Why ANWR is sacred
Twice in the past few months the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge has narrowly escaped despoliation from oil and gas exploration. That’s remarkable considering the high premium on fossil fuels today.For anyone who loves wild nature, the action has played out like a melodrama where ANWR is tied to the log on the sawmill conveyor and is drawn slowly toward the whirring blade of the energy industry. Dick Cheney, Halliburton and the Big Three automakers twist their handlebar mustaches in eager anticipation. Meanwhile, our conservationist heroes miraculously pull the plug at the eleventh hour, stopping the blade just before it parts a hair on ANWR’s lovely head. For those who don’t love wild nature, resistance to drilling in ANWR must be mystifying. Wilderness values pale when natural resources could fuel our energy appetites, even if only for the short term. Manifest Destiny, wise use and American capitalism are built on human entitlements to nature.It seems ironic that most of us who cheer for saving ANWR may never see it other than in photographs. If we never see it, never set foot in it, never experience it firsthand, why do we defend it so effectively and consistently?U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has been vying for development of energy resources in ANWR for decades, claims that people who don’t know ANWR have no idea of its harsh, inhospitable nature or why it is more valuable for energy than as a sanctified “wasteland.”Stevens promotes a purely utilitarian approach to land use, a view that often prevails with the allure of economic opportunity. Still, no matter how pragmatic is this viewpoint, there is another voice many of us hear from nature itself.Eighteenth-century political philosopher Edmund Burke described the effect of powerful objects on human passion. Nature, he said, exerts such a force with mountain landscapes, wild rivers, placid meadows; it touches us with the beautiful and the sublime.”Nature never wears a mean appearance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said a century after Burke. “When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense of mind.”Few of us may ever see ANWR, but knowing it’s there makes us feel Burke’s passion and Emerson’s rapture. We preserve it because the passion and poetical sense offer psychological refuge from our industrialized world.Thoreau’s famous statement – “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” – speaks to a vibrant force older than man, older than the earth, originating in the wildness of the cosmos. Wildness, he said, is “the raw material of life. Its presence refreshes us.” Wallace Stegner contended that the wilds fashioned our unique American character on the frontier, and that losing a sense of wildness would erode our founding principles. “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.”The wilds taught conservation biologist Aldo Leopold a moral lesson in the binding of the elements of the organic world. “All ethics,” he wrote, “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.”This premise expands with the recognition that nature has rights of its own, as wilderness writer Rod Nash states: “Rights and ethical obligations do not end with human-to-human relationships but extend to the farthest limits of nature. Designated wilderness, in this sense, is a gesture of planetary modesty, a way of demonstrating that humans are members, not masters, of the community of life.”Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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