Islam says that we as Muslims have to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, when we were born. In other words, Allah has entrusted to the human race the duty to improve, work with his creation. And that’s why the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is called a Trust, and that’s how the ethic of the faith comes into the way you work — His Highness the Aga Khan, interview PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
Whenever I open the home page of Prince Hussain Aga Khan’s website Focused on Nature I find that it has been updated with new links to articles in the media from around the world with titles such as “Serious Fire Danger for Australia as temperatures smash records”, “Brazil’s Pantanal Fires: Animals dying of hunger and thirst”, “Fires are raging in the Amazon”, among many other pieces on global warming and climate change. I also came across “There’s 14 million metric tons of microplastics on the sea floor.” That converts to 493,835,467,730 ounces (or appx. 494 billion ounces). I have done the conversion because I want to come back to the number a little bit later.
According to the World Economic Forum, there is 75 to 199 million tons of plastic polluting our oceans. The plastic bag, like the one we get at grocery stores, is now the deepest known piece of plastic trash, found at a depth of 10,975 meters (36,000 feet) inside the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean! I am therefore glad that measures are underway within the Ismaili Muslim community in Canada to eliminate the use of plastic bags at the Jamatkhanas. We have been asked to bring our own reusable bags from home.
This then brings me to two extraordinary and relevant exhibitions that I was very fortunate to see at the beautiful and informative Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies located in the heart of Banff, during my recent visit to Banff National Park.
I was least expecting to come across concerned voices on fires and plastics at the museum, but two ground-breaking exhibitions Cold Regions Warming and Contemporary Consciousness that will both be winding down at the end of January (2023) in Banff, deal with those subjects in very interesting and evocative ways.
In the exhibition Cold Regions Warming, I came across paintings, drawings, and videos that depict locations in Canada where global warming has impacted glaciers, oceans, lakes and rivers. Fire is a recurring theme in the exhibition. I was able to relate quite well to several of the art works that were spread across walls in a very large room, as a number of paintings depicted Peyto Lake and Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields, both of which I visited during my drive last autumn through the Icefields Parkway, a 232 km drive between Lake Louise and Jasper — it is regarded as one of the prettiest drives in Canada and indeed the world. I am pleased to present a selection of photos that I took of the paintings by artist Gennadiy Ivanov, who collaborated with Global Water Futures, and scientists John Pomeroy and Trevor Davies for the exhibition. Gennadiy emphasizes that his art work was not done randomly; rather he assessed his works with the scientists and experts in preparing them. I think his works are masterful and worth visiting if you are in Banff or anywhere else the exhibition is shown.
Cold Regions Warming
Then, after quickly moving through a number of permanent galleries in the museum, I walked into a much smaller room where, from a distance, I saw what looked like plates of sushi placed on white platforms of varying heights in the centre of the room. The walls surrounding the central sushi display had photographs of dreamy large-scale beach destinations around the world. The contrasting works of art were themed under the common title Contemporary Consciousness.
After reading a brief introduction about both the exhibits, I became totally immersed on the sushi exhibit and largely ignored the scenes of beauty that were mounted around the room.
The story is that trans-global artist, Alexandra Ewen, while participating as a volunteer for a community cleanup project on the Pacific Ocean, was struck by bits of styrofoam, plastic, rubber, and metal that were washed onto the beaches in Tofino, British Columbia, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. For Ewen, it was clear the shore wash was microscopic in comparison to the quantity remaining afloat or beneath the ocean surface (remember the staggering number I have mentioned earlier? More on that below).
With resourcefulness and compassion, Alexandra connected the oceanic resources with the culinary creativity of Japanese culture by reconstructing the garbage into exquisitely formed sushi meals, edible in scale and served to order. His plates of sushi were evocative and striking.
Assuming that each sushi plate is around 8-10 ozs in weight, that amounts to 62-100 billion plates of sushi that can be rendered artistiscally from the plastic in oceans based on the figure of 493,835,467,730 ounces that I cited above. Astonishing!
