Regardless of politics or philosophy, I have noticed that my worldview is becoming increasingly transactional. Before deciding my stance on an idea or issue, I wonder how I will be affected, what I stand to gain or lose from standing a certain way on it. This is rational, and I hardly think I am the only one. But there is a lot to be missed by looking at every issue through the lens of ourselves. I must remind myself of that every day as an environmentalist.
It can be hard for us to accept that there are wonders of this planet whose existence has nothing to do with us. Places like Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) have intrinsic value that far exceeds the benefits we could reap from drilling it or even from visiting it ourselves. Few people will ever visit ANWR, as it is isolated, unsettled, and very wild; only 1,200 people visit annually. Though I may never be one of them, I know that its value is not up to me to decide.
There is truly nothing else like ANWR. The New York Times calls it “the wildest place in America that you’ve never heard of.” Stretching from the coast to the Brooks Range in the northeast corner of Alaska, it is home to populations of caribou, polar bears, migratory birds, and much more. It is also home to decades of conflicts between the state, oil companies, Alaska native communities, and environmentalists.
Simply stated, ANWR is huge. At 30,136 square miles it is roughly six times larger than Connecticut, the state I grew up in, and 443 times larger than Washington, D.C., where I live now. It is larger than anything I can wrap my head around, and yet I know that drilling even a small part of it — the coastal 1002 region that has been opened to drilling by last year’s tax bill — is an environmental crime and an irreversible mistake.
As captivated as our imaginations have always been by our country’s wild West, the Trump administration and other government leaders are trying and succeeding at making it less wild. If Alaska’s state leadership and Senator Lisa Murkowski have their way, Alaska will soon be forever changed.
We are a nation that is 25 percent public land; in Nevada it is 80 percent, and in Alaska it is 61 percent. Public land can mean national parks like Yellowstone, which receives 3.8 million visitors per year. But it can also mean ANWR, which is so vast and wild that parts of it will be kept secret from us forever.
One of the first things you’ll learn in an environmental studies class is the difference between a conservationist and a preservationist. Conservationists believe in protecting resources for the sake of sustainability, so that future generations can benefit from them, while preservationists believe in protecting them completely from human use, because they have a value all their own.
Conservationists protect land for humans, while preservationists protect land from humans. Both sides have noble goals, and they don’t have to be in conflict with each other. In fact, they are usually on the same side of the battle against those who visit a landscape and can only see as far as the monetary potential beneath their feet.
As a child who loved nature and had high expectations that everyone else did, I was inspired by people like John Muir, who gave Nature a capital letter and a proper name, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who crusaded for the defense of the Everglades but famously avoided entering them herself. What I didn’t know was that arguing on behalf of preservation out in the world is akin to being a dreamer, someone who has not yet been bogged down by reality.
Even when I arrived at The Wilderness Society as an intern last fall, I still had stars in my eyes and expected that I would be working alongside the most staunch agents of preservation. It turned out that The Wilderness Society was more rooted in Teddy Roosevelt conservation, defending the rights of Americans to use their public lands rather than defending the right of that land to exist untouched.
As a communications intern at The Wilderness Society, I found that our frame most often had to be, “Drilling/mining/privatizing/raising park entrance prices is wrong because it will limit your access to the lands that belong to you,” because it was easiest to garner public and media attention when human impact was involved. It is much harder to get donations or shares on Facebook if your primary message is, “Drilling/mining/privatizing is wrong because this land has existed for thousands of years before us and it should continue to exist because there is nothing else like it in the world.”
I observe this not as a flaw of the organization by any means, merely as a reality check for myself. The choice to focus on conservation over preservation is often no choice at all. In our economy of sacrifices and benefits, it can be impossible to convince the average person to care about something that doesn’t affect them. Environmental organizations must realistically navigate the political world and act where they can have the most impact.
And yet, The Wilderness Society has been deeply involved in the decades-long battle against opening ANWR to drilling, calling the refuge the “crown jewel of the nation's wildlife refuge system.” Focused as they are on conservation and recreation, the organization recognizes that intrinsic value matters, too, stating, “the Arctic Refuge is one of the finest examples of wilderness left on Earth and among the least affected by human activity. Its wilderness values are timeless and irreplaceable.”
Our transactional worldview extends beyond the environmental sphere, and perhaps it is exacerbated by our current leadership. When the president of the United States degrades and threatens to deport immigrants, those immigrants feel that they must justify themselves and their presence here by showing their degrees and accomplishments; it is not enough that they are humans deserving of respect and safety. We make people prove their worth in order to receive basic goods like food and living wages. It should be no surprise, then, that we expect natural places to somehow earn their right to not be mined or developed into oblivion.
Most of us will never summit Everest, yet we would never advocate for mountaintop removal or building a shopping mall at its base. We know that Everest’s existence precedes us and that it is worth much more than what we might turn it into. Natural wonders like ANWR are no different, though they may exist more quietly. ANWR has existed for thousands of years without our input, but unfortunately, it won’t be here for much longer if those concerned among us don’t step in.
You and I may never touch it, but it exists, and it matters.