John Sinnok, Iñupiat elder, Shishmaref, Alaska. Photo by Jason Davis
I write and perform music that features the recorded voices of people speaking about their responses to climate change. When I tell people this I normally get a response like, “That’s really interesting!” I usually relate a little of my background, as they are probably thinking “What the heck are you talking about?”
For most of my adult life, I have been alternating between working as a jazz bassist and an environmental educator (with a fair amount of English as a Second Language teaching thrown in, but that’s another story). I realized I wanted to engage with environmental issues through music, but I’m not a singer, so writing lyrics about climate change wasn’t an option. For a long time, I kept my music and “environmental” work separate, but continued wondering if there was a way to combine them. I started to figure out how when I paid attention to my own responses to the changing climate. I noticed that the seasons I knew as a child growing up near Boston have changed a great deal. Winter, which used to be in full swing by Christmas, now often doesn’t get going until mid-January. Springs are shorter, and shift suddenly into 90-degree weather. The summers I remember, with gradually increasing heat and humidity swept away by dramatic thunderstorms, seem to have been replaced by long, oppressive heat waves which dissipate with barely a drop of rain. I’m sure that others are bothered by these changes as much as I am, but people (including myself) don’t discuss them very much. If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation about how the weird weather is probably caused by the changing climate, I bet it trailed off awkwardly. There are a host of reasons for this phenomenon, discussed at length by author George Marshall in his book Don’t Even Think About It. People don’t usually talk about the Holocaust either. However, musicians have found ways to help audiences access their charged emotions around this difficult topic and sometimes even talk about them. In Steve Reich’s harrowing piece, Different Trains, he integrates archive recordings of Holocaust survivors speaking about their traumatic experiences, including being transported on “different trains” to Nazi death camps. After listening to Reich’s piece, I realized that I could do something similar for the issue of climate change by integrating people’s stories of their experiences with the changing climate into original music. Maybe listeners of this music would relate to climate change in a more direct way than reading reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or wading into the distracting political “debate”?
The first step was to talk to people on the front lines. In 2015, I traveled to Shishmaref, Alaska, a village located on a small barrier island on the Chukchi Sea. Shishmaref is rapidly eroding from a combination of rising sea levels and melting sea ice, exposing the small town to the full force of winter storms. Members of this largely Iñupiat (western Inuit) community have vivid stories to tell about the ways in which climate change is destroying their home. I worked with a group of local high school students who interviewed adults, including their grandparents and parents, about the impacts of the changing climate in Shishmaref. One of the most vivid stories was told by Iñupiat elder John Sinnok, who related his intimate knowledge of the natural environment around Shishmaref, and how it is being impacted by the dramatic shifts underway. Sinnok described details that most of us would miss, including how the sound of people walking on winter snow has changed as the climate has warmed. I was touched by his very personal observations, and immediately recognized that his words could form the basis of a piece of original music. The following year I wrote and recorded John Sinnok, a piece for jazz quartet and string quartet which is built around excerpts of Sinnok’s interview.
Since visiting Alaska, I began a doctorate in music at McGill University in Montreal and have started recording climate stories from around Canada. In 2017, I traveled to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve in eastern Québec with a group of Montreal-based artists. There I recorded an interview with park ranger Guy Côté, who described how his childhood activities were structured around natural cycles. He related that “There was a right time to pick blueberries, there was a right time to hunt, a right time to do [all these things] …” With changes in the climate, it has become harder to predict the timing of these activities. He described how he used to tell visitors to the park that a good time to see arctic plants in bloom was late June, but now by that time most of these plants no longer have flowers. I also recorded Côté singing some traditional Acadian songs, one of which I included in a sound montage along with excerpts of his spoken narrative and environmental sounds I recorded in the park.
My work making music from climate narratives has grown into a larger initiative called Climate Stories Project. In addition to recording climate narratives from people around the world, I lead educational workshops in high schools and colleges for which students interview local community members or remote interviewees via Skype about their responses to the changing climate. Lately I have come to see the various facets of my work as an inclusive artistic practice, and I am excited to help people connect with our changing environment through education, storytelling, and music. The more I do this work, the more I’m convinced that, whether or not we can “solve” climate change, we urgently need to engage with it.
In this post, geography professor Sara Beth Keough of Saginaw Valley State University describes her work with West African graduate students in Niamey, Niger. During her time there as a Fulbright Scholar, she coached the students in planning and recording their stories about how climate change is impacting their hometowns. Listen to the students' stories here!
“Climate change” wasn’t my original teaching assignment. During the 2016-2017 academic year, I was a Fulbright Scholar in the West African country of Niger, sent to teach at the national university in the capital city of Niamey and continue my research on water vendors. I am a cultural geographer and I arrived in Niamey expecting a position in the university’s expansive Geography Department. You can imagine my reaction, then, when the US Embassy in Niger re-assigned me to the West African Science Service Center for the Study of Climate Change and Land Use (WASCAL), which offers a master’s degree in Climate Change and Energy. As a geographer, climate change has been an underlying theme in almost every course I have taught, but I felt a little out of place among a group of engineers, physicists, hydrologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists studying or teaching about the topic.
On the road to Boubon, a village in Western Niger, on market day.
Soon after my re-assignment, the WASCAL Director asked me to teach a graduate course called “Communicating Climate Change,” essentially a public speaking course with climate change as the focus. The goal was to build and hone students’ oral skills related to climate change topics to prepare them for the multitude of audiences to whom they might speak in their careers: NGOs with grant money, academic communities, government organizations, politicians controlling policy and practice, and young people who can change practices to improve the environment. Oral presentations are not a significant part of the West African university curriculum like they are in the U.S., especially in the natural sciences, and none of my students had ever delivered a public presentation prior to my class. My students were initially a bit intimidated by the act of public speaking, but they met the challenge head on and produced very engaging and dynamic work.
