Paloma Siegel: reflecting on the Arctic Circle Assembly

Blog post written by Arctic 2016 alum Paloma Siegel.

Sometimes the best conversations are over a container of Icelandic Skyr. Those afternoon chats about empathy, the role of youth facing a bleak future and the outrageous injustices faced by Indigenous people across the globe; those discussions are what remind me of my humanity. Those discussions ground me in the present and remind me of who I should strive to be.

In October, I had the incredible opportunity to spend 5 days in Reykjavik, Iceland, surrounded by engaged individuals full of passion, intellect and knowledge. Best of all, I was surrounded by conversations that change the world and shape the future for the better. At the Arctic Circle Assembly, us eight Students on Ice Alumni were a team. Not only did we buddy up and learn in the countless workshops and panel discussions available, we learned from each other and we learned about ourselves.

I’m an 18 year old woman from California. I love the nature that surrounds me, from ocean to forests to mountains. But after my trip to the Arctic in 2016, I knew my heart loved the ice more than anything. The complex issues facing the Arctic are my core interest so I set off to the conference ready to learn as much as I could about these complexities. Here in California, I seem to be surrounded by many adults that believe  youth are the future, youth are the change and youth are the answer. As much as I agree with this, I also know that as a young person, I am naive. I am passionate and motivated to create solutions, yes, but I do not know all the answers. One night, Susan, a fellow SOI alum and delegate said “a lot of people listen to answer, try to listen to listen.” So I opened my notebook and listened.

For those whirlwind three days, I attended every session of interest to me, I stayed up late with my fellow delegates talking about all we learned and all we know, and I asked questions constantly. From 8am to 1am every day, I was alive, practically out of breath racing to soak in all the knowledge. It’s a funny feeling, frantic inspiration, the sentiment that comes when you recognize how fleeting time is. While in Reykjavik, I felt the profound impact of the conference on my life. I knew that the words scribbled into my notebook would become a reference point for my future. I spoke with youth from all over the Arctic trying to make change and protect their homes. I learned from scientists, politicians, businesspeople, and spiritual and Indigenous leaders about the many challenges and potential solutions relating to the future of the Arctic as a whole. Sounds familiar for an SOI alum doesn’t it?

On Friday, I was intrigued by a female professor researching the link between glaciology and feminism. On Saturday, humbled by the somber reality of climate change’s impacts on indigenous people discussed by the former Greenlandic Premier and current President of the Saami Parliament in Norway. On Sunday, I furiously scribbled notes about the role of whales in ocean carbon sequestration and brainstormed with Icelandic youth about the role of young people in Arctic conservation. I felt my mind and my heart expanding, trying to understand my place in the world and how I wanted to carry myself through it.

On Saturday in particular, the words of Kuupik Kleist and Aili Keskitalo, the former Greenlandic Premier and current President of the Saami Parliament in Norway, caught our attention. Without refrain, they bluntly discussed the reality of green colonialism, a concept that is deeply understood in northern communities and smaller less developed nations, yet less recognized in developed western cultures. In the context of the Saami people, Keskitalo emphasized the contradiction of her people being forced to give up their land in the name of “saving the world”, a hypocrisy not only upsetting but deeply offensive. When Indigenous people have always been the stewards of the Earth and maintained a sustainable relationship with it, she explained her outrage in being “asked” to sacrifice and abandon their culture and practices in order to participate in a solution to a problem they did not create. She pointed out that Indigenous people are being forced to carry the burden of saving the world while protecting their land, which is irrational and harmful. Kleist, of Greenland, pointed out that “We [Indigenous peoples] are living in states–we are citizens!–of states which are regarded as being the richest on Earth,” and yet many live below the poverty line. He went on to say that “we are…now aiming to go to Mars. We have been on the moon, but now we are reaching further. But establishing proper communication in some of the remote ranges of the Arctic seems almost impossible. But we can go to Mars!” These ironies outlined by Kleist reiterated to me both the urgency of effective action and the tragedy of our western desire to disconnect. It seems we are allowing ourselves to disassociate from a problem that intimidates us, a problem that we are unsure of how to solve. It is true, our planet has much left to be explored and understood. So shouldn’t it be our priority to center our efforts around connecting to this earth and the people on it?

As I opened a container of vanilla Skyr, I pledged to myself to start speaking about climate change in a much more holistic manner, acknowledging the complexities tied to Arctic issues. The Arctic Circle Assembly taught me that the Arctic is not just a message of science or adventure or culture, but rather an interconnected and interdependent environment, hence the solutions must equally combine all factors present. I pledged to carry myself with humility and gratitude, to listen to others and to continue learning. A panel of bishops one day said that the Golden Rule is a challenge for the collective, not only the individual. Treat the world as you wish it to treat you.

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