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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2014

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Editorial: Appreciating the Acquired Knowledge of Living with Nature

This issue inaugurates a series we have begun to commission regarding sustainability politics in Alaska. Here we publish two articles, one by Henry Huntington on conservation and abundance, and the other by Sam Weis on coal mining and wildlife preservation. Both authors begin by referring to a state of seeming abundance where exploitation is still not seen as cavalier, but as a vital feature of shared prosperity for all Alaskans. Yet in both cases the traditions and values of native Alaskans are not incorporated into official impact assessments.

Maybe the theme for this Alaskan compilation of articles is that of abundance, cultural values, and sustainability. In conventional natural resources decision making there is both pragmatism and a mechanical approach to exploitation and to making choices. The people and official environmental regulatory agencies involved in such decision making prefer the organized logic of assessment matrices and programmed consultation (hearing but not listening). They are uncomfortable with, and possibly unaware of, the topics offered by the other two articles in this issue, namely, those addressing traditional ecological knowledge and ecosystem-based adaptation. To tackle these more subtle and less easily measurable components requires a very different approach to defining "problems" and analyzing "solutions."

In the Alaskan cases the overriding decision framework is how to reach a level of resources extraction (coal, oil, copper, and fish) without either unduly compromising the rights and accustomed ways of livelihoods of the local native Alaskans or destroying the natural fabric. It is assumed, probably by most of those involved, that there is a way to resolve this without leaving potentially valuable copper and coal in the ground and retaining more than sufficient salmon for the seas and rivers.

But what are "valuable natural resources" in these cases? Sustainability conflicts are more a product of incomprehensible morals than weaving a way through perceptions of abundance and scarcity. The introduction of traditional ecological knowledge brings with it a world of values and practices long fashioned and carefully calibrated which do not sit easily in environmental impact assessment matrices. They are not convertible to numbers on a spreadsheet. They need to be understood through staged processes of empathetic conversation, not quasi-formal consultation by way of public meetings or attachments to e-mails.

Ecosystem-based adaptation, which lies between traditional ecological knowledge and conventional resource decision procedures in terms of custom and ethics, also requires unusual forms of dialogue to arrive at a common understanding. Both begin from a position of respect of host cultures and of attentiveness to values that are not always collectively appreciated, let alone agreed upon. Both seek forms of conversation where the measures for giving weight to outcomes, especially for the longer term and for future generations, are neither immediately understood nor fully appreciated.

Yet both traditional ecological knowledge and ecosystem based adaptation are now very much in vogue as being relevant for devising how to interpret sustainability and natural resources development. This is not least because both concepts are intrinsic to valuing biodiversity and giving real weight to ecosystem services. The conventional natural resources decisional "styles" are no longer tenable.

The four articles in this issue offer an insight to natural resources decision making which begins to form a basis for constructively addressing the meaning and weighting of "natural value." This means, in turn, that the positioning of the fulcrum of power and of legality also requires adjustment. The test cases lie all over the globe. It is just that we have highlighted Alaska as an introduction for you, the reader. One outcome of this experience is that we may well have to change the training of resource regulatory officials as well as of the employees of resource development corporations and their consultancy clients, so that the ways such issues are perceived and judged are consonant from the outset, rather than force-fed through conflict. This is a tall order. But if sustainability outcomes are to be crafted, then how we learn and how we listen for realizing sustainability will become central to all education at every level of engagement.

-Timothy O'Riordan

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