Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska
The fifth and final book on my reading list was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. This book occupies a distinctive place on the list not so much because of its subject matter, which overlaps various of the other books to varying degrees, as because of its tone, which is quite different from all the others. The tone here is not journalistic or scientific but literary, with extended passages of lyrical reflection on landscapes and ecosystems that make reading it a very different experience from the other books. Lopez writes novels in addition to his nonfiction, which puts the tone into its proper perspective, I think. It’s a very interesting book in a variety of ways. The focus is on the North American Arctic as a whole, so Alaska plays a role but considerably more attention is given to Canada, which encompasses a larger geographic area and has been more central to a lot of the history Lopez describes as context for contemporary issues. Nevertheless, the issues Lopez discusses in the Canadian context generally have parallels in Alaska (as well as in Greenland, and for that matter in the European and Siberian Arctic, which Lopez barely mentions), and it makes sense to discuss the Arctic as a whole despite its internal diversity.
Despite the aforementioned literary tone, this is definitely a work of nonfiction, which might be classed as popular science for want of a better category. Lopez describes various aspects of the Arctic, mostly focusing on the animals, the landscapes, and the indigenous peoples, with an overall emphasis on the fragility of all these systems and the way they are threatened by modern Western society and its recent interest in industrial development in the North. This fits right in to the tradition of environmentalist writing represented by the likes of Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, but Lopez gives it his own distinctive stamp. He is clearly enchanted by the landscapes and wildlife he sees, and worried about how they will fare in a world of oil drilling and strip mining, but he also clearly recognizes the ambiguities of the situation, the importance of the perspectives of indigenous hunters even when their ideas might be incompatible with those of white environmentalists, and the inevitability of a certain amount of development given the prevailing circumstances. He points to previous incidents of inadvertent environmental destruction in the Arctic, such as the devastation of whale populations by nineteenth-century whalers, as important cautionary tales for those who would ponder tapping the resources of the North, but he stops short of a blanket demand that no extraction take place. He recognizes the power of industry at the same time that he fears it, and seems to ultimately offer only a caution to be careful and consult with the locals before making any hasty decisions. He makes a big deal out of a visit the CEO of an international shipping company happened to make to an Inuit hunting camp while he was staying there. The CEO had heard about reports that the company’s ships were disturbing the wildlife the hunters depended on, and he asked them about the issues and listened to what they said. This obviously sounds like a publicity stunt, but Lopez interprets the way it was done as an important contrast to the superficial way such stunts are usually done, and points to it as a hopeful sign for the future. Whether he was right to do so is unclear, but it’s an interesting, nuanced approach to issues on which he clearly has strong opinions.
Lopez published this book in the mid-1980s, and from the perspective of today one of the most striking things about it is that for all his pessimism about the environmental future of the Arctic he never once mentions anthropogenic climate change. The idea of global warming was certainly around at the time, but it had not yet emerged as a major concern even in environmental circles, and the threats to the Arctic environment that Lopez describes are all the result of human actions on ecosystems that are fragile but otherwise stable. Nowadays it seems pretty striking that threats to the Arctic environment could be envisioned this way; the effects of climate change are already quite apparent in Arctic regions, and such effects as melting permafrost and accelerated coastal erosion are already having substantial effects on communities in Alaska and elsewhere. Furthermore, some of the effects of climate change, such as lower sea ice extent (which hit a record minimum this past summer), open the door to increased shipping, mining, and other industrial activity in the Arctic. These are precisely the local threats Lopez focuses on in the book, but there they look like isolated phenomena, whereas now they seem to be part of a larger and more dire picture. Obviously this is not really a criticism of Lopez. He wrote when he did, and his perspective was based on the information then available. It’s only now, with more information and a changed perspective, that climate change looks like such a major background presence shaping a changing North.
Overall, this is an interesting book, and a useful supplement to the others I read. I can see why it was at the bottom of the list: it doesn’t focus on Alaska specifically, and the part of Alaska it does relate to is a relatively small part of the state (though a very important one). As a stand-alone volume, however, it would probably be a better choice for the general reader than some of the others that ranked higher on my list.
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