the camp was known in Dutch as Smeerenburg - Blubber Town. While writers made exaggerated claims during its heyday - that thousands of men summered on the island with its own hotel and prostitutes, the truth is that 200-300 men, at most, were present on Smeerenburg during its peak years of activity. Throughout the summer season, before the ice and cold of winter forced the whalers back south, large, copper vats filled with whale blubber slowly cooked down to oil under a sun that never set. The rancid smell of decaying whale flesh and burning blubber filled the air as the men skinned their catch along the beach and stirred the fat in boiling cauldrons. Like almost all work that involves extracting fuel from the earth, it would have appeared hellish. Thick smoke, burning fires, gagging smells - the crepuscular work of a haunted species upon the face of the earth.

The oil here would go on to fuel candles, while the baleen and bone were supplied to a burgeoning fashion industry in Europe, where they could be used to thread corsets, make “knife-hafts” and fashion walking sticks. The oil that formed around the vats, along with a few petrified pieces of timber, are the only artifacts of a former human presence on the island, and they are so natural looking that they might go unnoticed without any context. But this camouflaged historical evidence isn’t necessary to see the human impact on the island. The contemporary evidence is sufficient and more striking.

The slaughter that once took place there is connected to the present by an obtuse circularity. As the site once provided fuel for a civilization, it now plays host to the remnants of that fuel. All along the shoreline, plastic has washed up. The remains of fishing nets, shampoo bottles, buoys, and so many tiny pieces of plastic ephemera, lay stretched out in piles and patches along the rocky shore.

Footnotes

1. There is something Luciferian about the use of fire and by extension, technology. Lucifer, after all, was the light bearer.

Ancient humans saw technology as emerging independently of our minds. Gifted by the gods, our earliest cultures saw technology as something bestowed upon us by outside forces. Rational materialists can provide reams of facts as to why this obviously is not true, but this misses an aspect that may be important and true about those myths.

Within the fields of contemporary philosophy, an increasing number of voices are advocating for animism, panpsychism or object oriented ontology. As gaps in consciousness theory become more difficult to account for, and as data collected by various fields shows intentional behavior and degrees of intelligence among an expanding range of animals, plants, minerals, and cellular organisms, arguments are being put forward that there is a complexity of conscious life among the bodies and objects we share the world with. If life around us is teeming with intentionality and evolutionary drives for survival, we should be consider the idea that technology itself may posses an evolutionary force.

As the theory popularized by Michael Pollan goes, plants have used humans for their evolutionary purposes – enabling their spread, growth, and survival in a manner that would have been impossible without the aid of humans. If the species of wheat could have a perspective, would it not view humans as a vital outside force in their evolutionary success? As Pollan has asked, is it humans who domesticated plants, or plants that have domesticated humans? Of course, if wheat could think, and if it could think like post-Enlightenment thinkers, it would hold its success in high regard, as something accomplished entirely on its own. For all the things we consider marvels – the internet, space travel, medical technology, wheat could care less. All that would matter is that it had escaped its humble origins in Anatolia, spreading around the world, its amber waves spread from sea to shining sea. Our rich inner lives and complex societies incomprehensible, inaccessible and meaningless to the wheat that lords over our species. The truth of the issue of course, is that our trajectories are inseparable.

From this viewpoint, that technology is a co-evolutionary force that has its own evolutionary agenda, rather than solely being randomly discovered and then implemented by humans, is inescapable. Although there should be a high degree of skepticism surrounding claims that AI could someday match the human brain, people are right to be concerned about where technology is leading us. The future of AI might not be in matching human consciousness, as we know it, but in creating something entirely independent and unique. Just as a biologist without an animist worldview might look at a field of wheat and be impressed by human ingenuity, ignoring the wheat’s own contribution to its evolution, we should not mistake our genius in technology as our own private accomplishment. Life, in all its forms, is always struggling to survive, multiply, and carry itself forward.  