After receiving my new teaching assignment, my next step was to gather some resources. This proved to be challenging in a country where internet access is slow and inconsistent. I remember lamenting my access to resources on climate change (or lack thereof) in a phone conversation with my sister, and she put me in contact with Katie O’Reilly Morgan at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, NY, my hometown. Katie recommended I check out the Climate Stories Project website. The stories I read and listened to on the sight were compelling and passionate, but I noticed that no stories from the African continent, a place with some of the most vulnerable populations in the world, were available. I was inspired to add some.
A student in the Social Sciences at Abdou Moumouni University doing homework problems on one of several outdoor chalkboards.
It wasn’t just Climate Stories Project that inspired me, it was my students as well. I remember the day I met Shari, a male student from Nigeria. He had notice me park my car in the empty area across from the WASCAL building and had quickly come over, offering to carry my bag. I was flattered by this offer, but also a bit uncomfortable, as it is quite unusual in the US for students to help professors carry materials. Shari might have been the first to offer, but I found this level of hospitality come from all of my students. Lawali, a male student from Niger, always made sure the technology in the classroom was working. Fatoumata, a female student from Mali, was so patient with my French. In the US, I often have to work hard to put my students at ease, but in Niger, it was the other way around. I was the outsider, yet my students went out of their way to make me feel like I was a part of their program. It was through these casual interactions, and of course during my class, that I heard their personal stories about how climate change had affected their lives and those of their families, and what inspired each of them to pursue a graduate degree in climate change science.
My students’ stories add incredible diversity to an already impressive collection. The US climate change curriculum tends to emphasize the melting of polar ice caps/glaciers and sea level rise, among other effects of global warming. To my students, however, most of whom are from the Sahel region of West Africa (a mostly landlocked, semi-arid region at the edge of the Sahara Desert that gets limited seasonal rainfall), sea level rise is not a central concern. Furthermore, because the WASCAL program draws students from all over West Africa, I was able to collect stories from students from 4 different countries: two that are landlocked, two that are not. Although all the students who contributed stories to this project are all working on ways to promote sustainable energy development and reduce the impacts of climate change in their respective countries, the stories they share are all different, as the they were inspired by different circumstances and life experiences.
I am grateful to ALL of my WASCAL students, those who permitted me to submit their stories to the Climate Stories Project and also those that requested my confidentiality. They deepened my understanding of climate change and its effects by selflessly sharing their experiences. I commend them for dedicating their careers to improving conditions in West African countries.
Dr. Keough and her students at the WASCAL building at Abdou Moumouni University ,with special guests Malam Saguirou (Nigerien documentary filmmaker) and Halimatou Hima (Nigerien Doctoral Candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK).
“Your task as the young… is to reinvent the universe, the universe made out of stories — to change the stories, to tell them, to bury them, and to give birth to them. A difficult task, but not an impossible one.” – Rebecca Solnit
With the recent news of the US withdrawing from the Paris Accord, many young people are feeling overwhelmed and distraught. However, I wanted to speak to young people today and let them know that hope is not lost. In fact, now is the most important time to take action —and many young people like myself are doing so. To other inspire others, I want to share a few of my personal actions against the climate crisis. Two groups I am working are doing amazing work. My involvement with SustainUS is through their COP23 Creative Challenge, which gives young people (ages 18-25) the chance to become a youth delegate at the COP23 (Conference of Parties) in Bonn, Germany in November 2017. The Creative Challenge asks youth to submit artistic work, such as a painting, blog, or song that expresses their passion for climate justice. Through two rounds of competition, participants tell their personal story and emphasize the importance of taking action. This opportunity is amazing because it puts youth in the forefront of the climate movement and allows their voices to be heard on the world stage. For the Creative Challenge, I told my personal story about climate change through Climate Stories Project, and also submitted this poem:
Patient Name: Mother Earth I’m checking for Her vital signs and they are fading. A fact we’ve known for decades but still are waiting… Waiting for the forests to regrow. Waiting for the seas to retreat. Waiting for the carbon levels to slow. Waiting for water in this heat. Waiting and waiting and yet still debating- If we are the cause or if it’s just how the earth works. Let me ask you- Do you blame the victim of an assault? “She looked too appealing so it’s her fault” But I guess that’s not considered rape Even when you claim Her as your own landscape? Or should she be considered abused? If you take and take Until every single last resource is used But, if this goes unseen is the behavior excused? - - - - - - -- -- -- - -- - - - - - - So often we turn a blind eye to those who need us most. In Her case, like many, the case cannot be easily Diagnosed. The cure is a challenge. That will take years to perfect The cure is a battle. But for Her we shall fight to protect. For She was never or ever will be merely an object. The audio recording of my poem can be heard here. You can see all the submissions from the Creative Challenge here.
Another group I am working with is Earth Guardians. Starting this past April, I became a member of Earth Guardian’s RYSE Youth Council, which stands for Rising Youth for a Sustainable Earth. We are a group of 21 young environmental leaders in our local communities. We work together to support each other and promote national efforts to advance sustainability—a top priority is fostering new youth leaders for climate action. One way we are going to do this is through a summer training for which we will learn communication and leadership skills, which we will then put to use in our own communities. To make this happen, we are have a fundraising campaign which lasts until June 30th. We kindly ask for your support!
I sincerely hope that my experiences inspire other youth to take action against climate change. There are so many ways to get involved and make a difference. The future of our planet is in our hands!