Climbing Denali

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

By Robert C. Koehler

Renaming a mountain is better than beheading it.

And the pseudo-uproar from Donald Trump and other Republicans over the presidential renaming of the continent’s highest mountain, Denali — “the great one” — is so much yammering in a cage.

The cage is “Americanism.” The small-mindedness of this concept is suddenly more apparent than ever: Hey, we’re the greatest! Obama’s taking Mount McKinley — our mountain — away from us, giving it back to the Indians . . .

Would that it were true. Would that a sense of earth-reverence had entered the national consciousness through this act of renaming, this acknowledgement that our world isn’t merely the plaything of the American political ego. Would that President Obama meant what he said when, as he began his symbolic, climate-change-awareness trek to Alaska, he declared: “The time to plead ignorance is surely past.”

But of course he only meant it rhetorically, as though sternly resonant words — a great speech — could stop global warming and the melting of Arctic ice and the looming shroud over our children’s future. It’s so easy to call for change, then go back to business as usual. “We’re proving that there doesn’t have to be conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth,” he said.

Uh, yes there does.

For one thing, we have to get far more serious about weaning the human race from its dependence on fossil fuels and leave most of the oil, coal and natural gas that’s still in the ground exactly where it is, according to most climate scientists. If we don’t, the greenhouse gas emissions we produce by burning them will cause a global temperature rise beyond the point of ecosystem sustainability, which is 2 degrees Celsius.

That’s why the fact that Obama granted approval to Royal Dutch Shell to begin oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off of Alaska’s northwest coast — “potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil,” as Bill McKibben recently wrote — has ignited so much outrage. “It’s as if the health teacher giving the anti-smoking talk to junior-high assembly had a Marlboro dangling from her lip,” he added.

Here’s what I’ll concede. The nation is a stew of contradictory forces, all of which the president must, at the very least, placate. If the corporate drivers of the American and global economy want something, they’re going to exert enormous pressure to get it — the sort of pressure a political leader may find almost impossible to resist. Indeed, the concept of the nation-state may be no more than an amalgam of destructive forces and “interests” — greed, fear, the lust to dominate — that render it incompatible with transcendent change, which is what our global crises absolutely require. The nation-state serves war. The nation-state serves economic growth. The nation-state does not serve climate integrity.

And so the climate crisis is where science and political science meet, as McKibben put it. “Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with, the ones where compromise makes complete sense,” he wrote.

The players “think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between people and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.”

The scientists sounding the global-warming alarm are simply reporting the basic physics of the situation. “They’re not expressing an opinion; they’re reporting on the world’s actual limits.”

But of course there is more involved here than merely cold, impartial science. There’s a conflict of attitudes going on. One attitude serves and benefits from a self-perpetuating political-economic system that’s all about endless growth, endless expansion. Our leaders and our media, for the most part, cater to this attitude. For instance:

“President Barack Obama on Tuesday will propose speeding up the timeline for purchasing and constructing new Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic, an area where the United States has fallen behind Russia in resources as the melting sea ice creates more opportunities for global commerce, tourism and scientific research.”

This is from CNN. I grab the sentence almost at random. I read it again, not quite believing it. “. . . as the melting sea ice creates more opportunities for global commerce, tourism . . .”

The other attitude is more like a rending cry that we value the planet the way we would value our own children. I’m sure this is not an easy attitude to legislate, at least not under present circumstances. We’ve achieved so much by turning our most callous instincts loose on the world. We’re addicted to environmental collapse. Even the death throes of the global ecosystem, if that’s what this massive melting can be said to represent, are seen, and legislated, as opportunity.

I think again about the renaming of a mountain. I think about our slow ascent toward awareness.