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Contemplating complacency

It shouldn’t just be left to the Gwich’in to raise the alarm over ANWR drilling
In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The Trump administration is moving toward oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A notice being published Friday, April 20, 2018, in the Federal Register starts a 60-day review to sell oil and gas leases in the remote refuge. Oil and gas drilling in the pristine area in northeastern Alaska is a longtime Republican priority that most Democrats fiercely oppose. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

Lori Fox | Special to the News

When environmental journalist Rachel Carson wrote her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, she was speaking specifically about public complacency and corporate duplicity which had normalized the wholesale use of pesticides in North America. These chemicals were touted as safe, effective methods of weed and insect control, claims backed by government and industrial agriculture, both of which used them en masse.

Believing themselves protected by governments and companies who had their best interests in mind, the public adopted this attitude.

But these pesticides would be revealed to not only be carcinogenic, but toxic, capable of bioaccumulating throughout the food chain in such a way that they remained for generations without breaking down. Companies and governments ignored or covered up the evidence that these products were destroying the environment in the name of efficiency and dollars. The average person ignored the evidence of this destruction in their everyday lives — dying squirrels, disappearing insects, absent birds — in the name of ignorance and complacency.

“Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?” Carson wrote.

In the wake of the Peel victory here in the Yukon, I would like to think we are better than that, but we don’t appear to be. We too are facing a threat to not only the sanctity of the environment and the animal life it supports, but an attack on the sovereignty and cultural rights of First Nations. This attack also stems from oil companies and the American government, which, at the beginning of this year, officially opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration and drilling.

This unfathomably beautiful and incredibly sensitive coastal ecosystem is not only home to hundred of species of migratory birds, as well as bears, wolves, foxes and seals, but also to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. The herd is presently the only barrenland population in North America which has growing, stable numbers. Studies, headed by biologists from both Yukon and Alaska, have shown that human development in this area could dramatically impact herd migrations and calf survival rates, threatening the long-term sustainability of the herd.

The Gwich’in — who have relied on the caribou for thousands of years and consider the calving grounds sacred — have stated time and again that a threat to the caribou is not only a threat to their way of life, but to their cultural and spiritual well-being. Their right to use the caribou and to maintain their cultural practices in association with them is enshrined via international treaty, which the U.S. has both violated and ignored in opening the region to commercial oil interests.

Alaskan Republicans, who have been pushing for decades to have the refuge opened to the drills of oil companies, have made no bones about their reason for doing so: money.

Despite the dedicated work of the Vuntut Gwitchin people, very little has been done by either the federal or territorial government regarding the issue. Public outcry — and indeed, interest — in the south is almost non-existent. Here in the North, it seems tepid at best.

In my stint as a city hall reporter for the News, I watched dozens of people turn out for public hearings in protest of the city’s proposal to rezone some areas of already-established country residential neighborhood so that more houses could be built in the area. These people — largely white, middle-class property owners — were dead-set against what they viewed as an intrusion on their way of life. Many of their concerns were environmental: animals would be disturbed or lost, trails would be broken up, water tables would be damaged. They wrote letters, made phone calls, organized meetings, called the media, made public statements.

Where the hell are these people now? Where is the support not only for the caribou and the land, but for the Gwich’in people, whose rights are about to be violated by the American government?

We are told, by corporate interests and by government, that this is the way things have to be. We need the money oil companies will produce and we need the oil which lays sleeping beneath the permafrost more than we need caribou, they say. There is no other way; this is an echo of the chorus sung by chemical companies 50 years ago who assured us spraying our food with cancer-causing, nerve-damaging poisons was the only way to ensure the safety and consistency of our food supply from insects.

I work on an organic farm on Salt Spring Island right now. I had a kale salad for dinner; the greens, freshly harvested from the garden, where crisp and delicious, despite the plethora of insect life which abounds here. Admittedly, there was a single white slug on the underside of one leaf. I picked it off and threw it away.

It would seem to me, considering my dinner, that they are lying to us again. There must in fact be another way. I would rather have to pick the occasional slimy slug out of my vegetables than poison everything in my garden. Likewise, I would rather have a world where we have caribou and a government which upholds the rights of Indigenous people, and acknowledges their status as independent nations within our own, than a world with a bigger economy, more cars and more oil.

As Carson proved to us in Silent Spring, the only way to get the world we want is to refuse to blindly accept the one we live in.

Lori Fox is a former Yukon News reporter.