A Big Wilderness can Lead to Big Illusions

Montana is known as “Big Sky Country,” but a week in Alaska’s wilderness puts things in an entirely different perspective.

Here in rural Alaska, it seems hard to imagine that people can alter something as big as the climate system. With a population of just 723,000 on a piece of land one-fifth the size of the Lower Forty-eight states, Alaska shows us just how puny a person seems to be.

No wonder those who live on the edge of the wilderness can have such strong antipathy for environmental regulations. But there is more to it than the size—the enormous scale of Alaska’s mountains, tundra and, in summer, endless daylight. There is also the challenge of living in such a rugged place. People need strong, durable tools in order to survive.

As a result, Alaskans rely on fossil fuels in a big way. Small airplanes, snow machines and 4×4 trucks are practically standard equipment.

And why not, in a place where communities are so few and far between? The urgency we associate with reducing energy consumption and shifting to non-fossil resources seems genuinely abstract in such a large and beautiful place.

For those of us who wrestle with the meaning of climate change, life in the Alaskan summer seems to lift a burden, with an opportunity to rekindle the innocence we felt before we learned about global warming.

Alas, it just ain’t so.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond describes changing attitudes in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Known as “The Last Best Place,” western Montana is another region where a small population has enjoyed personal freedom, minimal government and exquisite scenery.

Sadly, a rash of development is changing all that.

With a steady influx of comparatively wealthy, semi-permanent out-of-state residents, the open land is being parceled and fenced into private lots. Easy public access to hunting and fishing is disappearing, and the state’s limited water resources are being stretched thin.

Residents who were used to working things out directly with their neighbors now confront the consequences of unregulated growth.

Similarly, in Talkeetna, a small Alaskan vacation town and jump-off point for expeditions to Denali, a homesteader lamented the blossoming of paved roads and subdivisions. It’s not all bad, she said. Paved roads and public services are nice, but the faster pace demanded by tourists makes her long for the comparatively quiet past.

The truth—and it is a sad truth—is that, despite appearances, there really is no untouched wilderness left anywhere on Earth. We’ve changed the chemistry of the oceans and the atmosphere. Although the chemical changes are invisible, their impact is already being felt on the ground.

The relative few who live in America’s least populated places share something in common with the people of the developing world: they weren’t responsible for most of the greenhouse gases that we have transformed the atmosphere. Then again, neither is one individual who lives in a city.

Climate change is something that we did, not something that one of us did. Likewise, it is something that we must solve together.

Define “we” any way you like: Urban Americans, Americans in general, all the people in developed world or all of humanity. The distinctions only matter when we negotiate responsibility for the costs and benefits. They mean nothing to chemistry, physics or ecology. Even in Alaska, where it seems easy to deny the very possibility of human-caused climate change, people rely heavily on fossil fuels to sustain their communities. We are all part of the fossil energy system.

Climate change is about us. But in the absence of agreements to take action together, climate change comes down to me, an individual. The sense of personal responsibility that makes living at the edge of the wilderness so appealing also tells me that I have a climate change job to do.

Each and every one of us does.

As the homesteader in Talkeetna put it, in a small town you know that the people who you just can’t stand will stand by you anyway when the chips are down. You know you will do the same for them too. That’s how rural communities work.

That’s also how coming to terms with climate change works. When enough of us wake up to this most basic truth—that limiting climate change is my job, not someone else’s—it won’t matter whether we disagree about everything else.

We won’t even have to like each other. We’ll simply get to it. That’s how communities work.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo Courtesy of BLIERS2 via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.