Sometimes it’s valuable to examine a larger issue, environmental irresponsibility, for example, on a (somewhat) smaller scale. Through the history and travails of just one region, perhaps. I would be hard-pressed to find a more mistreated one here in the New World, than Alaska.
America’s northernmost state, beyond the Canadian Yukon territory, Alaska officially joined the canon of Western civilization as a colony of Russia. Of course, Russia was a little late to lay a claim: various indigenous groups from the Aleuts to the Inuit had already been living there for 10,000 years. But that didn’t stop Russia from putting the land up for sale, nor the United States buying it for a cool seven mil.
Has this involuntary alliance been a good thing for Alaska, its habitats, its people? From purchased land to an official territory to, finally, a state in 1959, not quite 100 years after the transaction, I’d say Alaska’s been more than a little mistreated. If states and nations were people, I’d say Alaska was stuck in an abusive relationship. If the United States government set out to deliberately wreak destruction upon a healthy ecosystem and the communities of people therein, what they actually did makes for a pretty good start.
Step 1: Industrialize. The Klondike gold rush resulted in a flood of people into both the Yukon and not-yet-officially-a-territory Alaska. At the time, gold was on everyone’s lips. The presidential race between McKinley and Bryan was largely settled over a debate about the gold standard. We know today that the disturbance of the rivers from miners panning for gold interrupts these critical ecosystems by affecting the diatoms at the very bottom of the food chain, the base on which larger organisms, salmon and bears, for example, ultimately depend.
This is perhaps not the worst of it. 220 million dollars were sunk into developing an infrastructure which would ultimately pull out perhaps 20 million dollars worth of gold during the Gold Rush. Economically, most lost out. It was a lottery that only a few would win, but along the way, an entire industry of miner towns, food and supply transport, and the like, grew up the region, making long-term American-style habitation possible.
Alaska, with one of the most fragile and, up-to-that-point, pristine ecosystems in the world, had industrialized. Larger populations and large-scale, take what you need from the land and damn the consequences attitudes had come to roost in an ecologically sensitive land that could ill afford it.
Step 2: Declare it a wasteland and treat it as such. Alaska is home to some of the richest seas in the world. No ecosystem exists in isolation, and likewise, Alaska’s ecology is tied in with greater marine health and neighboring terrestrial environments. If you go for a walk on a cold winter day in some parts of Alaska, it may seem there is nothing alive. Bears are hibernating, caribou are on their migratory trek, seals are below sea ice.
So along with the Nevada desert, what better place in the United States to set off nuclear bombs? The island of Amchitka had been uninhabited for a few decades when, in the 1960s, the U.S. military set off a couple of nuclear explosions. The island will likely not be inhabited any time soon, but it still gets a little tourism. U.S. officials have to monitor it periodically for leaks of radioactive material. Don’t eat the salmon in those waters.
Step 3: Go after every drop of oil regardless of the risk. The discovery of abundant petroleum resources was a boon for the nation during the 1970s energy crisis. A history from the American Petroleum Institute is instructive. The biggest concern, apparently, is that the amount of oil coming out of Alaska is less than projected, and the reason for this problem has been the “policy of consistently over-restrictive limitations on access to Federal land.” It’s interesting to see how the other side thinks, isn’t it?
So, according to the oil-mongers, the solution to all the world’s problems is “drill, baby, drill,” with the Arctic National Refuge being one major source of untapped potential that they cite. Notably, the history cited at that link makes no mention of the Exxon Valdez disaster, nor any other oil spill in Alaskan waters. Just think how many more millions of tons of crude oil we could have in the Alaskan seas if not for those over-restrictive resource extraction policies. What a waste to leave it untouched in the ground instead of poisoning the air, land and water.
Step 4: Wait and watch. The most sensitive and vulnerable parts of the world are the canaries in the coal mine, signalling when our polluting and climate disrupting ways start to catch up with us. There are many, many island nations that are threatened by the rising sea levels due to climate change, and many environments that will be heavily affected by changes in the planet’s atmospheric currents, temperature and CO2.
The North is one of them, and one Alaskan island in particular has the dubious honor of going down in history as the first American community to be destroyed by climate change (leaving aside New Orleans, which at least was rebuilt). In a mere decade, yes, I said decade, not century, the island village of Kivalina is set to disappear under the waves. Housing a mostly indigenous population (remember them? They’re the ones that lived in the North for ten millenia without destroying it), the lack of sea ice has already destroyed their fishing and hunting season, but it’s also rapidly facilitating erosion.
So it’s come full circle. With complete climate destabilization, Alaska’s environment is likely to fare worse than most under major climatic changes. Sadly, this long mistreated region is likely to have many more trials to come.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.