Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Putting the Plundering of Alaska's Resources Into Context

I'm still reading Charles Wohlforth's The Fate of NatureAfter my initial post on the first chapters of the book,  I began to wonder if, like chocolate, the rich prose would be too much to keep reading.  But it suddenly shifted and we watched Carol Treadwell's brain tumor illustrate the question "When do you stop being human?"  We visited experts on animal language.  A blind professor who specializes in how mollusks adapt.  And then we explored Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet with its namesake, Captain Cook.

But given the struggle to wrest Alaska's natural resources going on today - the struggle between those for and against Pebble Mine, for example - I was particularly struck by these passages of early destruction of Alaska's natural resources. 

Russian frontiersmen dismantled Alaska's marine ecosystems amazingly rapidly.  The first to arrive at the unpopulated Pribilof Islands found rafts of sea otters so numerous they impeded vessels trying to land.  Animals were easy to approach and kill.  Int heir first year a Russian expedition took 40,000 fur seal skins, 2,000 otter pelts, 14,400 pounds of walrus ivory, and more whale baleen than a ship could carry.  Within six years, no otters were seen on the Pribilofs.  Fur traders exterminated the region's most extraordinary marine mammal before Captain Cook arrived.  The Steller sea cow grew up to forty feet long grazing on seaweed.  A single pelt stretched over a wooden frame made a large boat.  The tasty meat - 7,000 pounds from one animal - could be eaten fresh or dried and used like bread.  The thick fat layer provided oil to drink, cook with, or use for light and heat.  In 1742 the first Russian expedition to reach Alaska discovered the sea cow;  in 1755 a Russian government engineer noted sea cows were getting scarce and said hunting should be reduced;  by the 1780's the sea cow was extinct.  (p. 94)
The Russian American population peaked at 823 people, all on the coast, leaving large swaths of Native Alaska untouched.  A drunken and undisciplined U.S. Army detachment assumed control in the former Russian capital of Sitka, sexually assaulting Native women and meting out retribution for perceived crimes by individual Tlingit Indians with indiscriminate killings and burnings of entire villages - acts similar to the first Russian fur traders' behavior of a century earlier.   .  . (p. 102)
Like the Russians, Americans never displaced most Alaska Native peoples.  The conquest was ecological rather than geographical:  they took the food.  New Englanders and Californians slaughtered whales for baleen and walruses for ivory on the western and northern coasts, wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of meat and inflicting starvation on the Iñupiat.  Fur traders acquired the last of the otter pelts and depleted other valuable furbearing animals.  As wild furs ran out, fox farmers appropriated islands as natural enclosures, especially in the sound, the foxes running free and fattening up in part by eliminating nesting geese.  Salmon canneries began cropping up next to rivers in southeast Alaska in 1878 and quickly spread up the coast, competing without regulation, competition sometimes causing gunfights - Alaska had no civil law at all until 1884 and little practical law enforcement for decades more.  An entrepreneur could steam in from San Francisco or Seattle  with his equipment and Chinese manpower, block a stream with a barricade to scoop up every fish, and maybe make back his investment in a year.  Preventing any fish from from escaping to spawn wiped out the run over time, but there were always more rivers with seemingly unlimited fish farther along the coast.  .   . (pp. 102 -103)
Copying these paragraphs reminded me of the letter to the editor I read Tuesday morning.  A woman from Wasilla was 'disheartened' that Rep. Don Young told the crowd at AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) that he hoped his replacement would be an Alaskan Native.  She took this as unconstitutional racial favoritism and couldn't see it as the kind of flattery politicians use on their audiences whether they be soldiers, union members, retailers, Catholics, etc.  He wasn't giving someone a job simply based on Native blood.  He was voicing an opinion, perhaps influenced by his deceased Native wife of many years.  Why wouldn't Young tell his audience this, especially when talking to the people who have lived in Alaska for thousands of years, but never had one of their own representing the state in Washington DC.  I understand her point, but her letter seemed to take the comment way out of context.  Especially when I read the next sentence - and in light of the previous quote from Wohlforth:
"It seems to me that few villages would survive without the federal/state government  - our tax dollars - subsidizing their 'way of life/culture.'"
Whoa!  Let's see.  After killing off their food and clothing and resources as described above, and killing off much of the population and cultural wisdom through disease, and imposing Western religion and schooling (leave your languages and customs outside thank you), she begrudges them the relatively small amount of assistance they get?  You think I exaggerate?  It's telling when you recognize that after ten thousand years of survival, it's only after less than 300 years of Western contact that Alaska Natives are no longer totally self sufficient.  I'm sure there were crises over the millennia where survival was tenuous, but they were always self sufficient.

And what about 'our tax dollars?'  Unless this writer runs a business, she pays no state taxes.  And Alaska gets back nearly $2 for every dollar Alaskans pay in US taxes.  So presumably she's benefiting from this too.  And, let's not forget, most of Alaska's wealth is from what had been Alaska Natives' land until the Russians decided it was theirs and then later sold it to the US.  So, maybe she should consider all her PFD checks as largess stolen from Alaskan Natives. 

Perspective.  It's all about context and perspective.  

But back to Wohlforth to get more perspective on the plundering of Alaska that is worth keeping in mind today.  

The cannery owners must have felt like they had won the sweepstakes, the prize to grab as much cash as they could hold.  Conservation wasn't on their minds.  They would have needed to leave behind only a fraction of a salmon run to spawn each year for the abundance to continue indefinitely.  But they didn't plan to stay indefinitely.  Competition ruled out long-term considerations.  Like found money, Alaska salmon were yours only if you grabbed them first.  A cannery operator who abstained from fishing to allow for the next year's harvest might not be in the same business when the fish came back.  (p. 103)
The best private economic decision might be to destroy a salmon run - or wipe out a marine mammal population - if you could thereby obtain a profit quickly and invest it somewhere else, in Alaska or on Wall Street.  Unsustainable practices often make sense when you're free to move and take your profits with you.  Our economic lives depend on this fact.  Nothing made of plastic or metal or manufactured and shipped with fossil fuels is sustainable.  Look around you.  We buy these things as cheaply as possible - technology, vehicles, energy - knowing we will discard them after we've exhausted their value.  (pp. 103-104)
But people didn't know about ecology back then, right?  Maybe they didn't know the word, but they weren't stupid. 
An illusion protects us:  the illusion that those who depleted fisheries and drove marine mammals to extinction didn't know what they were doing.  It's not true.  Even Russian America had voices of conservation.  The herring fisherman in Kachemak Bay were told they were overfishing, but instead of restraining themselves they tried to stop the Natives from eating roe on kelp.  Members of the salmon industry recognized fish were rapidly diminishing before 1900 at the same time they were saying salmon were inexhaustible. (p. 110) 

The oil companies and mining companies offer jobs for Alaskans.  So did the Russians offer jobs for Aleuts.  The deal is a lot sweeter today, but it seems a very similar structure.  Temporary occupation and control until they get what they can, then off for greener pastures.  You can clean up the mess after we leave.

Wohlforth's book endeavors to do a lot.  It's trying to tie together many, seemingly disparate subjects and synthesizing them into one big integrated explanation of how and why humans impact nature and whether we can control ourselves.  I have to confess, the synthesis is the sort of thing I like to attempt.  It's hard to put all your exhibits out for the readers who have to remember them when they get to the point where you tie them all together.  I'm still not much more than one quarter of the way through the book, so I can't tell you yet how well he succeeds.  But so far it's good reading each of the pieces by themselves.  If he pulls them all together, that will be frosting.

And, yes, he does cite sources at the back for the claims he makes. 

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