Since 2009, Philadelphia furniture maker Peter Handler has spent his nights and weekends working on a series of furnishings meant to spread a message: Heed the warning signs of climate change.
Most of the pieces in the series, named Canaries in the Coal Mine, are wrapped up and in storage throughout Handler’s furniture studio in East Falls, but one piece, cramped in a back storage room, is just visible.
Among his usual work of vibrant, multicolored aluminum and woodworkings, Drunken Forest stands out as his least colorful but perhaps his most interesting piece. It’s about the height of a toddler, and its inch-wide wooden spikes stick up and bend in different directions kind of like the bristles on an old hairbrush.
The name Drunken Forest refers to a condition afflicting forests in Alaska. Rising temperatures are melting the ground’s permafrost, causing tree roots to lose their grip and the trees to slope sideways, sort of resembling a drunk person. The bending spikes in Handler’s piece represent those falling trees.
Like Drunken Forest, all of the woodworkings in the Canaries in the Coal Mine series represent how climate change is manifesting somewhere in the world right now, from melting arctic ice caps to dying coral reefs to rising sea levels.
“Basically what I do is look for situations happening that are illustrative of big-picture climate change,” Handler explained. “These situations become canaries for people, hence, ‘Canaries in the Coal Mine.’”
Quite a bit of research goes into each piece in the series. In order to accurately represent the melting permafrost situation, Handler and his wife decided to travel to Alaska to see it for themselves. He’s also limited his reading to mostly environmentally focused nonfiction, starting years ago with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Once he has an understanding of an issue, Handler turns his thought process to figuring out how to create a visual depiction using relevant materials. The spines on Drunken Forest are carved out of birch to represent the birch trees sliding around in the permafrost, and the clear, aluminum legs supporting it represent the melting ice. A piece called Golden Toad Reliquary, which shows a species of toad that became the poster child for climate change-related extinctions, contains a Spanish Cedar native to the toads’ would-be habitat in Costa Rica.
Before turning to furniture, Handler worked for years as a jewelry maker, and because of the size of the pieces he created, he occasionally made something that held some meaning to him or referenced a cause he cared about.
“When I became a furniture maker I was like, furniture is furniture,” he explained. “It’s not a medium that lends itself to that.”
During a period when he wasn’t receiving many commissions, he decided to experiment, anyway. He began the Canaries in the Coal Mine series with the intent that each item would be a functional piece of furniture, but that prerequisite only ended up applying to the first piece: the Maldives Table, which at 7,000 dollars is the least expensive piece in the series.
The threat of sea level rise to the Maldives Islands was one of the first “canaries” of climate change’s threat to human populations, he explained. The Republic of the Maldives, made up of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, will likely be totally underwater by the end of the century, according to climate change experts. Handler carved the shapes of the islands out of the surface of the table to represent the likelihood of their being totally submerged within the near future.
The other items in the six-piece series so far cover melting ice caps, bleached coral reefs and forest fires — all of which have been indicators for scientists that our climate has been gradually but drastically changing. Handler plans to keep going with the series, and he’s pretty sure of what he wants to explore next: the acceptance of new normals. Instead of showing the beginning signs of a warming earth, the next piece will introduce the reactions to climate change now that it’s begun.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 2016 was the hottest year in history, with the past three years each breaking the previous year’s record. Now, rather than just reading about the distant, often abstract effects of climate change, humans are starting to experience firsthand the realities of a warming Earth.
Handler offered the example of new seasonal norms, particularly within the Northeast over the past few years.
“Summer in February?” He said, “It’s nice, but it’s fucked up.
“People view it as just new normals, and there’s danger in that.”
Besides making it harder to dress appropriately, climate change poses serious threats to human populations. Changing seasonal norms lead to extreme weather conditions, including increasing rates of tornadoes, forest fires and floods throughout the United States.
In August 2016, Louisiana suffered two days of massive downpours and flooding, which the World Weather Attribution linked to climate change caused by human activity. The rainfall surpassed that from both Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the resulting flooding claimed 13 lives. Red Cross called it the worst natural disaster in the US since Sandy, and WWA concluded its report stating climate change will almost certainly lead to more frequent natural disasters in the region and throughout the world.
After the normalization piece, Handler says he might try to tackle food, as worsening weather trends also threaten production of agriculture around the world. But because of commissions and other projects, he probably won’t have time to get back into the series until late this year.
On top of making furniture to actually be sold, he splits his time with advocacy work as a group leader for the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, a principal for Honoring the Future and part of Interfaith Power and Light, all organizations working to address solutions for climate change.
“At a certain point it does slow me down at my work,” he admitted, adding, “I feel the need to do what needs to be done to take care of this problem that’s there, and I can’t let it go and say, ‘Well I need to do this to make a living.’ I need to do both.”