From Bowhead Whales to the Orchestra Stage

Posted by Susan Lubetkin — December 10, 2015

I don’t know what I’m doing.

Please don’t tell my kids or my parents or in-laws, but I am faking my way through this environmental activism thing. I’m not faking my passion for the topic. I’m not faking the things I hope to accomplish. I just am having to make it up as I go along when I try to think about how to go from one thing to the next. I have two big examples to share. One is trying to protect the Arctic Ocean from, among other emerging threats, offshore oil drilling. The other is trying to see how much I can make a difference in cultural awareness of climate change using music.

My background is environmental statistics. My husband and I joined SVP years ago, and every once in a while I’d get asked if I could help with one of the grant recipients, but my skill set never matched up with what was needed. Then came the golden opportunity: Paul Shoemaker called me to see if I’d be part of SVP’s initial cohort of the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship in 2013, which coincided with the break between a post-doc I was doing in Oceanography and teaching applied statistics, both at University of Washington.

There was a near audible click as many things fell into place.

I studied bowhead whales, which live in the Arctic, for my PhD. I had always joked that I was going to try to keep Shell out of the Arctic, probably by helping with the science that could be used in a legal tactic with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As the effects of climate change become ever more obvious, particularly at the poles, this became less of a facetious comment and more of a serious pursuit.

The work I did on identifying my passions and developing a theory of change with the other Conservation Fellows helped me articulate all of that and get involved with the Alaska Wilderness League. Now I am often out of my comfort zone, trying to use the skills I learned in science with policy and advocacy.

It has taken me places I never thought I’d go, including Barrow and Kaktovic, Alaska, where I got to see live, wild polar bears feasting on the remains of bowhead whales, to the Terminal 5 meetings at the Port of Seattle, where I made my comments immediately after the Raging Grannies at one meeting and Goodspaceguy at another, and the halls of the Senate and House Office Buildings in Washington, DC, where I brought my own analysis to raise questions about how the environmental impacts of offshore drilling in the Arctic were estimated. I even had an opportunity to meet President Obama, who very kindly helped an uptight statistician with her “hang loose” signs. (At each of these I’ve had the total chick moment of not just “What am I doing?” but “What do I wear?”)

Obama and Susan

The Fellows in my cohort inspired me, especially Linda Cornfield and the documentary Chasing Ice. I was incredibly moved by the way that film communicated the consequences of climate change in a visual and visceral way. I’ve played cello in a local community orchestra for nearly 20 years. Music is a sanity valve for me and a powerful tool for communicating emotions and ideas, and I had the thought “climate change symphony!”

I don’t write music. At all. Ever. So I sent an e-mail to my orchestra’s conductor, and my friend, Christophe Chagnard with the subject line “totally nuts, probably impossible, poorly formed idea … and a dinner invitation.”

Luckily, Christophe said yes.

Climate change is an incredibly large and challenging theme to base a musical composition on. Christophe dove into it with unrelenting intellectual curiosity and musical passion, and wrote a work which surpassed all my expectations in Terra Nostra. We had the world premiere of the 33 minute piece and accompanying 125 images on June 20, 2015, at Meany Hall at UW. (At least for this, the “what do I wear piece” was easier to answer. Concert black, of course.)


Now Christophe and I, along with Sustainable Seattle and another Conservation Fellow (Brad Brickman, 2014 cohort) are trying to figure out how to bring it to more musical and educational venues. (You can hear interviews and clips of Terra Nostra in KING FM’s archives – items 4 and 5 on the list.)

So why am I sharing all of this? In part, because I know there are other people out there trying to figure out this social change thing – and it’s not always clear cut and easy. Finding your place in the system is often a work in progress.

Last year, one of my kids had to do a school project on a person who was an agent of change. My son chose Muhammad Ali. Working with him on the project (read “trying not to threaten him with something heavy if he didn’t get to work”) made me think about what it means to be an agent of change.

I think it takes being willing to be uncomfortable for an idea that’s important to you and to make it up as you go along. It helps to have people trusting you and encouraging you to step into new places and roles – which is what SVP is all about.

I don’t have a neat answer to “So, what do you do?” when I meet someone, and my elevator pitch would take about 47 floors to go through, but the journey has been a lot more interesting and exciting since that call from Paul Shoemaker. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but at least I have good company to help me figure it out.

If you are interested in learning more from Susan, please feel free email her. You can also find out more about SVP’s Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship by emailing Janna Rolland.