 

Svalbard

Svalbard

Svalbard is a barren, rocky, ice-crusted chain of large islands at the top of the world, cut through by fjords with striated mountainsides, jagged glaciers forged over centuries, and waters that are frozen for most of the year. Despite the ice and cold, Svalbard, like the rest of the Arctic, is melting under a heat that the planet has not experienced in 125,000 years. In October of 2017, I traveled to this remote part of the globe to witness this meltdown first hand.

I had been invited to participate in the Arctic Circle Residency, a program that places 30 artists, scientists, and educators onboard a three-mast sailing ship named Antigua for two weeks, with the hazy prospect of allowing participants to “engage in myriad issues relevant to our time.” We would sail up the coast of the westernmost and largest island in the archipelago, Spitsgbergen, using the Antigua as a home base from which we would make daily landings along the coastline. At each landing, we’d be free to explore under the observation and guidance of polar guides to interact with the landscape as we saw fit, whether through taking photographs, sketching the terrain, staging performances documented with video for future exhibition, or merely absorbing the alien landscapes we found ourselves in. On one level, we were no more than a group of tourists given the opportunity to explore the Arctic. Yet being a diverse group of artists, photographers, and writers, we were expected to engage with the place on a deeper level than a typical tour group. This tension, between visiting a fragile ecosystem as sightseers, with the expectation that we act as sight seers, exposes one of the myriad complexities of discussing climate change. Our presence was possible only because of the C02 we expended in getting there. In arriving in the Arctic, we, in our small way, contributed to its death.

 On a map, Svalbard appears as one of the most remote places on the globe one could travel to. But from Europe, it is a surprisingly quick journey. Flying non-stop from Oslo, it’s only a three-hour flight to the airport in the capital of Longyearbyen, one of the three towns on the archipelago, if you include the research station of Ny-Ålesund. Proximity, however, does not equal familiarity - Svalbard does not make you feel welcome.

  Svalbard, outlined in red.

Svalbard, outlined in red.

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Like all Arctic environments, it is a desert, and like all deserts, inimical to life, but even in death it provides little comfort. Between the temperature and the permafrost, the ground does not let the dead return to the earth.

"It is observable that a dead Carkase doth not easily rot or consume" wrote the German naturalist Friderich Martens, who visited Svalbard in 1671, "for it has been found, that a man buried ten years before, still remained in his perfect shape and dress; and they could see by the Cross that was stuck upon his Grave, how long he had been buried."

Not that it matters - you are not allowed by the authorities to be buried on the island, or give birth. From November to February, there is no sunlight. In the fall, dusk and dawn rotate interchangeably throughout the day as the sun glides low across the horizon, creating a disorienting sense of expectation and finality. Roughly sixty percent of the archipelago is covered by glaciers. Polar bears are known to roam the edges of Longyearbyen, so a gun is required by local law for anyone venturing off the main roads in case of an attack, leading to the town motto “Leave your boots and gun at the door.”

Svalbard is not, however, all so tough. Food and housing may be expensive, but wages are high. Reindeer is served in most restaurants and is delicious. Alcohol is shockingly cheap and the town is full of interesting people to drink with. Svalbard even offers a glimpse of a world without borders - its founding treaty in 1920 as a possession of Norway states that it is open to all signatory nations as a place their citizens can conduct business and scientific research. A strange blend of Nordic socialism and economic libertarianism prevails. There are no visa requirements, no taxes, and no welfare. The Norwegian state owns most of the companies that control key industries, but small, private businesses flourish. This has a brought an influx of South East Asians over the past two decades who come to work in the hotels as service staff, as workers in the few remaining coal mines, or who open their own businesses. There, in the frozen north, their high wages support families back home and allow them to eventually comfortably retire to their tropical homelands.

Despite how precipitously far north the archipelago sits on the globe, its west coast is warmed by the Norwegian branch of the North Atlantic Current, keeping the temperature on the main island of Spitsbergen an average of ten degrees higher than anywhere else in the Arctic. Perks aside, Svalbard is intimidating in its austerity. But when the sky is clear and filled with the purples and pinks that reflect off the surfaces of glaciers as the sun rises and sets, or when the moon hangs full, low and yellow, like an enormous paper lantern, over a dark ocean out of which singular mountains rise, its beauty is crippling to take in. If you look carefully and quietly in those moments, you can see beneath the static appearance of the world, to the vibrating, intensely alive being that it is.

