“Killer whales are apex predators, the dominant animals in these waters," explains Christine West, a naturalist aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion. This means their health reflects that of the entire habitat, as pollutants at every trophic level will travel up the food web and into these organisms. By the time these impacts are visible, however, it may be too late for a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. (Mike Harris/Lindblad Expeditions)
“There may be killer whales interrupting this interview,” Christine West warns. “I hope that’s OK.”
We’re on the highest deck of the National Geographic Sea Lion. It’s a beautiful, Alaskan summer day — perfect for whale watching. I decided to interview West, a naturalist working for Lindblad Expeditions, about living and working in a place where people see the consequences of their actions in real time. In a place sensitive to even the littlest of changes, it is easy to see how affecting one variable, like increasing carbon emissions, can have spillover effects in other domains, like glacial melting and ocean acidification.
For an economy that depends so heavily on natural capital, this is bad news. Alaska has provided its residents with more than just a beautiful place to live — it’s brimming with resources they use to make a living. Understandably, harvesting them often conflicts with protecting the wilderness, not only for nature’s sake, but to preserve these resources for future generations as well. I was curious as to how these tensions manifested in Alaska, so I decided to talk to West about past and present conflict and collaboration.
Although choices made regarding environmental health affect everyone, only a few people can make these large-scale decisions. Furthermore, for most citizens, the environment usually takes a backseat to other concerns. People prioritize physical health, food security, and the economy over environmental health, even though these fields are heavily interrelated. With the way political issues are framed, we are made to think we have to choose one over the other. It doesn’t have to be protecting oceans or job creation, it can be protecting oceans and job creation — but opposing groups often refuse to make concessions to collaborate. This polarizes issues and cements deadlocks, driving opposing sides farther away from common ground.
West mentions that the most successful progress in the field she’s seen resulted from collaboration between diverse groups of Alaskans. Inviting more and different people to make decisions reveals problems some groups wouldn’t even think to consider. We get a more complete picture of our communal relationship with the wilderness, and with this insight comes more possible solutions.
“I think there’s always small steps we can do to compromise,” West says. “So conversations like that are going to maximize potential gain for everyone.” In the end, we all want the same thing: to make the best decision for our communities and for the future. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the smoke and mirrors of mass media and heavy politicization.
Protecting the environment is often seen as a luxury. It’s hard to tell someone chronically stressed about multiple jobs or finding a home to care about nature, which can seem nebulous when daily hardships are all too real. This is one reason why it’s difficult to “sell” people on the idea of environmental protection when it comes to sacrificing daily comforts and conveniences.
We, as individuals, can’t physically feel the effects of long-term, positive impacts. So we stick with the short term, default options that are easiest for us. People like hamburgers but can’t feel the positive impact of giving up meat. Hamburgers are easy, cheap, and fast, and it makes rational sense for many people to choose these things over something more environmentally friendly.
People who give up default options — cheap food, plastic bags, driving everywhere — in order to prioritize the environment must have some other reason to make that conscious choice. This often comes from knowledge of long-term impacts and the flexibility to make these decisions. However, the most committed people to protecting nature are often those who feel, not just know, that the Earth is something worth saving.
Alaska is a wholly sensory experience — majestic, towering mountains, crackling white thunder of calving glaciers, and salty ocean sprays. Like the most memorable people in our lives, the most important places tap into our sensations and emotions. The excitement of seeing our first breaching whale, for example, emotionally links us to a time or place. These memories travel back home with us, reinforcing the belief that nature is truly amazing and worth sacrificing for. Genuine emotional links to a place like Alaska can make you feel like a part of something greater than yourself. As a result, the easy or cheap option becomes less important than the one that’s better for our planet. These sacrifices seldom happen through abstract connections, like looking at pictures of whales or mountains online. They necessitate physical ones. In a world where many people can’t prioritize their relationship with nature, how can we make these connections happen?
One way is to create and encourage opportunities for experience. Spending recreational time in nature, especially somewhere remote like Alaska, is a luxury available to relatively few young or socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Lindblad Expeditions sponsored us college-aged Storyfest winners to see the wonders of Alaska, but most of our fellow passengers were our parents’ or grandparents’ age. I could count the passengers of color on one hand.
The National Parks Service has acknowledged this trend, establishing a department of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion. Recently, grassroots groups like Hiking Every Available Trail (H.E.A.T.) and Outdoor Afro have spearheaded efforts to encourage more people of color to spend time in nature. As awareness of the problem increases, the next step is to empower people with knowledge and experience to foster healthier, greener communities. Although it is easy to feel disconnected from the global community, our daily habits cause big changes all over the world. Traveling to new places and feeling small helps us remember that our planet is large, and so is our impact.
A few days after the interview, a group of us sailed in a small inflatable boat completely surrounded by mountains. There is no graceful way to put into words the way we felt, dwarfed by the sheer expanse and beauty of nature. You don’t have to go to Alaska to feel it—it’s familiar to anyone who’s been emotionally moved by beauty. It can be the first powdery snowfall in a small Midwest town or the brilliant shades of red in East Coast autumn trees. Maybe it’s not killer whales interrupting your interview but a pair of monarch butterflies stopping by on their way to Mexico. It’s around us all the time, and it’s been here all along. But it won’t be here for much longer, unless we decide this feeling — and the world behind it — is worth protecting.