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The Environment is Not A Luxury Cause

I’ve struggled to write the past week and a half. Most of what came out was the equivalent of literary tourrets. In the past I’ve contributed to the independent website, Elephant Journal. I’d never had a submission rejected before. I’ve had two returned with, “Thanks but no thanks” since the election. Because somewhere along the way I became a ranter. I was spewing anger at everyone from Trump supporters to Clinton to Russia to myself.

I had, in other words, a case of the “guilts.” I wanted to reach out and change and impact everyone’s lives immediately. I walked into the labyrinth of Facebook comment threads. I tried to be rational, accepting, understanding. Three adjectives that Americans haven’t had a lot of opportunities to use this year. I felt myself stretched thin.

There is simply too many things to be concerned about right now. Sorry to bum you out. My liberal Facebook scrolling made it worse. Thanks Huffington Post, Occupy Democrats, and the Other 98%.

So what do we do now?

It’s one thing to read articles from the liberal media, comment on them and share them. I’ve done plenty of that. But this is not enough. It’s not enough to post status updates supporting those that are oppressed or attach a paperclip to your clothes. These are nice gestures, they’re great reminders, but in the long run, paperclips are not going to save us.

In the past Brittney has felt the way we’re all feeling right now, overwhelmed by the needs of the many. She wants to save the greyhounds, rid the world of plastic, and put an end to factory farming and animal testing. Even a genetically engineered combination of Michael Pollan, Edward Abbey, and Rachel Carson can’t do that. At some point we must accept that we cannot save everything. That doesn’t mean that we cannot show empathy or support the work of others, but we cannot allow ourselves to be bogged down and discouraged by every injustice. This is not meant to sound callous or dismissive, but time and energy wasted worrying about everything is time we could spend pouring ourselves into that which we are most passionate. Please don’t misinterpret passionate for more important. Protecting undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and the environment are all noble and worthy causes. This is not my attempt to rank levels of importance.

But I will be—as you may have guessed—dedicating myself to preserving and protecting what wild places remain. I’ve written before about the huge majority of Americans that support the preserving of National Parks, Refuges, and Forests. 80% of Americans say they’d even be  willing to pay additional taxes to keep these places healthy and undisturbed. How many other causes would four out of five Americans agree are worthy of taking more money out of their pockets?

But at the end of the day, these sentiments weren’t enough. We elected not just a president but a congress that not only is dismissive of public lands but are willing to explore the possibility of doing away with them. Now articles on these reports are somewhat convoluted and unclear and I hesitate to believe that even the majority of Republican senators would support such a drastic change in policy. Just this morning I received an email from an aide to Alaskan senator Dan Sullivan (R) in response to a letter I wrote last week. In it he assured me that Sullivan was committed to protecting Alaska’s national parks. We can take from this what we want, but I found it heartening and reassuring that Denali, Glacier Bay, Yosemite, and the rest of them are not in danger of being bulldozed over, at least for the moment. The Arctic Refuge and its promise of oil may be a different story, but we’ll explore that some other time.

The biggest problem environmentalists have in America, is the perception that most Americans seem to have of wild places environmental policy. It is my hunch that most of the population sees environmental issues as “luxury causes.” We’ll save the endangered species, the old growth forests, and the clean air and water when it’s convenient for us. This election cycle, none of that was convenient enough. There were other more pressing and selfish issues that took priority.

What’s lost is how important the natural world is to all of us. I can understand how that can be lost on a lot of people. We have become more and more urbanized and disconnected from the world around us. Despite the level of technology we enjoy, we are disconnected from an incredible amount. We’ve walled ourselves off from everything that doesn’t directly concern us and it is this that has contributed to the great political divide in the country.

But it has also separated us from nature, our life blood. And it is this that is even more disastrous. Most Americans can turn any tap and be rewarded with potable water. Food shelves are always stocked, heat is available at the turn of a knob. Our lives are so convenient that we don’t have to think about the sources of these necessities. They are simply always there. We’re so consumed with our jobs, families, and luxuries that the resources that serve as the foundation have been forgotten. It is my fear that this foundation is cracking and rotting. And if it fails, everything propped on top of it—civilization as we know it—will come crumbling down.

This is why we must stop looking at clean air and water as luxuries. It’s ludicrous to write that phrase, but it’s true. Perhaps if it was laid out in these obvious terms we’d understand it better. But no, we spent all of our time discussing Trump’s hand size, Hillary’s emails, and whether or not the media was “biased.” We completely forgot to discuss what the hell we were going to do after November 8th.

This starts with us. I stand with Bernie Sanders when he says that climate change, not ISIS or China or TPP is the greatest threat to America and the world. It will be difficult to fight for the rights of women and good paying American jobs if we can no longer grow food or find safe water to drink. The only thing more foolish than trying to eat your money is trying to drink it.

So I have a challenge for us. I want people to find where their foundation comes from. This is a closed system, it all must come from somewhere. Is your electricity via hydropower? Solar? Coal? Natural gas? A house elf hiding in the wall? What’s your fresh water reservoir? How about your food and heat? This is not meant to be a guilt trip or my elitist little rant because my water source is 200 yards away at the top of the hill. It’s to get people plugged in and connected to what supports us. I’m genuinely curious so please share your findings if you’re so inclined.

