“That’s fuckin’ bullshit man,” growled Jim Akittirq*, our guide. “They just want to shut us down,” the fierceness of his retort catching me slightly off guard as we sped across the mirror-still lagoon in his powerful motor launch. We were heading for a low, gravelly spit where a group of polar bears—the purpose of our visit—were going about their business.
The previous day, my companions from the Shannon Elizabeth Foundation and I had landed at Kaktovik on tiny Barter Island, which is barely separated from the mainland in the far, far north of Alaska. There is no cozy arrivals lounge in Kaktovik, so while waiting on the open tarmac in a bone-chilling, sleety wind for the bus to take us to our lodgings, we got chatting to a woman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) who had shared our flight. She told us not to engage with the locals because many barely tolerate tourists invading their territory. She feared that this antagonism could endanger the fledging ecotourism economy of the island.
Her emphatic instruction had the distinct overtone of a “warning,” which I thought rather odd. But before we could continue the conversation, our rather dilapidated transport arrived, and we parted company. My curiosity was piqued, however, and I decided not to heed her advice. So, the next morning, I related the conversation to Jim, and this is what prompted his outburst. “They [the USFWS] just want to shut us down,” he repeated. “They’re on the side of the oil and gas people.” Jim was angry, very angry, and clearly feels a great resentment towards faraway central government agencies, both in his native Canada for “stealing” his pension and there in Alaska for “stealing his new life” as a polar bear guide. I was getting a very direct and personal insight into the complex environmental politics of the U.S. Attitudes in Kaktovik, it seems, are a microcosm of the divisiveness so painfully apparent across broader American society.
Our visit to polar bear land was in late 2019, and as the year drew to a close, feelings in Inuit communities were clearly running high. At the time, the Trump administration was well on its way to opening up part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. In August this year, it was finalized—a move that overturned six decades of protections for the most extensive remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.
The decision has split the Native American community. Some members embrace the oil and gas industry as an easy path to greater wealth and a more comfortable “modern” lifestyle. At the same time, traditionalists fear that drilling and prospecting will interrupt the caribou breeding patterns in an area they revere as the “sacred place where life begins.” No guesswork is needed to understand which side of the divide Jim falls. He is clearly passionate about his brutal wilderness, fearing not only the demise of his caribou hunting traditions but the bigger environmental issues too. “By now, the polar bears should be out on the ice hunting seals,” he remarks. “But there is no ice yet, and it’s coming later each year. The winds are changing; the whole goddam climate is changing.”
Indeed, it is, Jim. Indeed, it is. And the past four years under Donald Trump’s thumb have only exacerbated the situation. His anti-science, anti-environment, combative rants have sown dissension and anxiety, not only in America but worldwide. And at a time when we in the rest of the world have so badly needed a voice of reason reaching out from the most powerful economy, ever, in the span of human history.
Other administrations have pushed the agenda for cutting regulations perceived as thorns in the side of industry—particularly coal, oil, and gas. But Trump has gone about it with an unmatched zeal. His unconcealed hatred of anything he could attribute to his predecessor has been astonishing. His drive to undo anything carrying the signature of Barrack Obama has been nothing short of pathological.
The New York Times, based on research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, and other sources, lists “more than 125 environmental rules and regulations officially reversed, revoked or otherwise rolled back under Mr. Trump. Another 26 rollbacks are still in progress.” These actions have spanned air pollution, emissions from power plants and road vehicles, drilling and extraction, infrastructure, animals, water pollution, toxic substances and waste, safety, and a raft of others. Ironically, most have been carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal body whose very mission is to protect human and environmental health.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Trump’s choice to head the EPA was Edward Scott Pruitt, a man who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. His term was mercifully short, but his deputy and now acting head of the EPA is Andrew Wheeler, who, in March 2019, said he did not believe climate change was an existential threat.
Trump’s record in terms of the Planet’s wildlife has been no less dismal. The point was well made during the UN’s virtual Summit on Biodiversity. Green Peace activists placed life-sized ice sculptures of Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro on a pier facing the UN building in New York. There they were left to melt to highlight the world nature crisis and biodiversity collapse. The activists unfurled a banner with the message: “Faces of Extinction: Fueling a planet in crisis.”
If Trump’s melodramatic withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement only a few months after his inauguration stunned the world, his attitude to the Covid-19 pandemic defies reason. By no measure is he responsible for what he calls “the China virus.” Still, history will judge him harshly for his persistent anti-science mockery of medics, politicians, and ordinary citizens who have urged simple mask-wearing and social distancing strategies to break the virus’s terrible grip. The result—America has the dubious status of having the worst coronavirus statistics in the world: Cases have topped the 10 million mark, and deaths now exceed 238,000.
Here in Africa, in the “shithole countries,” as Trump calls them, we know all about Big Men in politics and the harm they bring to their countries and people. Trump has all the hallmarks of a Big Man in waiting, but thankfully, 76,343,332 Americans and a sturdy constitution have brought this period of madness to an end. America’s psyche has been sorely hurt in the four years of Trumpism, and it’s not going end, as the incumbent and his acolytes refuse to accept they have lost.
President-elect Joe Biden seems a decent and capable man. But he has a steep mountain to climb, notwithstanding his almost five million majority. And all we can do in the world outside of America is to say, “Good luck, Joe” and cheer him on from the sidelines.
*Name changed to protect our guide’s anonymity.