What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Every two weeks since April 2007, celebrated Canadian Author Yann Martel (author of the Man Booker Prize winning, ‘Life of Pi’) sends a letter and book to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an effort to humbly, “make suggestions to his stillness”. On March 30, 2009. Martel sent him a book that artistically illuminates the science of climate change. I’d like to share with you this correspondence.

(Click here for a link to Martel’s, “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” website. And stay tuned to this blog for more information about ‘Cape Farewell’.)



Book Number 52: Burning Ice: Art & Climate Change, a collaboration organized by David Buckland and the Cape Farewell Foundation

March 30, 2009


To Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister of Canada,
A book on a hot topic,
From a Canadian writer,
With best wishes,
Yann Martel


The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2

Dear Mr. Harper,

I had never heard of Cape Farewell, a British NGO, until an e-mail from them popped into my inbox. They were inviting me, thanks to funding by the Musagetes Foundation here in Canada, on a trip they were organizing to Peru. To explain their organization and its objectives, they offered to send me a book and a DVD. I was intrigued and so accepted. What did I have to lose? A few days later, said book and DVD arrived in the mail. I read the book, watched the DVD, checked out their website (www.capefarewell.com) and promptly wrote to Cape Farewell to accept their invitation.

Many people were first introduced to climate change by An Inconvenient Truth, the movie based on the touring presentation by Al Gore. Cape Farewell’s mission is to move beyond that initial awareness and orchestrate a cultural response to climate change. To do that, they organize expeditions to the frontiers of climate change, those hot spots (literally) where the change is most apparent. Scientists are there too, doing their research, and so artists can see both climate change’s theatre and some of its actors. The artists are then invited to respond, to become actors themselves. The DVD Art from a Changing Arctic documents the first three Cape Farewell expeditions to Svalbard, while Burning Ice records some of the responses by the artists.

It’s a varied book, as you’ll see. There is visual art, both photographic, pictorial and sculptural, there are essays, both scientific, giving a good recap about climate change, and personal, relating the reactions of individuals to that change. Burning Ice came out in 2006 and it’s already out of date. In one essay, a scientist states that by 2050 there will be no more summer ice in the Arctic. Scientists are now predicting such a disappearance by 2013. Only three years on and matters have already gotten worse. It’s easy to fall into pessimism when contemplating climate change. “Such a global calamity—what can I do?” The great quality of Burning Ice is that it shows what can be done: one can respond. Of course, a painting, a photograph, a string of words won’t save the planet. But it’s the beginning of coming to grips with the issue. Climate change on its own is an impersonal force, deeply disempowering. Art inspired by climate change, because the making of art is personally involving, a whole-person activity, is empowering, both for the maker and the spectator.

As I flipped through the pages of Burning Ice, gazing at the artwork, reading the essays, I marvelled and I was distressed: an odd mixture, but a step up from simply feeling distress. Whether the art that Cape Farewell generates, to be seen in books and exhibitions, turns out to be elegiac, a farewell to our planet, or the beginning of real change in the way we live, will only be seen in years to come. But one thing is certain: our response to climate change cannot be purely political. Politicians have been dragging their feet—you among them—because of the power of the carbon-fuel industrial complex. It is citizens who must move first, and art is an ideal way to help them do that. Art wrestles with its subject matter on a level that the individual, the man, woman, teenager and child on the street, can engage with and react to. Once citizens are involved in the vital issue of climate change, politicians will have to follow their lead.

You might as well get ahead of the wave. I hope you are both moved and alarmed by Burning Ice.

Yours truly,

Yann Martel

encl.: one inscribed trade paperback and one DVD


June 24, 2009

Dear Mr. Martel:

On behalf of the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, I would like to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence of March 30, which provided a copy of the book Burning Ice: Art & Climate Change.

Thank you for providing this material to the Prime Minister. Your courtesy in bringing this information to his attention is appreciated.

Yours sincerely,

P. Monteith

Executive Correspondence Officer