The fact that cynicism and irony are deeply entrenched in popular culture is hardly headline news; most of us indulge in them from time to time, slide into a detached stance if for no other reason than self-defense. Harmless enough, probably, in small doses.
But as I was walking past the Toyota
dealership some weeks ago I noticed their new, full-size, crew-cab,
4 x 4 pickup truck is called the “Tundra.” OK, just
another romantic, intrepid-sounding name for an SUV, no big deal.
But this is a darker use of language, more pernicious than Bronco
or Blazer. We’re a nation of junkies, strung out on oil, and
the next convenience store we want to rob is the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge. Tundra, every inch of it. Vital to the
Gwich’in people, whose lives revolve around the caribou herd
that calves on that coastal plain.
Twenty-five years ago,
I was employed in oil and gas exploration, doing winter work off
Alaska’s north coast. We stayed at various Defense Early
Warning radar stations — the DEW Line — and flew out in
helicopters to take readings on the pack ice. One day, my
counterpart on the other crew was accosted by an Inuit man while
calibrating his instrument onshore. The man made as if to smash the
gravity meter with his shovel, and said our helicopters were
scaring away seals, polar bears, caribou .
We had seen
very few creatures during our flights and they had seemed oblivious
— all but the bears — to our passage, so this was a
surprising development. The party chiefs chewed the matter over and
decided to have me — an underling, a hired hand — meet
with this Inuit man, who was a village leader.
appointed time, I walked nervously into Point Lay’s austere
installation dining room, armed with a copy of our permit. Curious
helicopter mechanics and off-duty radar techs lounged about,
waiting to see what transpired. The village spokesman was
comfortable in English, seemed well-educated. I handed him the
permit, assuming that his village had been consulted prior to its
issuance. I explained that his concerns should be directed to the
officials mentioned therein.
He read silently for a
moment, the paper flimsy in his grasp. “You don’t care
about my people, do you?”
Flustered, I assured him I
could sympathize but had no involvement in the original transaction
and no power now to modify it. Please, I urged him, contact the
agencies in charge.
That cut no ice. He wasn’t
interested in distant bureaucracies. “It doesn’t matter
to you whether we starve or not. Does it?” Embarrassed now,
sinking into self-pity, I made a feeble attempt to wave that
accusation away. Failure.
“You just don’t give
a damn, do you?”
Everyone’s eyes were on me.
Utterly exposed, unwilling to feign a concern I couldn’t
legitimately claim, I surrendered. “OK, you’re right. I
don’t give a damn.” And this satisfied him. He folded
the permit and put it in his pocket. Our meeting was over.
Looking back on my encounter with that Inuit man, I like to think
he was trying to teach me a lesson in personal responsibility. I
couldn’t just be a good German with a clean conscience; I was
In August of 2000, I rode the bus up to the
Yukon Territory, above the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway,
to celebrate (yes!) my 50th birthday and the one-year anniversary
of the day I gave up my own ’79 Toyota. It had over 200,000
miles on it and seemed capable of as many more; the truck was
willing, I wasn’t.
Depriving myself of a vehicle has
been the best decision I’ve ever made (though the competition
in that regard is not very keen). Oddly enough, it’s been a
liberating experience. So, in celebration, I was backpacking from
the Dempster into an austere mountain range of tundra and talus.
Didn’t get far; rain, a foot of snow, then more rain, more
snow. Whenever I ventured from the tent, caribou were my
Unbeknownst to me, a group of Gwich’in
elders was enduring this weather not far to the north, engaged in a
“Millennium Trek” to the threatened caribou calving
grounds. They were desperately hoping to influence President
Clinton, convince him to declare the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge a national monument. The push to drill for oil has forced
them to contemplate the death of their culture, and now these
bizarre, unseasonable storms seemed yet another sign of impending
doom: global warming.
We have run out of mitigating
factors, and our crimes are now committed in the first degree, in
cold blood. It’s been that way for a long time. Would
exploiting the oil — potentially six months’ worth
— beneath the calving grounds decimate the Porcupine caribou
herd? That’s not the point. Does our constant and frivolous
use of internal combustion mean global climate will be irreversibly
altered? That’s not the point, either..
the question, is this: Can we still, both individually and as a
society, restrain ourselves?
In a primitive society, if a
tribal elder or medicine man were to predict, based upon observed
phenomena, a brutal winter or extended drought or scarcity of game,
the people would take steps, both individually and collectively, to
avert disaster. They would ration their resources or move to a
safer area or refrain from having children. They wouldn’t, I
think, accuse their wise ones of junk science and demand further
We’re in an infinitely more complex
situation, but the rules remain in effect: Actions have
consequences, and so do inactions. To ignore the concerns of the
Gwich’in people, to write their lives off as an anachronism,
would be both stupid and indefensible. We need to start trying to
do the right thing, and we need to let our leaders know —
loudly and clearly — that we expect them to follow
A “lifestyle” built upon willful
ignorance or shrugging indifference won’t, and
shouldn’t, survive far into the 21st century. Like a Toyota
truck bogged down in the Arctic tundra, we’ll find ourselves
in an untenable position sooner or later — and the rest of
the world will curse what they once envied.
John Wahl was
born on Oct. 18, 1950, in Butler, Mo. He worked for the past 13
years as a research librarian at the public library in Flagstaff,
Ariz., but is perhaps best known for his activism with the Justice
and Peace Coalition and the Flagstaff Activist Network. Wahl
committed suicide on March 13. “He gave the lie to the
opinion that one cannot, in today’s world, live simply, with
minimal material wealth, yet with grace, dignity and
richness,” Flagstaff resident Norm Wallen wrote
This essay was first published in the Flagstaff
Tea Party in December 2000. To read the original, longer version,