It’s almost like you pursue a dream for the sake of the memory of the pursuit. When you take something far larger than any single effort, and you break it down into manageable pieces, you rob it temporarily of its life. When you plan and strategize and work and bear down and physically just make it real, it is easy to parse out the meaning and lose it. Isn’t it only when you step back and understand the whole that it regains its splendor? You get to forget the “slow boring of hard wood” that got you there. You get to feel the weight of the whole thing at once. And in that tension is where most dreams come to life. It’s almost like you create a dream for the sake of the memory.
The Arctic is a powerful dream, if I can think of any. In my job as an organizer I talk with people about the effects of global warming on the Arctic all day long every day. In most instances the effects of global warming; the shrinking ice pack, the habitat loss, the northward movement of marine ecosystems – it all seems pretty patent that the Arctic as we know it is either going, or already gone. Melting ice and dwindling habitats give the looming sense of retreat a tactile edge.
And yet, Shell understands the area as their own sort of Manifest Destiny – the logical conclusion to centuries of subterranean exploration. In a moment of global retreat, they smell blood. The moment is trenchant. The Arctic is in the midst of some grand climate transition. Shell, meanwhile, is working to capitalize (literally), and in doing so, to redefine the human relationship with the North.
Big moments like these, they can carry an element of the surreal. I walked 2,174.6 miles, through almost every kind of terrain and weather, when I summited Mt. Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail. I had quietly achieved a personal dream. It was the type of thing that I never understood as possible, even as I did it. Even when I had finally finished it, it felt unreal. It was too large, too heavy. I couldn’t remember the whole thing – only the feeling of the interminable walking. All I had were millions of verdant still live pictures, floating in chaos in my brain. What I had actually done – walked 17 miles a day, every waking day, for 145 days, was swallowed by the vision I had of it, both before and after. It was a dream, that had somehow found footing in reality, only to return through memory back into a dream.
There are the facts behind the fight over the Arctic Circle – pristine and fragile ecosystems, harsh and inhospitable climes, balanced against a possible13% of the worlds oil, billions of dollars invested. Then there is the dream of the Arctic – the purity, the whiteness, the cold. The fight between environmentalists to protect it and oil companies to conquer it plays out in the facts, but it is rooted in myth. For Big Oil, it’s a myth of dominance, of Manifest Destiny, of the impossible project. Hubris begetting hubris.
For the environmental movement it’s unity. The planet unites at its poles, after all, and countries and cultures from every corner must come together to protect something none of us have ever needed access to – something that only our own negligence has made available. Secretary of State Jewell, by denying Shell drilling permits for the Chukchi Sea, has the opportunity to preserve the myth; to make it fact.
In the end, for almost all of us, the Arctic is a dream – untouchable, unreachable, and almost impossible to even imagine. We’re working to make sure we are not one day pursuing its memory.
By Richard Duke
Richard Duke is a musician, writer and activist from the New York area, and the fastest Greenpeace staffer to run a marathon this year. Just sayin’.