Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Nature without People (People Like Us, That Is)

On Tuesday, Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times about his intention to spend several days in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and thus do what the overwhelming majority of people who argue either for or against drilling for oil in the Refuge never do--actually visit the place. This will, Kristoff hopes, give us a "grizzly-eye" view of what life is like there, as well as help him make up his own mind about this issue. While I've no idea what Kristoff will end up favoring (opposing any drilling in the Refuge is no longer the liberal litmus test it once was), what he's written so far is revealing.

Consider the very first sentence, in which he describes the Refuge as North America's "last great wilderness virtually untouched by humans other than Eskimos and Indians." Maybe that's just a simple bit of journalistic flourish; after all, for the average reader of the NYT, who likely has never met an Eskimo or an Indian, it's just as well to say that the Refuge is, essentially, an entirely uninhabited place. But think about that a little bit more, and keep it in mind as you go through his essay. The land is described as "awesome," "harsh," "inhospitable"; the fact that it dwarfs what we usually take to mean modern civilization thrills Kristof. "There is something deeply moving about backpacking through land where humans are interlopers and bears are kings," he writes.

But the thing is, humans aren't "interlopers" there. As Kristof himself admits, human beings (except that they are, I guess, just "Eskimos and Indians," and so don't really count) actually live there--and they want the drilling to take place. He writes, "most of the Eskimos who actually live in the refuge favor drilling. They want better schools, better jobs and more comfortable lives, and most believe that oil drilling is the way to achieve that. Some resent the idea that American environmentalists 5,000 miles away want to lock them forever in a quaint wilderness, just for the psychic value of knowing that it is there."

"The psychic value that it is there"--true enough, but not the whole story. What we really have here is an affection for a land which is there but is inaccessible. That is, the valuation of a space which cannot, in fact, be made into a source of value for any actually existing people. Bill McKibben, in an old essay in Atlantic Monthly, called these kind of vistas "eco-porn": a rhapsodic, Ansel-Adams-type vision of unsullied nature, and by "unsullied" I mean "untouched by human beings who aspire to modern lives." The Indians and the Eskimos remain, of course, insofar as they stay "one with nature" and do not interrupt the vision. The crucial point is that the land must remain ever the same, and that can only be achieved by protecting it from "interlopers." (Except of course for certain people--like Kristof, perhaps: the wealthy and enlightened, who can swoop in and take beautiful photographs and feel the rapture and then swoop out again.) If the Indians and Eskimos actually want drilling...well then, by this line of reasoning they've been contaminated by other "interlopers" (the oil cartel!), and aren't really part of the vision anymore, even though they unfortunately still actually live there.

McKibben is hardly weak on environmental issues--he is one of the most intense environmentalist writers I've ever encountered. But as much as he might praise the writings of other fans of isolated, inhospitable and uninhabited nature like Terry Tempest Williamsand Edward Abbey, his thinking is more in line with people like Wendell Berry, who have long known and argued that human beings--working, making, producing, progressing human beings--are every bit as much a part of the "environment" as grizzly bears. He has argued that environmental preservation must work up from and within the local, the inhabited, the mixed places of the world. This is hardly an endorsement of drilling in ANWR; it is, rather, simply to point out that the more common liberal arguments against drilling (the inherent value of the land's awesomeness, remoteness, etc.) oblige us to accept an environmental philosophy which has the tendency to leave real people out of the equation--especially, as it often turns out, people who don't have access to (or time for) high-end nature-watching.

There are other, more local, more human, arguments against drilling. Kristof writes: "But just south of the refuge, the Gwich'in Indians want to keep the refuge as it is. 'Everybody here is against drilling,' said Marjorie John, the storekeeper in Arctic Village, a Gwich'in hamlet of 120 people. 'We want to protect the caribou calving ground. Those caribou are part of our culture. They are our culture.'" That's a real argument, an environmental argument which begins with the understanding that nature is always "sullied" by human cultures, just as our cultures are always confronted by and must adapt to nature. The better environmental thinkers would begin their defense of ANWR with the Gwich'in people, not with visions of beautiful (and safely remote) bears. Perhaps the environmental establishment has a hard time with that approach because it has sources of compromise (between different native factions and cultures) and change (as technologies and opportunities evolve) built into it, which runs against the idea of nature staying permanently locked away (except, of course, for those who know how to do and can afford to do tourism in the right, enlightened way). Maybe I'm just crouchy because, as I've confessed, we're probably not ever going to be able to be quite so enlightened in our tourist encounters with the natural world and the people who make their homes there. But then again, it just may be that the average Indian inhabitant of ANWR might have more in common with your average tourist than with Kristof.