Alaskan lands: maps, oil, guardians and materialists

There’s an ironic twist in the relationship of territory and culture exposed by the battle over the Alaskan North Slope, where oil drilling may or may not disrupt the local ecology (!!).

Oil will bring money to local native communities (read: modernization), and some claim that the Caribou herds there are healthy as can be, and that the North Slope is not heavily populated by herds during the winter (when drilling would take place). Many environmentalists (and other locals) would beg to differ. Environmental damage, after all, is recorded not in weeks and months, but years, and what may be only minimally invasive today could prove to be far more serious tomorrow. Environments are complex systems, and changes recorded by one population can threaten an entire chain, or web, of plant and animal life.

I recently commented here on the irony of a missing map and lost territory, the loss of a map preceding the loss of a territory. Well, there’s further irony in the Alaskan oil episode. Watching the news a couple nights ago I saw a conversation between an Alaskan native and an environmentalist. It was the native who spoke for drilling, as it’s his community that will benefit financially. The environmentalist, of course, weighed short term gains against longer-term loss of ecological balance. And so on. It seems that it’s the foreigner here who sees the land through a lens of preservation, conceptual purity and naked beauty. It’s the native who sees it as soil, dirt, and pasture.

The environmentalist has the map to the land on which the native lives, and where the environmentalist is the poet, philosopher, and guardian of things natural, the native is the vulgar materialist…

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