A summary of our September 2010 speaker, Charles Wohlforth
By Kay Vreeland
Charles Wohlforth’s subtitle for his recent book, The Fate of Nature, is “Rediscovering our Ability to Rescue the Earth” and in his talk to the APC luncheon meeting September 2, 2010, he marked out the paths toward this rescue. Chief among these is being grounded in our communities and in the stories we tell about our world. Writers, especially journalists, create and define culture in large measure, and culture is the key to solutions of environmental issues. We have known for some time that we are using up our biosphere and know the solutions for preserving it, but we have not gone very far toward rescuing the earth. In the end, said Wolhforth, it is culture rather than science, engineering or technology that will lead to rescue.
Culture grows out of stories we tell and our trust in these stories. Wohlforth’s early journalism career was at the Homer News where he learned his readers accepted what he wrote as true, since he saw the subjects of his stories every day. He learned then what statistics continue to show, that we believe people around us are most trustworthy, and that the message of corporate and government elites has far less influence. How stories are presented to us affects our actions; sadly, the current sensationalist climate in journalism skews reality by creating the perception that many others are not working for the good of society.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill ignited Wohlforth’s passion for the environment by the happy coincidence that he had a four-wheel-drive vehicle that could take reporters from Anchorage and the Valley to the scene. As a journalist there, he learned that the government, the Coast Guard and the oil company stood in adversarial conflict and many bad decisions were made. The shutdown of scientific studies through project cancellation and enforced secrecy meant that true stories were hard to come by and we still lack a lot of clear answers to the mystery of ongoing ecosystem damage.
Moving oversight from hierarchical institutions into the hands of the local community through organizations such as the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (RCAC) was successful in the aftermath of the 1989 oil spill. Unfortunately, although the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill had different physical aspects, the initial response was the same. Local involvement means a big company cedes power, but in the latest spill scenario, community involvement and scientific contribution are needed for real solutions to emerge.
Alaskans are strongly connected to place, as Wolhforth’s background slide show of nature scenes around the state emphasized. This relation to nature is part of the network of values that gives meaning in life. Values reside in connection, not only to nature, but to family and community. As Wolhforth quoted from his book, “The [environmental] problem is unimaginable in scale, nonlinear in shape, and infinite in complexity, and so may be the solution – in the interlocking relationships of human societies. And the solution may also be small enough for a single person to choose, which is important, since individual people alone are capable of making choices.”
Individual choices create new cultural norms, and individual action contributes most to changing culture, as we’ve seen in shrinking family size, facing race questions or environmental ethics such as less littering, or rescuing the earth. Journalists contribute to creating the cultural norms we live by, and they need to use this power well and conscientiously. Wolhforth’s message is that the fate of nature lies in great part in their, and our, hands.
Charles Wohlforth is a life-long Alaska resident and prize-winning author of numerous books about Alaska. His work includes writing about science and the environment, politics and history, travel, and as-told-to biography. A popular lecturer, he has spoken all over the United States and overseas. Wohlforth lives with his wife, Barbara, and their four children. They reside in Anchorage during the winter, where they are avid cross-country skiers, and in summer on a remote Kachemak Bay shore reachable only by boat.
Wohlforth, 46, graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1986 before returning to Alaska to work six years as a newspaper reporter, including covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill for the Anchorage Daily News. He became a full-time freelance writer in 1993, publishing articles in The New Republic, Outside, Discover and other periodicals,and writing three travel books published by Wiley. He also served two 3-year terms on the Anchorage Assembly.
In 2004, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published Wohlforth’s widely acclaimed non-fiction account of climate change in the Arctic as experienced by the Eskimos and the scientists studying it, titled The Whale and the Supercomputer. The book won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology, among numerous other national and regional citations for science, culture, and journalism. His current projects include an upcoming book from Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press titled, The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth.