High in the sky, flying in an Alaskan bush plane, the pilot motions to look out at the vast unspoiled tundra below. The seven of us plaster our faces to the windows on the right side of the aircraft. It takes a few seconds, but as our eyes adjust, we gain sight of a herd of Porcupine Caribou trotting across the unique northern landscape. We’ve been in the air for about an hour, we’re getting closer to Arctic Village, our intended destination, and the views of pristine lakes, meandering streams, and mountainous terrain have been nothing short of inspiring. There are many great wild places scattered around this beautiful world, but there is a reason author Roger Kaye titled his acclaimed book about the campaign to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), “The Last Great Wilderness”.
Alaska is one of the most special places on earth. Its beauty and majesty is unparalleled. Special places are home to special people, and the Gwich’in Tribe has called areas in what is now known as NE Alaska and NW Canada their home for millennia. Gwich’in folks, like Indigenous people across the globe, have faced marginalization, disenfranchisement, and oppression since first contact with colonists. The name Gwich’in literally means “people of the caribou”. When I landed in Arctic Village, on the backcountry airstrip that accesses the remote village that is home to less than 200 people, the first communication with Tribal members was, “did you see any caribou”?
Visiting Arctic Village, which sits at the base of the mighty Brooks Range, on the border of what’s become ANWR, local elder Sarah James introduced herself. Sarah had gotten wind of some of the work I have done in solidarity for the rights of Indigenous people to protect the sacred San Francisco Peaks in Northern, Arizona, learned I was a teacher at a small liberal arts college, and invited me to bring a group of students up to the area to live and learn from the Tribe. In a forward thinking manner, my school supported the opportunity. Several weeks later, our group arrived, and was fortunate to spend time in the area, sharing knowledge with Sarah, Charlie, Gideon and a host of other wise, welcoming locals.
The context of our visit was to act on Sarah’s invitation, remain open to hearing the Gwich’in perspectives on life, and learn more about the threat to impact nearby areas integral to the cultural survival of the Tribe, and ecosystem health of the area, for petroleum reserves. What it all comes down to is there is no such thing as an environmental issue that lacks a social issue. People are at the center of every major ecological disaster, from climate change, to the continued destruction of biodiversity across the world. This idea is also understood through the theory of Holistic Sustainability, which dismisses failed attempts to corner sustainability as purely environmental, and instead argues that a marriage of social, economic, environmental, cultural and political justice is what is truly “sustainable”.
Taking a step back from theory and looking to a lived reality, the issues surrounding the protection of ANWR, Alaska’s North Slope, and the states off-shore waters- which are becoming increasingly available to resource exploration and extraction due to rapidly melting Arctic sea ice, represent a nexus of the multifaceted problems facing the planet. Listening to Sarah, Charlie, and Gideon speak with my students, they each shared perspectives that ultimately sewed a central theme together. If ANWR, and specifically AREA 1002, a.k.a the Coastal Plain, is exploited for petroleum, not only with the Porcupine Caribou die as they will be unable to give birth in their historic birthing grounds, but their culture will die as well. Here is an example where it becomes crystal clear that social justice and ecosystem health are inextricably linked, that at the core, every dire problem related to the earth also harbors a human issue.
It’s been said that the last remaining major reserves of oil and gas are found in Arctic areas. In ANWR, the controversy is far from new, and studies have been conducted regarding the actual amount of potentially refinable oil in the area. The reality based on energy demand in the U.S. is that our country would still need to import most of its oil from foreign sources. While some have argued that that’s good enough, others continue to question if casting irreparable and irreversible damage to “the last great wilderness” and the Native people who have remained resilient against efforts to assimilate, dominate, and erase their culture is worth it.
Inside the Refuge, our group of seven enjoys a sunset that seems to last for hours. Having traveled all over the world, and to Alaska more than anywhere else from my home in the lower 48, the landscape is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. By the end of our trip, my students understand as much as I do that we all use fossil fuels, and the current infrastructure that dominates our world is specifically geared towards its availability and use. But what would the world be like if no one ever questioned the status quo?
Recent efforts to protect ANWR have been celebrated by the Gwich’in, and all who support well-being for people and the plant. However, the major multi-national corporation Shell recently launched sea vessels headed for the Arctic to explore for drilling potential. Why should this matter to you, especially if you’re far from the Arctic, have never been there and don’t think you’ll ever visit? As much as each individual faces their own struggles on any given day, one who does have the choice, and chooses to exercise that opportunity to believe in a better world for all can find common ground in an issue like this that confronts social, economic, environmental, cultural and political injustice. Recreationists who ski, bike, climb, paddle, surf, hike, and engage in any activity outdoors that inspires them has an ethical and moral obligation to support measures that safeguard the things that they cherish. An economy that prioritizes people and the planet over profit is attainable. Change may seem daunting, but the economic and political powers that run a world focused on infinite growth have all been created by humans, people who would not exist if it weren’t for the resources made available to them by the earth.
So what can you do? By advocating for the protection of ANWR you essentially advocate for the protection of marginalized people as well as dominated landscapes. If you know your passion, go there. If you play outside learn more about what promotes integrity and health in your local community and local backyard, and take steps to support it. Visit inspirational places, stay open to the diverse power and package of learning and if you feel strong enough, speak out, and advocate for the things that mean something to you. Keep it as simple and as small as you need too in order to stay involved in any way, and the more you grow personally, the more you will find yourself in solidarity with efforts that protect people, and all places, like “the last great wilderness”.Google Plus Page