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for people who care about the West

Like Paul on the road to Damascus


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.

At the 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 implicated.

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 companions.

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 point, 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 studies.

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 suit.

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 recently.

This essay was first published in the Flagstaff Tea Party in December 2000. To read the original, longer version, visit www.flagstaffteaparty.org.