Human ecologist Paul Shepard spent a good deal of his professional life dealing with one question: Why is it that humans persist in destroying their habitat?
Over nearly 40 years, he wrote a number of excellent books exploring possible answers to the question.
What he has written is complex. This should not surprise us. The question itself is not a soft one.
At the risk of oversimplifying Shepard’s ideas I would like to take a stab at laying out what he felt strongly about and then try to plug that into what we know about life in the Yukon.
And then, as a way of being practical, I would like to suggest how I think Shepard’s work might fit into territorial politics.
Shepard calls on his knowledge of biology, genetics, zoology, psychology, theology, economics and history to help him better understand the complexities of the human character.
While all this background is necessary and helpful in its breadth and detail, his conclusion is a simple one: We are both in the world and of the world.
And because of this it is disingenuous of us to think of ourselves as being either above the rest of the natural world or below it. We are simply on par.
While this fact may appear obvious to some of us, it is not to all of us. And some who are in denial are in positions of enormous power and influence.
Their ignorance about this notion and another one that follows closely on it’s heals — that we are who we are because of where we are — has now worked its way into policies that tend to be counterproductive and downright unhealthy for Yukoners.
Yukoners, I believe, have an above-average instinctual feeling for wilderness. They value clear water and air. And they seek solitude and simplicity. These values define to a great extent just who we are.
It is within the context of our pristine wilderness that we make our living. And wilderness becomes a part of our learning process. Looked at in this way, education is synonymous with outdoors.
According to Shepard the imprint of the land has the ability to make each of us unique. It is just this sort of inherent uniqueness that gives us our individual character.
In its mild form, Yukoners have a tendency to express this uniqueness in such personal terms as capable, rugged and enduring. In its extreme form we can quickly become one of the colourful five per cent.
Shepard might have phrased it this way: There is no possible substitute for growing up in the natural world.
In short we did not come to the Yukon to be like typical urban dwellers. We are not Torontonians or Montrealers.
Equally true, we are neither Saskatchewan farmers nor Alberta cattlemen. We are Yukoners, even though we may not know exactly what this looks like.
We are North-Of-60 forest dwellers.
On the political front, it goes without saying that we are tied to and supported by a rather generous bundle of federal handouts.
The implications of these federal transfer payments are quite serious. There are both positive and negative consequences.
Until we come to some collective understanding of our financial dependence, we run the risk of doing serious harm to the boreal forest on which, according to Shepard, we are also heavily dependent.
There is also a great likelihood we will fritter away the federal money we are handed.
And further, there is every reason to believe these two notions are directly linked.
Writer C.L. Rawlings, in the forward to one of Shepard’s books Nature and Madness, suggests, “We have built cities we cannot inhabit; we may also have devised lives we can no longer live.”
If we are not careful, what Rawlings is describing may, in fact, be Yukon’s future.
In many ways our dependency on Ottawa’s obligatory “kindness” has stunted our ability to mesh fully with our northern environment.
It has not allowed or stimulated us to develop a truly local culture, one that conforms to either local landscape or local need.
By our continued acceptance of transfer payments — unrestrained, if you will, by local ingenuity — our best hope is for an economic future nothing short of crude.
While I am always careful of analogy, I will nonetheless pose one. In my opinion the Yukon has begun to exhibit an attitude, and therefore a future, best described as that of a spoiled teenager.
We have not earned what we have been given. And we are unlikely to do so in the future.
Our dependence on external gratitude has made us generally aloof to one another and a bit cocky. This has left us seemingly uncreative in our technological innovation and it has stunted our civic growth.
It is the latter that concerns me most.
This teenage devil-may-care attitude has begun to rear its ugly head in the form of territorial spending by special warrant.
Because our economy is increasingly devised from the outside rather than developed by our own hand from inside, it is easy to become impatient and reckless.
We have not matured in a very responsible way because we are increasingly estranged from local mind and local spirit.
Our architecture is “down south industrial.” Our education “off the rack British Columbia.”
All of this, of course, is what Paul Shepard was alluding to when he asked the big question: Why to we despoil our places?
We do so because we have become disconnected, aloof and cocky.
But Shepard was not in the least bit pessimistic.
Nor am I.
Even here in the Yukon we can grow up.
One way to begin this maturation process is to acknowledge the fact that “who we are” and “where we are” are simply indivisible.
Only then will economy and character begin to flow naturally.
As local writer David Henry observed, “Let’s hope that in the future the taiga region of Canada will become increasingly a land of ecological and cultural experiences, reconnecting us to the land and to the real community to which we belong and depend.”
And as we grow and reconnect, we will begin to reap the benefits of being a 21st-century forest dweller.