Mountainfilm 2010: Journalist John Vaillant

Minds of Mountainfilm- Profiles and Interviews Over the coming months, Outside will be posting interviews with adventurers, environmentalists, filmmakers, and others conducted by Mountainfilm. Many of the icons appearing at this year's festival have been featured in the pages of Outside. For more information on this year's festival, which begins on May 28, please check out Mountainfilm's Web Site.

While on assignment for Outside Magazine in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, Vancouver-based journalist John Vaillant stumbled upon a heartbreaking story of an environmental anomaly, a 300-year old golden sitka spruce, that had been chopped down. Revered by the local indigenous tribe, the Haida Nation, who even referred to it as “Elder Spruce,” the golden sitka was an iconic feature of the region’s forests. In a region where local culture has for centuries been closely tied to the environment, Vaillant’s story highlighted the tensions of a radically changing landscape and shifting values. The story appeared in The New Yorker and was later expanded upon in Vaillant’s first book, The Golden Spruce. His next book, The Tiger, takes a serious look into what happens as wild animals are increasingly threatened by human interaction.

In both “The Golden Spruce” and “The Tiger,” you address fundamental issues about the natural order, Man’s attempts to conquer and exploit it and the havoc that ensues. Do you foresee the possibility of mankind ever peacefully co-existing with the natural environment? What has to happen to make that a reality?
I think human beings have a hard time with the status quo. Balance and stability are not our strong suits, but nor are they Nature’s. That said, “Peaceful” – that is, sustainable, co-existence – is occurring right now, but only in places where the human population, and Nature’s ability to renew itself in the face of that population’s demands, are in balance.  Such equilibrium tends only to occur at the village level, in rural areas, which is not to say it’s not possible in urban areas – I believe it is. But in order for it to happen, three things are required: a manageable population; humility, and a loving knowledge of the land. In general, all three of these criteria appear to be in short supply because, as the environmental historian, John Perlin, said so well: “Civilization has never recognized limits to its needs.”

Given the current state of the world’s population and its increasing appetite for the incredible array of things most readers of this blog already take for granted, I don’t see how such co-existence can occur on a large scale without a massive, and most likely cataclysmic, recalibration of our expectations for what the world “owes” us in terms of allowable consumption and lifestyle. This recalibration is unlikely to come about voluntarily. What may force it is when the earth bites back hard enough to get our attention, and that process has begun in earnest.

Most people convert only in the face of crisis, or government edict. Given the compromised state of most governments in the face of corporate-style capitalism, it is unlikely that our governments will impose the necessary changes. Which means we’re in the hot seat, but collectively, we can convert that into the driver’s seat.

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