For a long time environmentalists have been warning of the dangers of climate change. That’s all well and good, it’s factually correct. The only problem is that it’s not working. If it was then a man who claims it is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese would have been laughed out of the room long ago. So here’s a different route. Let’s connect people with these resources so that they understand the impact the changing climate is having on them. Too many people have separated themselves from the consequences. Chalk it up to the “luxury causes” theory. It is tantamount that people recognize that climate change and environmental policy is not just something that affects Polar Bears and Common Murres but all of us, whether you live in Gustavus, Alaska or Atlanta, Georgia, the threat is real.

Let this be the start of a new revolution. The start of a more intimate connection between humanity and the resources that sustain us. Do not let another day of callously turning on the faucet or flicking on the lights go by. Research, educate, and teach. Do it with patience and love. Do not rise to baiting or sarcasm. And probably best not to utter the words climate change for a bit. Only when we understand what sustains, us we will be able to protect it.

Bless the Harbor Seals

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When The Storm Breaks

The weather breaks. The sun tears through the cloud curtain. First a lone ray of light strikes Parson Island, than another, and another as like fingers thousands of miles long, they creep across Blackney Pass until they fall on our windows. The aftermath of a 50 knot storm. Porter sticks his whiskered nose out the door. He’s suspicious and disgruntled after being confined to the cabin for two days as rain pelted the windows and the walls rattled.
We step onto a beach littered with logs washed ashore in the night. Fir bark, affectionately known as “fishermen’s coal” punctuates severed trunks of cedar and spruce. We pile the bark greedily in our arms. In a few days they would dry and capable of supercharging the fire at night when temperatures are dropping below freezing.
The bark drying on the sheltered picnic table near the cabin, I grab an ax and send splinters of wood flying. Heating by wood stove offers the luxury of warming you up twice. Once when you cut it, and again when you burn it.
I used to take heat for granted. Why wouldn’t you when for 25-years all you had to do was turn a knob, flip a switch and be rewarded with steamy warm air emitting from the magical grate in the floor? That heat, that energy had to come from somewhere. Coal? Hydropower? A wizard in the wall? I couldn’t tell you. But here I’m intimately connected to where my heat comes from, my electricity. Sunshine means the computers charge, the hydrophones switch on, Netflix is operational.
Too many cloudy days and we pay the price. Hydrophones flicker, cycle, and scream in their static voices until we turn them down. To keep the lights glowing and Orca Live streaming we turn to the massive red monstrosity in the shed. The generator, good old unleaded gasoline and 10W30 motor oil. As the unprecedented climate change intensifies, there’s a sensation of guilt each time I pull the choke, turn the key, and see pale white exhaust shoot into the atmosphere. At least I know where it’s coming from I guess. Thankfully, on sunny days, the generator sits unused, ignored. For what can be more renewable and reliable than those rays of sun beating down from above?
“When we know where our food, our energy comes from,” says Zachary Brown, founder of the Inian Island Institute in Alaska, “we no longer take them for granted. When we have an intimate connection to these commodities, we pay attention.”
Food for us is a different story. Banana’s from Belize, avocado’s from Mexico. At least the Kokanee and apple’s are Canadian. We do what we can. We grow kale, collard greens, and potatoes that are waiting patiently for Thanksgiving. It’s no different in the summer when we live in a town of 400 in southeast Alaska. A town with an award winning recycling program, where people have gardens instead of lawns, and avocado’s cost 5 bucks apiece. Avocados that arrive on the same barges that I shake my fist at in the winter time as the plod past the lab, filling the hydrophones with their roar, the air with their exhaust.
What’s the answer? What’s enough? Are my bananas and avocados ethically harvested? I’m vegetarian but should I be vegan? Maybe I should just eat the salal that grows between the cabin and the ocean.
Brittney used to agonize like this when she was in school. She’d come home from another humanities class: People and Plastics and Animal Rights courses. Nestle stealing groundwater, animals testing on rabbits, a fresh water crisis, orcas in captivity, taps running dry, corn fed factory farms. What to do, how to promote change, progress.
We aren’t superman. We can’t fight all of this. Instead we must select those injustices, those policies and acts that raise the hair on our neck. That quicken our pulse, that pull at our conscience. Whether it’s animal rights, oil pipelines, alternative energy, letting Corky come home, Syrian refugees. We must pick our battles, our medium for fighting them, and go to work.
Deep in the woods of Hanson Island lives a man. An anthropologist, a writer, an activist, a hero. He calls himself Walrus. As the forests of north Vancouver Island were leveled by the chainsaw, he took a stand by sitting down. He seated himself on a logging road that wound into the heart of Hanson Island, of Yukusam, and could not be moved. This was his fight, his passion. He won. He lives in a cabin now at the site of his barricade. “The longest active logging blockade in British Columbia,” he says.
This is the life of the activist. It’s Rachel Carson typing out Silent Spring as cancer ate at her because someone had to write it, Paul Spong camping in front of the Vancouver Aquarium, insisting that Skana go home, Michale Pollen and Food Inc, Marches for Lolita, Will Allen perfecting urban farming. Different people, different passions, huge change. May we someday be counted among them.