The environmental song remains the same

by Bill Chameides | August 19th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Travels with TheGreenGrok — The last post in a series on interesting places my deanly duties whisked me off to this summer.

Four weeks, three trips, but a similar environmental theme.

On Sunday night I returned from four weeks of travel to three seemingly disparate places: Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Louisiana’s Gulf Coast; and an Arctic cruise. (Read the series.)

I’d anticipated three unique experiences, and was not disappointed — each brought its own sights, insights and lessons. But I also found a common theme, one arguably at the core of the modern environmental challenge — finding the appropriate balance between:

  • the imperative to preserve and steward both the wild and undeveloped and our cultural heritage’s primitive roots, and
  • the imperative to develop land, extract resources, and homogenize cultures in the name of modernization.

Both are noble pursuits, but seemingly mutually incompatible. And thus the challenge. It was fascinating to see the multifarious ways disparate people in those regions were rising, or not rising as the case might be, to that challenge.

Jackson Hole: The Wild, Wild West Vs. Those Who Would Tame It

To my eye, the quintessential conflict between development and conservation is the environmental challenge for Jackson Hole. Set against the truly breathtaking landscape of the Grand Tetons, it is a conflict largely between ranchers, developers and conservationists.

Perhaps because of the community’s affluence — one of the wealthiest in the nation — conservationists appear to be holding their own. Strict zoning codes have been developed to prevent “cookie cutter” subdivisions. And some developers are building new communities that protect and steward the environment. (See my post.)

But development is on the march in Jackson Hole — and the future of its pristine wilderness area is hardly assured but will be determined by the people of Jackson Hole.

Disappearing Wetlands — and a Way of Life

The Gulf Coast’s environmental challenges are far more complex. In Louisiana, the wetlands — those natural coastal defenses and living spaces for myriad creatures so critical to the region’s ecology and economy (and indeed to the nation) — are disappearing at an alarming rate, about a football field of wetlands about every 30 minutes. These critical marshes and barrier islands are also the foundation for unique bayou communities that are part of America’s cultural heritage, but the people of the bayou can do little about their disappearing homeland.

What’s driving the wetland loss are forces operating far outside their communities — policies for managing the Mississippi River, the extraction of oil and gas along the coast, and sea level rise. While the plight of the gulf wetlands and the peoples of the bayou have been known for decades, state and federal governments have done precious little to turn the tide, so to speak.

How is it that the government has known of this problem for decades but has been unable to get its act together and do something about it? Could it be that addressing the problem is too expensive? Today’s editorial in the New York Times cites a possible $60-billion price tag, but that’s certainly less than the economic value itself (see here and here).

The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and resulting slick of a couple hundred millions of gallons of oil in the gulf has focused national attention on the wetlands. Perhaps that spotlight will prove the tipping point in getting the nation behind a program to save the gulf wetlands. (If only wetlands restoration could spark as much passion and generate as much political and public interest as, say, a mosque in New York City.)

President Obama has promised to restore Louisiana’s wetlands. But he’s not the first to do so. And Congress will still have to appropriate the money. And the Corps of Engineers will have to reconfigure their management of the mighty Mississippi River so that the sediments needed to build up the wetlands actually get delivered to the right areas. (On a related note, you might check out a song sung and reworked by Led Zeppelin initially penned by blues artist Memphis Minnie, writing about the great flood of 1927.)

Arctic Pressures: Environmental and Cultural

Perhaps most challenging are the Arctic’s environmental issues. On the one hand, human activity has profoundly degraded a part of its environmental resource base — overfishing has led to the collapse of the whaling and cod fisheries. But the vast majority of the land remains wild and starkly beautiful.

Ironically, some of the pristine conditions of the Arctic wilderness may be related to the fisheries’ collapse. Along the coast of Labrador, once fishing was no longer economically viable, life under the Arctic’s incredibly harsh conditions was no longer viable. In our cruise up the Labradorean coast, we came across a number of towns abandoned or populated only in summertime. Now that’s an unusual resolution for the conflict between development and conservation.

Of course, the Arctic environment and peoples are under a far greater threat that is entirely beyond their control. The effects of global warming have been far larger in the region than elsewhere, and the warming is profoundly changing the landscape and the lives of the people who live there. But hopefully their fate is not yet sealed; just like the gulf wetlands our government could choose to do something to avert disaster.

The Common Thread: Cultural Losses

While the environmental problems of each area were sobering and riveting, by far the most profound and moving were the cultural changes. The decimation of native peoples and the diminishing of local cultures were palpable on all three trips.

Americans are well versed in the fate of Native Americans: for instance, in the place now called Wyoming, the Arapaho and Shoshone were driven off their lands onto reservations, often located in distant regions. I was less familiar with the plight of Louisiana’s Native Americans, but learned about it during my visit with descendants of the Houma in Dulac, Louisiana. Now the destruction of the wetlands threatens to destroy their way of life all over again.

I was least aware of the appalling treatment of the Inuit in Canada and Greenland. In the 1960s the respective governments of both countries closed their Inuit communities and forced the residents to move to western towns and cities, ostensibly to provide them with needed services. To make sure the children of the Inuit were assimilated, they were taken from the parents and provided a western education. I was told that the children of Greenlandic Inuit were moved to Denmark for five years between the ages of 2 and 7. The children had no contact with their parents during that time and when they were returned to Greenland they could not talk Inuktitut and so could not communicate with their parents.(I have been unable to verify this beyond word of mouth, but if anyone kno

ws anything more about this, please comment.)

Fortunately, we live in a (somewhat) more enlightened time and efforts are being made in both Canada and Greenland to rehabilitate the Inuit communities and their customs. In 2005, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador issued a formal apology to two Inuit communities. I saw the monument commemorating that apology on my visit to the Labradorean town of Hebron.

Some of the takeaways from my voyages — regrets are a drag, apologies are good, proactive intervention is better.

filed under: Arctic, climate change, faculty, global warming, oil, travel
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  1. tom mcmuray
    Aug 19, 2010

    Bill, Those are some great observations about conservation and culture. The WY vanguard trip, NOLA trip and my last few weeks here in Ocean City, MD (fishing tournaments) opened my eyes beyond the traditional save the whale,fish,crab enviro causes to the underlying issue of cultural preservation. From the distance of a environmental funder, I never saw clearly the real issues of the people affected. I just saw the critters affected. Now I have my work cut out for me to rebuild my concept of conservation philanthropy from scratch. It should be an enlightening experience. Tom

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 30, 2010

      Keep me posted.

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