In the SJ Update mailbag this morning we have this letter from Steve Ulvi…
The Future on the Rocks
The life of a conservationist in America has always been a hard paddle against the current. Win some skirmishes, a few big battles and refight ‘em again and again, while losing the war. We learn to savor small victories and impatiently await the dawn of some kind of collective awareness that pushes back against the ruin of endless economic growth.
Just after WWII, ecological philosopher Aldo Leopold mused that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”. He died while battling a brush fire on his neighbor’s land in 1948, but his seminal ideas about fostering a respectful land ethic did not perish with him. But just as with Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Marshall and Carson et al, his profound warnings were lost in the tempest of crude, human-centered aspirations. As a learned man of his day, he could barely have imagined today’s keen understanding of the interconnected webs of evolutionary life, deep earth history and the predictable workings of our solar neighborhood dwarfed by a vast universe around us.
My world view of what ought to be, admittedly distorted and freezer-burned from several decades in the immense wilds of northern Alaska, vibrates in alarm these days. We are the First Ones to live in the era of global existential crises. Although little more than a blink in earth time, our species expansion over the last 175,000 years has fed on destruction. Only of late did we have the factual information to know better, but we still choose to roll the dice like drunken sailors on shore leave.
For those who have long known that humans and the natural world are inseparable, there is the sadness and heartache of so many decades of cascading environmental degradation and wide-spread ecosystem collapse. All those Earth Day marches, campus protests for rivers and old growth forests, beach clean-ups, letters to officials and yanking road survey stakes in the unspoiled hinterlands has been of little consequence. Just so much dust in the wind of Manifest Destiny.
It boils down to a form of collective insanity. We gladly buy into an obvious myth: that somehow hundreds of millions of people could live like the royalty of old, clinging to unsustainable expectations about what constitutes a reasonable standard of living and lulled by cynical profiteers into acting against our own best long-term interests.
Finding ourselves at this unprecedented and precarious place, trying to make informed choices and parsing the maelstrom of conflicting and often inaccurate information, there is little hope of dramatic eleventh-hour solutions emanating from self-perpetuating politics at the national or global scale. It should be no surprise to anyone but the delusional or half-witted, that measured by actual performance most governments, corporations and religions are essentially not moralist, nor humanist, nor respectful of the larger community of life. In cahoots, these social organizations have been incredibly toxic for the natural world and the humans most closely dependent upon it.
Just look out your window. The Salish Sea was rightly renamed for the highly successful cultures of untold millions of thoroughly modern humans that were richly sustained on these shores for more than 100 centuries following the last glacial retreat. The southern reaches of these waters especially, have been degraded by a thousand abuses, aggressively inflicted in just over one century. Returning salmon, the iconic life force of the Pacific North West, function like red blood cells that have energized the furthest reaches of an immense landscape, are now reduced to a ghostly reminder.
Fading historic photos and folklore of super-abundance are about all that remains unless you walk the bear-trodden banks of Alaska rivers. But that only makes the incredible loss hurt even more. The big lies and many tragedies of damming rivers and playing god with hatchery production of salmon are clear for all to see. Worse yet, this attractive coastal region, forest and fog beneath volcanic peaks, is a focal point for an ever-increasing human swarm. These once astonishingly fecund, but now badly battered aquatic ecosystems, have little chance to recover in any meaningful way. Warming in the north Pacific will likely override our best efforts at putting band aids on countless smaller habitat wounds.
The chest-thumping mantra of human dominion and unsustainable consumption on a finite planet during the last 400 years, has all but sealed our collective fate. Amazingly that hubris still prevails. And now the inescapable planetary consequences of burning through subterranean deposits that preserved 500,000,000 years of slowly transformed algae and plant matter. The universal laws of physics and chemistry are immutable and unforgiving.
Our little county is acutely vulnerable to system disruption due to our resource-depleted saltwater moat, hydroelectric production at great distance, and far-flung corporate food networks built upon highly subsidized cheap fuels. Our circumstances are fragile by any rational assessment, even without the onset of acute dysfunction within our national government. Soon enough, each complex network feeding our lifestyles will be broken and reshuffled by random discontinuities and belated “hair on fire” social reactions as carbon costs escalate in last ditch efforts to avoid the existential nightmare of more than 2 C warming.
Down the road, it is inevitable that our island communities will be among the most stressed- not due to warmer and longer summers/warmer, wetter winters overhead or a few more inches of gradual sea level rise- but due to our end-of-the-line costs, a fickle recreational economy and severe lack of other sectors to fall back on. What will continue to attract our fiscal life-blood, lately provided by the summer crush of upper middleclass tourism, with salmon and Blackfish going away? As if blindly tempting disaster, we currently only produce only 3% of the foodstuffs we consume in a year. We might as well be a blighted urban borough. Even the slightest recessional ground fault that effects regional disposable income, or an increasingly overdue and abrupt increase in carbon taxes will likely deflate tourism here in short order.
Despite my own gnawing sense of loss and heightened concerns for the future, I cling to the uncommon inspiration that abounds here. My life’s experience makes it feel as though anything is possible despite the drag of the majority of soft, inflexible and privileged retirees and the ultra-wealthy here who proudly recycle while driving their spotless large SUVs and fly off to distant continents regularly, sporting a thin veneer of fashionable exurban environmentalism to share hero shots of pampered adventure on facebook.
Transition San Juan Island is emerging to compliment all the hard work that so many dedicated Islanders have accomplished thus far to create a groundswell of revitalized community resilience. Resilience to earth quakes, economic tremblers and the encroaching tides of climate change. Perhaps in terrible concert. We could become a model county in terms of near-term carbon reduction, renewable energy production and sustainable practices. In time, this re-localizes entrepreneurial opportunities, jobs, new tourism activities and critical food and energy security. Think local, act local and celebrate local. Join your neighbors and new friends on March 1 at the Mullis Center from 3 to 6 pm to become an agent of necessary change.