At seeing these incredibly creative works of art, my thoughts immediately turned to Prince Hussain Aga Khan, a marine diver and an advocate for the environment. He had this to say about plastics and other dangerous objects that he has seen in the oceans:
“When I dive, I see plastic everywhere, absolutely everywhere. I see hooks in the mouths of sharks and other fish all the time. In the Bahamas, a third of the sharks I see have hooks in their mouths even though shark fishing is prohibited there. I’ve even seen a shark with a bullet hole. It was horrible. And a couple of years ago I saw a shark of a very rare species eating aluminum foil. You can see terrifying things down there.”
Speaking at the travelling Living Sea exhibition — it is now in Bahrain — that was held in Lisbon, the Prince said:
“When I started diving, there was no plastic. Today, there is not a single place where you don’t see debris. From Agadir to Egypt, from the Bahamas to Indonesia. We have to stop the plastic.”
Having spent many years swimming alongside dolphins, turtles, sharks, whales and more, Prince Hussain has noticed with sorrow the increasingly rapid degradation of our oceans. He says:
“Over the five decades of my own life, I have been heartbroken to see how our oceans have become so clogged up by plastic and other forms of pollution and waste… Coastal areas I visited as a child are unrecognisable today — the wildlife is suffocating and the coastal economies are stagnating. It is clear to me that we have to act now before it is too late.”
And he has himself set an example on plastics. In a telephone conversation with Out of Series, he said, “… my wife [Princess Fareen] and I have completely stopped using plastic in our house. It took us months and a lot of effort to get to it, but we no longer use plastic. In addition, I turn off the lights if they are not necessary; I turn off the water tap when it is not necessary to have it open. I believe that these individual behaviors have their effect.”
Last summer, the UN Ocean Conference that concluded on July 1, 2022, sought to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action. Prince Hussain’s older brother, Prince Rahim, led the Aga Khan Development Network team to the conference and both Prince Hussain and Prince Aly Muhammad were also present.
Clockwise from top left: Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa greets Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain at a dinner he hosted on the occasion of the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon; Prince Rahim in conversation with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon; Prince Hussain explains the story behind one of his photographs in the Fragile Beauty exhibition at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon; and Prince Aly Muhammad in conversation with Carlos Moedas, Mayor of Lisbon, at the United Nations Ocean Conference; all photos dated June 27, 2022. Photos: Humberto Caldas/AKDN. Collage prepared by Barakah.
I may point out that Prince Hussain is a great admirer of Greta Thurnberg, who is shown below in an art work exhibited at the Whyte Museum. The Swedish environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation, is only 20 years old — her birthday was on January 3. The Prince has remarked, “She is fantastic!” A message that Greta often gives is, “Listen to the scientists,” the title of the artwork below.
To conclude, it is therefore not a coincidence that Prince Hussain’s older sister, Princess Zahra, speaking on behalf of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, made the following statement at University of Central Asia’s (UCA) graduation ceremony last June:
Princess Zahra Aga Khan speaking remotely to the 2022 graduates of the University of Central Asia. Photograph: Clip from video of the speech, AKDN.
Princess Zahra said:
“The reason that UCA teaches Earth and Environmental Sciences is that climate change will affect Central Asia as it will the rest of the planet. This sad reality will have several outcomes for the students of UCA. First of all, it will affect your daily lives and your families. It will force changes to the way you grow and distribute food; to your approach towards resources; and to the way you will build house in the future. It will also create a raft of new jobs and careers that will be essential in the decades to come. Not only will this area, like others, require technicians and engineers who are capable of adapting daily life to a new and different reality, but it will also force changes to architecture, transport, forestry management, water conservation, livestock management, trade, and effectively all areas of daily life.”
This quote reverberates Gennadiy Ivanov’s next painting exhibited at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Exhibitions such as the ones I visited in Banff raise our awareness of our surroundings and to practice habits that protect our environment.
As Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, said in an interview with the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, “Islam says that we as Muslims have to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, when we were born. In other words, Allah has entrusted to the human race the duty to improve, work with his creation. And that’s why the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is called a Trust, and that’s how the ethic of the faith comes into the way you work.”
Date posted: January 19, 2023.
Last updated: January 19, 2023 (17:10 EST, typos and story update.)
Note: A version of this post appears on Barakah’s sister website Simergphotos.
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