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Talking to Tourists About the Climate Crisis

Like many others, I carry around a heavy burden of climate anxiety. This past summer I decided to see if, through art, I could spark cruise ship passengers to care about the climate crisis. I already donate the bulk of my profits to organizations working for the conservation of the Tongass, including Renewable Juneau's Juneau Carbon Offset Fund (RJ/JCOF). Could I encourage cruisers who come to Hoonah’s Icy Straits Point to offset the carbon generated by their trip? That would at least help me feel less conflicted about the Point’s presence.

Welcome to the many-tentacled conundrum. No matter how much we wish we aren’t, everyone is part of a larger system of carbon production. In Hoonah, tourism via cruise ship has been a net economic benefit. Icy Strait Point is a model for a successful Native-owned business. And the cruise industry, even as it spews carbon into the atmosphere, is a huge advertisement for the wilderness quality of Southeast Alaska.

As much as any of those passengers, I value taking “trips of a lifetime.” Much of my field art happens on multi-month backpacking, kayaking, and biking adventures with my husband. Some are near home, but many occur farther afield. For example, we flew to Patagonia in 2019 and hope to return soon. My carbon footprint feels as large as that of any cruiser.

My first attempt to talk climate change with passengers came in June when I crewed on a whale-watching boat. The boat owner said it was fine for me to sketch while we were underway. I imagined my art sparking micro dialogues, putting a creative film over the seemingly negative subject of human-caused global warming.

As I speed-painted the curves of swimming and breaching humpback whales, I tried to share with the guests the vulnerability of the mountainous Tongass. I wanted to help them understand that the acres of green velvet cushions rising out of ochre tide flats are essential in the fight against climate change. But I quickly felt uncomfortable broaching the topic: these people just wanted to see cool things while on vacation. And, quite rightly, the spouting whales, cavorting sea lions, and adorable otters consumed them. Because our marine wildlife is commonplace for me, I have the bandwidth to speculate about how climate change puts it all at risk. However, they focused on photos.

In July, I did an all-day demo and sales stand at Fishbone Gifts at Icy Strait Point. Owner Monica Savland hoped I would draw customers into the shop and be able to sell more of my work. Ah ha, I thought, captive, undistracted audience. RJ/JCOF even made me a special QR code to place prominently on my table. I envisioned cell phone-happy cruisers crowding around to log into the JCOF website.

My display actually worked — kind of. At times during the day, I found myself flooded with visitors who didn’t have prearranged tours. I was able to talk about my fieldwork process and my donation focus for my profits.

“Thank you for doing this,” said one customer. “Oh, it’s so good that you are here,” said another. “Here are ten dollars — can you pass the donation on?” And, best of all, “I’ll get some extra cards because you are doing this for a good cause!”

However, reflecting on the ten hours at my table, it seemed a long day’s work to earn a few compliments and raise a very small amount of money. (And unfortunately, no one even tried to use the QR code because of poor cell coverage at the Icy Strait Point complex!)

How do we convince people to care, viscerally, about climate change? Facts don’t stir the emotions that caring requires—otherwise we would have started addressing this crisis long ago. As a teacher, my default is always to facts, but any scientist at the forefront of climate change knows that facts aren’t enough. And guilt doesn’t work, but rather turns people away from issues.

I decided that the point was in the conversations. Perhaps seeing such natural abundance and hearing about how much I love this landscape raised my customers’ awareness. Could all those tiny inputs add up to memories that change political choices and daily behaviors? It’s hard work, made harder by not seeing definitive progress or change. But at the very least, it was a way to insert myself into climate work in a manner that recharged me rather than plunged me into more despair.

(published in a slightly different form at December 2022)


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