Wilderness Is Us

President Bush's actions to boost oil drilling in the US has the greens seeing red and the drillers of black crude seeing gold.

"There goes the wilderness," cries one side. "Here comes energy galore," claims the other.

Hold on a second. This battle royale doesn't need to be the usual political standoff of nature vs. nourishment. Maybe it's time for a whiteout to dream up new colors. (See story on page 1.)

Let's start with the concept of wilderness. What is it exactly?

For environmentalists these days, it's symbolized by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last places in the US largely untouched by technology with an incredibly diverse ecosystem. They are gearing up to block a Bush plan to have Congress allow drilling in this land of caribou birthing and other natural abundance. The issue may come up in Congress as early as April.

Bush officials and their allies say the US needs the oil (maybe a year's supply at best), and claim that new drilling technology and careful management will minimize oil spills.

Both sides need to come together and think more deeply about the role of humans in nature, and how to balance the two.

Material environment such as the refuge is both a resource and a source for humans to reconnect with nature. But it also feeds into an American idea of frontier unspoiled by humans. That's largely a myth, since humans have altered the New World for thousands of years. Today, the Gwich'in people in that part of Alaska know how to both exploit and preserve the refuge's bounty. They cull the caribou and yet save them, for example. The wilderness is something they are in, something to "use," not a remote "other" or a romantic notion of pristine environment to cordon off. They don't "escape" from human civilization to the wilderness.

Seeing humanity as an integral part of wilderness might help slow down the rush to drill for oil in the refuge. A nation that takes responsibility for its place in nature would find a way to both reduce its dependency on oil and pause to see that this Arctic site is not a remote land to use and then abandon.

In pausing to rethink what is "wild" and what is "us," a new color just might emerge so the two sides can find common ground for beast and human alike.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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