May 17, 2012

“Have Less and Be More.” Climate Voices. ~ Isaac Yuen.

“I don’t believe there’s a climate change. I know there’s a climate change. [chuckles] Because I’ve lived off the land most of my life, and I see what’s happening out there on the land, especially in the northern region of the Yukon. I see how the permafrost is melting, how lakes are going dry, how the water’s low…”

~ Gentleman from the Yukon Territories in Canada, Climate Voices

We can encounter compelling stories in and from the most unexpected of places. I stumbled across Climate Voices on a flight home from a long and emotionally draining trip.  Unable to sleep after watching an entire season of No Reservations, I noticed the short film while flipping thorough the documentary section. Initially hesitant to watch an educational film in my sleep-deprived state, I decided to give it a chance after realizing the hours of insomnia that lay ahead of me. What I discovered was a remarkable series of personal stories from people across the world.

Climate Voices is an extension of the 6 Billion Others (now 7 Billion Others) project. The creators interviewed thousands of people from all over the world about their hopes, dreams, fears, and ordeals. 6 Billion Others was originally intended to explore the things that unite, link, and differentiate us. Climate Voices became an offshoot when the filmmakers realized that it was a topic that repeatedly came up during interviews:

During the extension of the 7 Billion Others project, we met people around the world who have witnessed change in their daily life because of global warming. “Climate voices” aspires to be an alarm signal, given by not only those who have had their life shattered by the repercussions of climate change, but also by the scientific community. (via goodplanet.org)

The setup for Climate Voices is minimal. The entire documentary consists of people sharing stories of how climate change has impacted their lives. Some have been affected by droughts and the increase in extreme weather events. Others speak as potential climate refugees. Still others are being threatened by land erosion and floods. Scientists and experts are interspersed throughout the film to provide context for the larger global picture. I found many of the stories in Climate Voices to have implications in the fields of philosophy, education, and communication.

The Framing of Climate Change

Climate change is perhaps one of the most complex issues that humanity has ever faced. Each one of us views the topic with a different worldview, attitude, and value system. Mike Hulme, the author of Why We Disagree about Climate Change, stated that the problem of climate change is difficult to tackle because each one of us perceive the issue through different frames. Framing in communication terms is the emphasis of looking from one perspective and the de-emphasis of others.  

Hulme proposed six potential frames in which we see the issue of climate change:

…as a market failure;
…as a technological hazard;
…as global inequality and injustice;
…as overconsumption;
…as mostly natural; and
…as a planetary tipping point.

A kernel of truth inhabits each frame, but climate change is not fully captured by any single one. We all exercise framing to make sense of the world; each of us has specific affinities for certain frames due to our individual cultural influences, temperaments, and life histories.

For example, many environmental activists may be drawn to the frame of global injustice, as described by the professor at Stanford who views climate change as a problem of inequality:

Personally, I am most drawn to the frame suggested by the former culture minister of Greenland, who views climate change from the frame of overconsumption:

Have less and be more: It is a statement that resonates me with deeply.  The frame of overconsumption is perhaps the most idealistic frame out of all the ones Hulme proposes, but I strongly believe that we can live rich and fulfilling lives without being dependent on an unsustainable model of endless economic growth on a finite world. As I spoke about in a recent blog entry, I believe we need to become more mindful of what we need, what we desire, what brings us pleasure, and what brings us joy.

Interdependence of Culture and Nature

Climate Voices speaks to the critical connection between civilization and the natural world. Noted environmental author and activist Paul Hawken once stated at a talk that when culture dies, nature dies.  I think that’s also true in reverse. When the environment changes irrevocably, the culture that inhabits it can suffer immensely. People everywhere have the same basic need to feel secure, to live in peace, and to be able to support their families. The stories of Climate Voices remind me of a theory in psychology called the Maslow hierarchy of needs:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from Wikipedia.

Climate change undermines the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid and in so doing, threatens prosperity and prevents people from reaching their full potential. As local traditions and customs no longer suit life in a changing environment, societal bonds are strained, sometimes past the breaking point. This is one of the one of the most terrifying consequences of climate change.

Many people in Climate Voices share that concern :

 The Voices of Humanity

Women and men from all over the world.

I see diversity in the faces and cultures of Climate Voices, but I also see the deep similarities that exist between us.  The people in the film come from wealthy countries and poor nations. There are people from places far and exotic, and there are people from places familiar and close. They live as farmers, fishermen, teachers, business owners, community leaders, and scientists.  They are wives, husbands, parents, children.

Like the people I know in my life, the people in Climate Voices just want to go about their daily lives, run businesses, raise children, and pursue their passions.

Fellow citizens and next-door neighbors.

The people in Climate Voices all share one common reality: A reality in which climate change has had tangible impacts. They have all come to view climate change not as an abstract concept with vague consequences, but rather something that is grounded in immediate and local significance.

The inhabitants of the Maldives are worried about how their island will vanish beneath the sea due to rising sea levels. The farmer in Texas is fearful of losing all he’s built up because of unseasonal droughts. The mayor of Juneau is concerned with the accelerated melting of glaciers. The gentleman from the Yukon sees the landscape around him change drastically in his lifetime.

Climate Voices does an effective job in bringing home those very real impacts to me; it serves to connect me across cultures and reminds me that the people out there are the same as us. Together, we are the faces of humanity. The problems caused by climate change do not only affect people out there, but also the people and the community right here.

These are all faces of humanity. These people are us.

Personal Ekostories

The most heartbreaking tale in Climate Voices was the one told by the gentleman from the Murray-Darling region of New South Wales, Australia. His story revolved around how prolonged drought conditions triggered a tragic rash of suicides of Australian men. Raised on the same land passed down from generation to generation and in a culture that prizes self-sufficiency, the men could not cope with the reality that they could no longer support their families in a changing environment.

His words and facial expressions powerfully convey how climate change has affected him on a personal level. He has lost friends; it is all too real to him, and through the sharing of his story, to me. His tragic tale, along with many others in Climate Voices, helped to connect me emotionally to an enormously complex topic which can be on occasion, vague and abstract. Climate Voices makes climate change all the more real, with real human costs. We can see that on his face.

Climate Voices speaks with a chorus of voices across all the continents and islands of the world; everyone’s stories are treated equally.  The people in Climate Voices represent the old, nostalgic and mournful for the loss of their past traditions. They represent the middle-aged, working to maintain their current lifestyles and for the welfare of the next generation. They represent the young, dreaming of a world full of possibility, uncertain of what the future holds in store. Climate Voices conveys the notion of plurality and accepts the legitimacy of multiple realities.

Perhaps this is ultimately why the film is so powerful to me: Humanity speaks as a whole about the issue of climate change. I can’t help but listen.

Mindful question: What frame are you most drawn to when thinking about the issue of climate change?

This article focuses on the short film because that’s what initially caught my attention. If you’re interested in the full-length film, it can be accessed here. The photographs were screencapped from the 26 minute short film 6 Billion Others: Climate Voices, which is accessed through the GoodPlanet website.


Isaac Yuen is interested in all things environment. His background is in environmental biology, geography, engineering, education, and communication. Currently an aspiring writer, he is particularly interested in the power of stories to spark environmental connections, awareness, understanding and change in the minds of environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike.

You can visit his exploration of these stories from various mediums weekly at his blog Ekostories: exploring narratives of nature, culture, and self. He currently lives in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, four shrimps, and three snails.”

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Editor: Jill Barth

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