Greenland’s Deepening Ecological Grief

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With glacial ice retreating and formerly reliable sea ice becoming more and more treacherous for winter hunting and social trips, the people of Greenland understand climate change first hand. As Dan McDougall reports for The Guardian, a study of 2% of Greenland’s population by the University of Copenhagen and the Kraks Fond Institute for Urban Economic Research reveals that Greenlanders are experiencing greater anxiety and a special sort of ecological grief as direct results of climate change eroding their traditional ways of life.

“There is no question Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, ‘ecological grief’ and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change. The impact of climate change on mental health is a looming public health crisis. So if a Greenland-wide survey points to anxieties around food security and way of life it’s another red line between climate change and mental health,” says Howard. “We are searching for terms to capture this deep feeling of pain in Arctic nations – words like eco-anxiety or ecological grief – but for me, something called ‘solastalgia’ perfectly sums up how people living on the frontline of climate change feel. It was coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It is also related to an Inuit word that refers to a friend behaving in an unfamiliar way. It means feeling homesick when you are home. Many of these islanders are in mourning for a disappearing way of life.”

In Ilulissat, Claus Rassmussen is stirring a foul brew of oily blood and fish. “Seal stew,” the sled-dog hunter says. Strung out in a row, his family carry buckets of the murky soup to feed to the dogs – a nightly ritual for Rassmussen and his five daughters.

Over the past two decades, Greenland’s sled dog population has halved to around 15,000 with the numbers still falling. Greenland’s unique sled dog culture and the specialised training technology and knowledge is in danger of disappearing.

An interview with Rassmussen proves more emotional than anticipated. In his modest home, an old wooden cottage among social housing blocks, his face is contorted. Instead of the Greenlandic way – long silences and monosyllabic answers – there comes an outpouring.

There are six of us crouched in the room, including three of his daughters, as he talks about the decision to kill his beloved dogs because he could no longer afford to feed them. As he talks about shooting one, a dog given the name “my son” in the local language, the teenagers burst into tears – a shocking explosion of grief in a culture where emotion is rarely shown. In Inuit culture, strength, silence, and self-sufficiency are admired traits.

“I had a blood clot last year and couldn’t hunt,” says Rassmussen. “Here in Ilulissat we have the ice fjord and, for now, it’s strong enough to hold us, but I was unable to walk for nine months. The trouble was nobody wanted my dogs so I had to kill eight of 13.

“I killed my favourites. To spare them possible cruelty. That was my decision. The others were given away to people I knew. They weren’t dog people, but were interested in having animals – but perhaps they weren’t looked after in the way they should’ve been. I managed to take some back and since then I have been building up a new dog team.”

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