Make Peace with Nature – Who is Sandra Prüfer?

Interview and Photo by Corinna Heumann

Sandra Prüfer was born in Neuss, in the Rhineland, in the late 1960s. After completing an apprenticeship in publishing at the Rheinische Post, she studied journalism, political science and Romanic languages in Münster, Paris and Berlin. During her time at university she already began to work at the former Defa Studios. Today she lives with her family in the UN climate city of Bonn.

What drives you, Sandra?

I am driven by the question, if we can also heal our mother earth by means of art, poetry and music? According to UN Secretary General António Guterres, the crucial task of the 21st century is to make peace with nature.

You started your career in the film and television industry?

At the time, Studio Babelsberg was desperately looking for someone who knew French in addition to German. This person also had to know a little about the media business. In retrospect, my role – in marketing & communications – could be described as an intercultural bridge builder and trouble shooter. Defa had just been sold by the Treuhand to the Compagnie Générale des Eaux. The goal was to develop Babelsberg as a media city. Back then this was a crazy intercultural Wild East!

How did you get involved in environmental and climate protection?

In 1995 the first climate conference COP took place in Berlin. Angela Merkel was minister of environment at the time. I followed the conference in the belief that politics would take care of it and that the media would report on it. At the time, I was studying European media policy as well as technical-digital transformation in the audiovisual sector. In 1996, after graduating and working for Bertelsmann branch UFA, I wanted to go where the digital revolution was actually happening and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area together with my Californian boyfriend. I was immediately struck by how much further they had already developed the sector of renewable energy, wind turbines and photovoltaic systems. I enthusiastically immersed myself in the local sustainability and alternative culture scene. I attended the first Critical Mass rides in San Francisco and the Burning Man Festival.

What path led you from California Dreaming to Northern Exposure?

In the mid-1990s, we were still watching television. A popular US series with hilarious characters was called ‘Northern Exposure’. It was set in a fictional small town in Alaska. While I was working in San Francisco for hip internet startups and as a freelance journalist for German media, Joe, meanwhile my husband, was working as a pilot and flight instructor. He had a dream of living for a while as a bush pilot in Alaska, in remote areas not connected to the road system. So, in 1999 I landed in Bethel, a community of 5,000 on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, surrounded by flat tundra, a lunar landscape with many lakes that turns into a white desert of snow and ice in winter. The people there mostly belong to the Yup’ik Eskimo. They live from fishing. I got the offer to work as a “flying reporter” for the “Tundra Drums, the Beat of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta”. It was published by the Alaska Newspaper Inc., run by Alaskan Natives. Shortly thereafter, the local editor quit. I suddenly found myself alone in the newsroom and at the same time got a call from the Governor’s Office. It was about the Fishing Disaster. Salmon had returned in low numbers. Commercial and subsistence fishing had therefore been banned. Governor Knowles wanted to come to meet with local fishermen. I was asked to cover the visit, but I knew nothing about Pacific salmon fishing. I began to do some research. A biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game gave me a report and invited me to fly with him to Quinhagak, one of the affected Yup’ik fishing villages.

What shaped your life in Alaska: WTF is this Alaskan Fishing Disaster?

At the village meeting, the atmosphere was intense. The villagers were excited and desperate. They wanted to know from the state fisheries manager why the salmon were no longer returning from the ocean to spawn. The biologists were at a loss: it would have to be researched first. In their view, it might be related to “ocean survival.” I asked whether it could possibly have to do with climate change. I then received great applause from the Yup’ik Elders, the village elders, “You are the first one to ask the right questions!” Researchers were not yet interviewing indigenous populations, although the natives had been noticing changes in nature for many years. It wasn’t until a year later that the international Argo program began to systematically explore the world’s oceans with automated drifting buoys for water measurements, observations by satellites and their analysis for climate monitoring.

Most of Alaska is on permafrost. Thawing permafrost releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases. Soil erosion and other dramatic consequences of global warming were already visible there in the 1990s. Scientists later found that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. As a local reporter, I wrote a lot about this back then and accompanied research teams. Temporarily, I also worked for the Alaska Department for Fish & Game, as well as the Nome Nugget, Alaska’s oldest newspaper. During that time, I gained a lot of knowledge.

You met the first climate refugees. What was the reporting like in Germany and Japan at the time?

I wanted this to be reported by German media as well. I described to the editors how coastal villages on the Bering Sea were already being washed away and species extinction was in full swing. There were the first climate refugees, the Yup’ik and Inupiaq Eskimos. US media and even Japanese television suddenly showed up in Nome to report on it. But, in Germany they were only interested in the endangered polar bears. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell my stories. In Germany, climate reporting at the time focused on politics and science, and by no means on the people whose livelihoods and traditional way of life were threatened. In Germany, people apparently did not feel affected. Fortunately, that attitude has since changed.

According to a study published in 2022 by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the Arctic region has warmed four times faster than the global average over the past 43 years. We now see that previous climate models underestimated the so-called polar amplification. Between 2020 and 2022, there were again dramatic drops in salmon and crab populations in Alaska, as a result of which the U.S. Department of Commerce allocated $216 million in disaster relief to the affected regions. Some of the money is dedicated to research programs.

Another station in your career was Chicago. How did that come about?

With our two-year-old daughter born in Alaska, my husband and I moved from Nome to Chicago in 2004. Our son was born there. In Chicago, I began working for Rotary International. I was responsible for media relations in Africa, Europe and the Middle East – including peacebuilding, development and environmental projects. In my new field of work, I was also constantly confronted with the changes in the climate and the effects of climate change on people: extreme weather events and natural disasters.

The trip to Kenya?

During a shooting in Kenya, which was actually about Peace and Conflict Resolution, I was in a Maasai village. Livestock there were either dying of thirst or completely emaciated. Only the elderly, women and children were still in the village. All men had moved away to earn money in the slums of larger cities. When asked about the roots of the conflicts, the Maasai replied that it was due to the scarcity of resources, the lack of water, distribution struggles, population growth and finally climate change.

And your mission?

With these insights, I got engaged in creative collaborative storytelling and knowledge transfer. In collaboration with interdisciplinary artists, I try to reach people emotionally to start a dialogue about climate change. For example, art on climate change spreads into popular culture via the Rhenish political carnival. The burning kangaroo figure was created by Jacques Tilly for the 2020 Düsseldorf Rose Monday procession. The procession was cancelled at the time. With the help of Parents for Future, we brought his figure for the campaign from Düsseldorf to the UN city of Bonn in preparation for the next climate conference. In addition, there are the Parachutes for the Planet, a global climate artivism initiative started at the time by the Mother Earth Project in Chevy Chase near Washington, D.C.. The PEOPLE OVER PROFIT ensemble on display was painted by climate groups in Tacoma, Washington State. In addition, we are showing a selection of poems by a Dutch climate scientist who wishes to remain anonymous. He calls his poems And They Left Us a Broken Planet.

Can we heal Mother Earth by means of art, poetry and music?

There will be no progress without the various art forms of authentic human expression as well as emotional processing of knowledge, of dialogue and empathy. Utopian thinking inspires people in a multitude of dimensions among them positive imagination of a peaceful future in harmony with nature. Therefore art and its various forms of expression have the capacity to mobilize necessary energies for change.

To address the planetary crises of our time and as a consequence the transition from the fossil to the renewable energy age, we need to change the narrative, towards solutions and chances. We need to find new ways of communication to addressing people emotionally, to inspiring them. Only through the exchange of ideas in a respectful and peaceful manner we can face the complexity of our common future. To do that, we need to value art and culture more than ever.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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