Millions of years of geologic activity have to come rest there. The oldest rock is over 410 million years old. The archipelago is an mixture of geologic elements that were once part of every continental landmass that has ever existed, drifting northwards across millennia, meeting, grinding together and over one another - a slow process of mineral coupling that formed the mountains and rock that compose Svalbard. Time appears frozen in a distant past. In almost no other place that I’ve visited has the raw appearance of geological formation felt so present.

When we look on almost any landscape, we see the result of processes we know took thousands or millions of years. We see mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands and we feel we are looking at the end result of a process. In the American West, at sites like the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands, I’ve experienced a similar feeling of process made present, but the landscapes are distant, always admired as a horizon and with the impression, it is the landscape and not us that is out of time. In Svalbard, this sense of spatial separation does not exist. There is a feeling that it is you and not the landscape, that has somehow stepped back millions of years. With feet planted on its rocky shorelines, mountains appear to have just ruptured through the earth, casting off rubble and boulders, creating a cloud of hardened minerals that just moments ago fell back to the ground. Jagged mountains rise out of Arctic waters as if the land around them suddenly flooded only days ago.

In Svalbard, past and future meet. On an open plain above Longyearbyen, cameras sit beneath glass domes at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory, gathering images of the sky above. They track the movement of the stars, the lights of the Aurora’s and our shifting weather patterns. At Ny-Ålesund, further north, research teams from around the world study the Arctic environment. Through observations of how Svalbard’s historic body is changing, they make predictions about the future. As the Arctic heatwaves of the summer of 2018 conclusively showed, the future has arrived. In both locations, radar dishes and camera arrays stand out like alien technologies against snow-covered landscapes. Their presence hints at the tragic ingenuity of a species that can monitor the destruction of its own habitats in minute detail.

Devoid of human life until the 16th century and only then sparsely populated by adventurous and desperate men from the margins of society who sought to claim their own slice of wealth the emergent force of capitalism unleashed, it is a landscape open to the subjective projections of its visitors more than most wild places because it offers no resistance, however quiet, from indigenous people long acquainted with it. Its jolting blue glacier surfaces and sea green waters offer up a mirror to whoever looks. Like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, it molds itself to one's desires and fears, allowing it to become a sanctuary of the sublime, a living, organic monastery in which to peacefully lose oneself, or a landscape of opportunity and freedom, an escape hatch from civilization, or, a cold, heartless Other that terrifies because of its complete indifference to humanity.

“These mountains and the landscape I see around me is a landscape of beauty,” said my colleague the photographer Iveta Gabalina one evening, “but they’re really more like a landscape of guilt…they are really cold and senseless, and they really don’t care about us. They can exist without us.”

Svalbard is, of course, all these things, and none of them. Like all objects our minds come into contact with, Svalbard is defined by projections and narratives yet nakedly empty of inherent meaning. There are mountains. There are glaciers. There are animals. There is ice, water, and wind. There is life, and there is death. There was us, and there was me.

In my own mind, Svalbard is a landscape partly defined by failure. I came to see it as a place that represents the failure of people throughout history who came seeking something from it, and I include myself here, however positive I thought my intentions. Aware of the paradox that in trying to bear witness to climate change on what constitutes a geological frontline I was also contributing to it, I felt an increasing pressure to create something worthwhile to show for my time and privilege of visiting such a tenuous landscape. By the end of my trip, I would feel broken from trying to make a film by myself in an unforgiving environment and the increasing desperation that I was falling short of my goal. Yet through this perceived failure, I came to recognize that the landscape itself embodies a collective failure in which we are all implicit on some level. Svalbard, like the greater Arctic region, illustrates contemporary societies inability to confront the massive dimensions of the forces we have unleashed against ourselves if we want to continue to inhabit this planet with any semblance of comfort. Its melting glaciers and thawing permafrost act like solemn hourglasses counting down the amount of time we have left until all sense of normalcy has passed, their surfaces reflecting back the heat we have let out into the world.