The Arctic's devastating transformation
There was no snow, no sea ice anywhere to be seen. These would be my last days in Svalbard in August of 2011.
The only snow was in the many glaciers that bled deafening waterfalls into milky turquoise-colored fjords and into the dark sea. I lowered my gaze, averted my eyes whenever someone on the ship said to me, “See you next season!” I knew I was finished.
The Arctic had been transformed over the decade I had spent documenting through the lens of my camera. I was the ship’s expedition photographer. My photographs were about awe and beauty. To return here would mean documenting the devastation. This place was sacred to me, it was like no where else on the planet.
It broke my heart knowing I would not return.
The Polar Regions seep into you, if you let them; the stillness, the muffled sounds, the dynamic nature of the ice will consume you. So many moments of sheer ecstasy; feeling an absolute sense of being on one’s planet. I remember standing on the frozen sea ice in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, as a large Orca and her calf breached beside me at the edge of the ice. They were so close I could have reached out and touched them as they passed.
Being raised as a Shinnecock Montaukett tribe member informed the way I saw the world. To understand the interconnection of everything and to know that humans are not separate from nature. My grandfather introduced me to the trees not as species, but as individuals, by teaching me to see their individual bark patterns, to know them.
Once, when I was a child, my grandfather said to me, “If you think that you are separate from nature, try holding your breath.” I considered all life-forms on Earth as my relatives.
In 2011, I knew we had reached the “tipping point.” Since coming home I had dedicated myself and my work to informing people, trying to inspire change before we lost any more of what made this planet beautiful and livable. I lectured, I exhibited, I published, I was on TV and radio. Yet nothing seemed to change fast enough, if at all. Inevitably, when I spoke to audiences, someone would ask, “But what can I do? What can one person do to help stop climate change?”
I answer them now with a question: “What do you want to do?”
Recently, the IPCC report informed us that each and every one of us will feel the effects of climate change. No one is immune. While it is daunting to consider that human activity, including burning fossil fuels and rampant deforestation, have altered our planet’s atmosphere for thousands of years to come, the story will only get worse if we continue on our current trajectory.
We are out of time. There is no safe place left to be apathetic.
This Earth Day is perhaps similar to many others that came before it. It is a call to consider our biosphere. It remains a call to honor the place that gives you safe haven from the dark cold emptiness of space. It is a day to stand up and declare what aspect of life on this planet you will lend your voice, your support, your time and energy to protecting.
What makes this Earth Day different depends on you.
Having seen with my own eyes what is happening to our Earth, I know what I must do. I am making changes in my own life to be the change I wish to see in the world. It starts at home with small things like changing light bulbs and learning to recycle. Many scoff at the trivial nature of these things, but it is a beginning, and all beginnings are small.
These simple acts cause a shift in your behavior which is what sets the journey in motion. The more you learn how unsafe fossil fuels are for our health (they pollute our air, spoil our water, foul our soil) the easier it becomes to start making cleaner, safer choices. I ride my bicycle more often; I fly very seldom. I avoid plastic packaging where possible; I buy local and organic. I support my local growers, makers and businesses (the less any item has to travel, the smaller its carbon footprint). I make my own things.
You can hear in this that there becomes less attraction to consuming. Our consumer culture and economic model of exponential, eternal growth is unsustainable. Sharing culture is emerging. New models where effect is valued over profit are emerging. The great news is that everything we need to solve the issue of climate exists already. We do not need to wait for some amazing, futuristic technology.
Two months ago I created The Earth Academy. It exists only on Facebook at the moment. Soon we will have a website and after that, I hope to build small off grid villages of the future in a variety of locations around the U.S. (I have my eye on Detroit for the first location). My hope is that seeing what a sustainable town looks like will inspire those looking for simple, inexpensive solutions to adopt for themselves. We will also offer classes teaching some of the new skills necessary to make our way forward.
To do nothing is not an option for me. I love this planet, I love all of the amazing variety of life that dwells upon it and I have a daughter who will inherit this mess. For me to throw my hands up and say “the problem is too big; I am only one person” is just not possible.
I know I cannot do this alone. I know I need each and every one of you you do what you can. And so I ask you this question: What do you want the future of your family, your town, your country, your planet to be like? What will you do to make it a reality?
I’m not sure if I will ever make it back to my beloved Polar Regions. I hope that one day I might be able to take my grandchildren (should I be lucky enough to have any) and show them the places I love. Until then, I am working to make sure it’s still there for all of us, as well as our children’s children, and hopefully for many generations to come.
Camille Seaman is an award-winning photographer based in California. Since 2003, her work has focused on the fragile environment of the polar regions. She is currently a Senior TED Fellow and a Stanford Knight Fellow.
For more on Earth Week, go to http://www.msnbc.com/earth-week