Best known for his work as a photographer, Subhankar Banerjee is also a writer and the editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. Born and raised in Kolkata, he discovered a strong affinity for Arctic Alaska, to the point that he became a U.S. citizen in order to more effectively prevent the environmental destruction of the area. Although traveling in India, Banjeree graciously found time to correspond with the International Examiner.
Banerjee has spent over a decade living in the Arctic pursuing his environmental conservation work.
“The Arctic is warming at a rate twice that of the rest of the planet and consequently the impacts of climate change have become more visible in the Arctic over the past decade,” Banerjee said. “Politics of resource wars, the quest for oil and gas, and resistance to such attempts have intensified over the past decade. Moreover, I’m interested in historical analysis of American environmentalism and how contemporary resistance movements in the Arctic is offering a space for more collaborative forms of environmentalism.”
Few Alaskans have encountered conditions as extreme as Banerjee during his time in the Arctic. On one of his first visits, he traveled on a snowmachine through temperatures that the wind chill brought down to 110 degrees below zero.
“The human body is quite remarkable in adapting to extreme weather conditions,” Banerjee said. “In March 2001, when I first arrived in Kaktovik, I would see Robert Thompson [an Inupiat conservationist and wilderness guide with whom Banerjee traveled] operate metal parts (tent poles, snow mobile parts, etc.) with simple cotton gloves in minus 40 degrees, whereas I would wear three layers—liner gloves, thicker gloves and then heavy fur mitts—and still felt cold in my fingers. After having spent seven months in 2001, when I returned again the following year I was able to operate metal parts with a single layer of gloves in minus 40. Robert always told me that a combination of factors—part physical and part psychological—contribute to why we feel cold. Once I was able to get over the psychological fear of the cold, it became a lot easier.”
Banerjee spends much of his Alaskan time in the Gwich’in Athabaskan community of Arctic Village.
“I first met community activist Sarah James in an activist gathering in Washington, D.C., in 2001,” Banerjee said. “There, she invited me to her community, Arctic Village, to attend a Gwich’in gathering. I did, and a long relationship with the community began. In Arctic Village I learned that when you visit the first time you are considered an ‘outsider,’ but when you return you become part of the community.”
Although environmental conservation sometimes seems an insurmountable task, Banerjee introduces a workable and practical solution conceived by climate scientist James Hansen.
“The idea of putting a tax on carbon has been around for some years now,” Banerjee said. “What Hansen has provided is a simple democratic mechanism through which such a tax can both be applied and then distributed to each and every citizen as a dividend. The fee and dividend system that Hansen is referring to connects production where the fee is charged and the dividend is tied to consumption. In my understanding what he has proposed ties conservation and consumption with production. In Hansen’s fee and dividend idea there is no corporate entity involved in collecting fee or disbursing the dividend. In an interview I did with him in Santa Fe as part of a Lannan Foundation In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom event on February 20, 2013, he did say that China is already implementing something akin to fee and dividend and that when it comes to addressing climate change, ‘China might be our best hope.’”
In the state of Washington, particularly in Seattle and Bellingham, community discussion is taking place about the melting Arctic ice and its implications for the entire planet.
“My humble suggestion to environmentalists who are working on Arctic issues would be two things: read more (particularly environmental history and criticism) and engage with the locals (to understand local knowledge and indigenous human rights),” Banerjee said. “It would certainly strengthen the already existing resistance movements that address the larger ecocultural urgencies that are affecting the Arctic today, including climate change and resource wars.”
To anyone who is interested in having a more critical and deeper understanding of the Arctic, Bannerjee recommends reading Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, for a multiplicity of informed viewpoints on a complex and important subject.