Friday, April 29, 2011

James Smith, LLM Student Reviews “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960” by Douglas Brinkley

The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960 by Douglas Brinkley is really quite good, and consequently it may be of interest to others at DU Law.

Brinkley is a prolific historian and this is his latest effort. It follows a great ecological book a few years ago focusing on Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationism (The Wilderness Warrior). The book starts with Roosevelt’s boyhood fascination of the recently acquired territory and John Muir’s early travels there and ends with statehood and the creation of the Arctic National Refuge.

Brinkley makes a great effort at reminding readers of the vast wonder of Alaska’s natural resources – boundless forests, endless coastlines, seemingly inexhaustible glaciers, millions of animals. Along the way, Brinkley introduces the reader to many interesting figures who helped preserve much of Alaska: Aldo Leopold, Justice William Douglas, Rachel Carlson, Ansel Adams, etc. Even Walt Disney makes an appearance. For Brinkley, these are the heroes of the story. Even the U.S. government manages to do far more good than bad in Brinkley’s eyes (playing against character in American stereotypes).

The book isn’t perfect. There is little said about Native Americans. And the limits of Rooseveltian conservation are stark: spying a snowy owl having made its way far south to Long Island, N.Y., the young naturalist, after staring in wonder at the magnificent creature, shoots it dead with a shotgun and takes its taxidermied corpse with him that year when he entered Harvard. Disney’s appearance in the story seems a bit forced. Yet, there is plenty that a reader might learn. I had no idea that Edward Teller tried seriously to convince the Eisenhower Administration to use nuclear bombs “to dig” an artificial harbor on the North Slope. Or that FDR was a huge forestry buff, once listing “tree farmer” as his occupation.

Alaska plays a large role in the conclusion of the evolution of America’s attitudes toward the environment and natural resources. Its exploration and assessment after purchase from Russia came at a critical fork in the exploitation of landed wealth. By then, Americans nearly had occupied the West and the last unrestricted opportunities to harvest timber, mine gold, and exploit animal or energy riches were underway (even if not yet complete).

The cycle of expansion--using up resources in one place and then moving on westward--was complete, but for Alaska. How easy it would have been simply to adopt the massive reach of northern treasure as the next chapter in this story.

Yet, at the same time, it was obvious to at least some Americans that what was once limitless bounty to the eyes of European explorers on the Atlantic coast, literally a cornucopia of resources offered by the hand of God, was in fact finite and limited. And, that the end was, if not at hand, at least foreseeable, again, but for Alaska. The Quiet World is the story of how the obvious and predictable depredation of Alaska never quite came (fully) into being and the individuals whose decisions made Alaska (mostly) an exception to the historical rule.

James Smith
LLM Candidate December 2011

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