The Importance of Land and the Impacts of Loss

By: Michelle Ng

The Arctic has long been called the thermometer of the Earth. From seasonal shifts to altered snow quality to weather variability, climate change is occurring at a faster rate in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. Often marginalized in discussions of circumpolar climate change, however, is its slow violence against Inuit people, many of whose ancestors have lived in Nunatsiavut, Canada for thousands of years. Here, the negative impacts of climate change are manifesting not only in disruptions to the physical environments of Inuit, but also in their health.

Health is typically considered in terms of physical wellness. As a result, contemporary discourse about the health impacts of climate change tends to focus on the physical, too. While climate change obviously poses threats to people’s physical health (e.g. increased risk of exposure to infectious disease, higher likelihood of nutrient deficiencies), it is equally important to investigate and address the impacts of climate change on mental health.

One proximate cause by which climate change affects the mental health of Inuit people is through land degradation. The importance of land to Inuit cannot be understated. Land mediates socialization, cultural transmission, food security, and an individual’s ability to escape and re-center. In fact, Inuit lifestyles are so intimately intertwined with their surrounding environment that any weather variability sends shocks through virtually every aspect of Inuit life, from livelihood (on a tangible, day-to-day basis) to one’s sense of self and community belonging (more existentially). Because land thus underlies every determinant of Inuit wellbeing, climate change poses a massive threat to Inuit health — mental health, included.

When asked about their relationship to land, 100% of Inuit Elders reported “I love the land around this place” and “My sense of who I am is linked to the environment where I live.” They describe Inuit connection to land as “powerful,” “perfect,” “a sheer want and internal desire,” and “[irreplaceable].” Consequently, in light of “wrong,” “horrible,” and “severe” perceived changes in temperature, ice, rain, and weather patterns, Inuit are experiencing “anxiety,” “disappointment,” “frustration,” and “sadness.” Just as climate change degrades Arctic land, it also erodes the mental wellbeing of Inuit. For example, land degradation: 1) severs connections to culture and community, when one is unable to perform traditional activities that are core to Inuit identity; 2) damages senses of purpose and self-efficacy, when one who depended upon subsistence hunting is no longer able to provide for their family; and 3) diminishes psychological, social, and economic security, when ice is too thin to visit family and friends or work for a living. As documented by Inuit-led, community-based initiatives, these implications of land degradation produce negative affects, emotions, and feelings that can lead to mental disorders or even suicide.

Several mediating factors also frame how climate change impacts the mental health of Inuit. First of all, climate change resurfaces historical trauma. Land has been weaponized against Inuit communities for the past hundred years, with acute suffering characterizing forced sedentarization, dispossession, relocation, etc. In this way, climate change is yet another instantiation of colonization, a new way in which foreign powers are interfering in traditional lifestyles and inflicting physical, emotional, and social violence. Secondly, media representations of Inuit communities — often depicted as “the canary in the coalmine” of climate change — perpetuate narratives of “cultural extinction,” a key tenet in colonial thought. This not only erases local agency and resiliency, but also exacerbates the emotional distress that Inuit people experience due to climate change. Lastly, the remote location of Nunatsiavut restricts access to (mental) health care, the ability to procure critical goods, and participation in a local economy.

In these ways, climate change drives land degradation, which — mediated by historical trauma, media representation, and a remote location — negatively affects the mental health and wellbeing of Inuit in Nunatsiavut, Canada. While the international community largely recognizes the importance of many climate-sensitive health priorities, there has been remarkably little preparation for the impacts of climate change on mental wellbeing. Yet consideration for mental health could not be more important. In a dangerous positive feedback loop, climate change destabilizes mental health, which reduces one’s resiliency to external shocks, like climate-related disruptions, and so on. Because the magnitude of these issues will only increase and intensify in the future, mental health must be factored into context-specific plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We can begin by situating health within its social determinants: the complex interplay of economic, political, historical, environmental, and spiritual factors that informs holistic wellbeing. We can accept and treat the subjectivity, imperceptibility, and fluidity of an individual’s internal world as valid forms of truth. And — perhaps above all — we must learn to honor the profound relationships that we share with the people, places, and processes that sustain us. Only then can we hope to support and empower one another in our personal, holistic health-related experiences of climate change.

Michelle Ng is a recent Harvard College graduate, where she concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies (with a specialty in nonfiction filmmaking) and Computer Science. This piece was the winner of the blog competition in the Spring 2018 Harvard Planetary Health undergraduate course.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.