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Artifice v. Pastoral

The world of fakery and its war on all things natural

by Jay Griffiths

Published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion magazine

Photo: Rebecca Horne

THE OCEANS WERE JUST BEGINNING freeze over and the polar bears were prowling, in this, the hungriest season of the bear year. For the Inuit in the high Arctic, it was one of the last whale-hunting days of the season, and the seas were colder by the day, with bear-paw ice and ice plates forming. The implacable ice, imprisoning waves.

In the home where I stayed, the small son spent hours every day engrossed in a computer game, the character called Spyro. Part of the game included an old man offering to tell Spyro stories. “Stories? Aw, no thanks,” says Spyro, scornfully. “Stories, aw, no thanks,” imitated the child aloud. His grandfather, one of the community’s elders, was a fund of tales: of foxes and men, bears and ice, stories with truths deep within them.

“This is a flight simulator,” enthused one man, showing me the virtual-reality program on his computer. “You can fly over this exact place.” You can, in other words, pretend to be where you already are.

For those younger than about forty, hunting was a lost skill. These generations were forced to go to White (Qallunaat) school, so had no childhood apprenticeship in hunting. Not knowing how to survive on the land, they were dependent on jobs and housing fixed up by the government from way down south, and on store-bought food.

One young man, with no money and no knowledge of the land, tried to go hunting to feed his family. He took his son with him and they never came back. The bodies were found eventually, the son’s face eaten by ravens. This is a stark result of the strange artifice of their lives. Younger people become effectively imprisoned in these tiny, claustrophobic communities, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is popular. (“We don’t need no education.”) The rates of suicide, violence, alcoholism, and drug use have rocketed.

I asked one Inuit woman how she felt about the land. “I remember it was beautiful,” she said wistfully. The land was still there, a few yards from her door, thousands of miles of land as wide and beautiful as it ever had been but she was weirdly—artificially—alienated from it. Not so the elders, traveling by boat, Ski-doo, or dog-teams. They knew how to hunt, they knew the language of the land, those dozens of distinct words for snow and ice, on which your life may depend. They cherished the freedom of the land, that non-negotiable authenticity.

The elders are less confident of their knowledge now, because of climate change; I was told of an elder who went through the ice and drowned in a place where it never would have happened before. We’re north of everywhere, they say, and the first to feel these changes. “I’m the last man standing, so be careful with me,” says one, in elliptical vulnerability.

Climate collapse has weird echoes of the financial collapse of recent months, and at the core of both is what I’d call the Politics of Artifice. Perverse and cruel, it is an almost unexamined ideology, one which commits itself to the primacy of the fake and declares war on all that is natural.

Conceptually, one could say that a series of artifices has caused climate collapse. Artificial, unsustainable energy use. The artificial present that takes no account of its effects on the seventh generation. The artificial humanism that insists that human activities are supremely valuable while other creatures and habitats have no intrinsic value. The world’s richest nations and individuals have adopted a high-risk credit strategy, over-borrowing from the Earth, taking the wealth of fossil fuels, heedlessly racking up the toxic debts of CO2 in the sky, and addressing the bill to future generations, to the nation of Tuvalu, or to the Inuit. Chief Seattle’s axiom that we do not own the world but borrow it from our children has always been true but has an intense and sudden relevance now in these toxic debts; we have borrowed from our children more than carbon: we have borrowed sky, serenity, and life, and we are barely bothering to apologize for defaulting so grossly on the loan.

The collapse of the financial markets, meanwhile, is index-linked to its own artifice, and having created synthetic “wealth” for a few, it has demanded that ordinary people should pay in real terms. While hundreds of billions of dollars were poured in to rescue the financial market (that peculiar and greedy artifice of credit, futures trading, short-selling, hedge funds, and gambling), the question remains why there is not a similar, immediate amount of money put toward the rescue of the climate, that radiant, generous, and delicate reality.

This is an excerpt from the article published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion. Purchase this issue, take advantage of our free trial offer ($19 for six gorgeous issues) for the print magazine, or subscribe to the equally beautiful digital edition ($10 for six issues) for the full text.

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Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild, winner of the inaugural Orion Book Award and of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for the best new nonfiction author in the United States. She lives in Wales.

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