The arctic refuge: The home that lasts forever

This piece was originally published in The Juneau Empire by David Mahaffey, a bishop of Sitka and Alaska with the Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, at http://juneauempire.com/opinion/2016-11-02/my-turn-arctic-refuge-home-lasts-forever.

It seems the conversation never ends about the need to protect our environment. Every time we reach a settlement in one area, a new disagreement crops up, bigger and more volatile than the last. We are very nearly at the literal end of the earth and its last refuge of purity and sanctity. And even here, man has discovered yet another resource to exploit, if we let him.

Courtesy Photo | Ned Rozell

Any discussion of the environment eventually ends up in an “us vs. them” situation, even when that is far from the true picture of the dilemma we find ourselves in. The fact is that the majority of us do not live in the very places we claim to care about, and all of us are consumers whether we want to admit it or not. Right now, if you are reading this, you are likely reading it on some type of device that uses electricity, was produced by an extraction of a wide variety of minerals and metals that required a great deal of energy to manufacture and ship to be in your hands right now. And, thanks to this assembly of technology you can accomplish good things with it, like acting on what we are talking about.

Now, let’s take the next step in our discussion and factor in location. How many of us still live in the home we were born in, or in the location we grew up in, or went to school in? I’m guessing not many. The wonder of our age is that we can go anywhere we want for as long as we want and we will never be short of anything we need. Because of this, “home” has suffered a paradigm shift in meaning. People move to where the work is, or where they see opportunity, or wish to retire. We pick up and move with little thought to what we leave behind and every intention of establishing a permanent residence in the place we are going. We buy and sell homes with more attention to making a profit than a memory. So planting ourselves in one location for generations is difficult to comprehend.

Now, I said before we get concerned about places we do not inhabit. Some would ask, “Why care?”, and others would ask, “Why waste?” but we are all missing the most important question, and it concerns the inhabitants of the area we are arguing about. There must be a “What about them?” in our discussion, if we want to have an honest dialogue. Until we concentrate on that question, the other ones are without meaning.

The Gwich’in people have lived in their Arctic home for centuries, relying on the Porcupine Caribou Herd to provide for their needs for existence. The Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is, to the Gwich’in, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “the place where life begins.” It is teeming with wildlife including caribou, muskoxen, wolves, countless migratory birds and polar bears.

The Arctic is the birthplace of millions of animals and yet it is ground zero for climate change and its impacts. Each year that we neglect the problematic causes (manmade or otherwise) is another year further from a solution. Now, add to that the desire of some companies to exploit the resources that are found in this Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and you have a cocktail for disaster and the destruction of a people’s way of life and home.

And it’s not just that it has been the home of the Gwich’in people for eons, it is also for them a sacred place. As it has given them life, it has also given them a reason to be thankful to their creator for this abundance of life they have enjoyed. It is a spiritual ground as well, renewing their soul as much as their bodies by its symbiotic relationship to their being.

It is safe to say that if left untouched and unhampered by the issues created by our own wastefulness, these Gwich’in people could life there forever. It would truly be a home that lasts forever, but only if we stand up and say “no more!” No more destruction of people’s sacred lands. No more taking of precious environments for the sake of a few more gallons of gasoline. No more violating a people’s home for the benefit of those who cannot grasp the definition of what living in harmony with your environment means.

Let us protect our last, most precious refuge of nature so that the Gwich’in people can continue to live in their home, forever.

David Mahaffey is a bishop of Sitka and Alaska with the Orthodox Diocese of Alaska.