Alaska has been the subject of recent scary headlines about the threat posed by North Korean missiles — like the one launched July 4 by the regime as an Independence Day present for the US.
Of course, preventing a nuclear attack is high on our government’s agenda. On Tuesday, the US Missile Defense Agency successfully shot down a target over Alaska. Although this test wasn’t a direct response to North Korea’s July 4 ICBM launch, it proves that United States defense officials are taking the necessary steps to help protect Alaskans.
But you won’t hear talk of THAAD or ICBMs in grocery store lines in Juneau, Anchorage or Utqia?vik (what we used to call Barrow). Why? After a recent pair of fatal, predatory black bear attacks this summer, the whole state of Alaska has far more visceral, pressing concerns than North Korean missiles.
The fatal attacks have Alaskans reevaluating our relationship with the 49th state’s wilderness, which many refer to as “bear country.” Bears, generally, are harmless. Before this summer, there had been only six fatal Alaska black bear attacks in 130 years. Wildlife officials do not believe either of this summer’s attacks are part of a pattern, but the “lightning strike” of black bear attacks underscores that in Alaska, Mother Nature’s caprices rule all. Not geopolitics, nuclear policy or military might — not North Korea’s missile program.
Alaska is one of the dwindling list of places where humans do not have the final say on who lives and who dies. The very geography of the state is a constant reminder that you are small, insignificant. The weather changes on a whim, at once leaving you at the mercy of bone-chilling, possibly deadly rain, snow and fog.
Generations of transplants to Alaska, and 10,000 years of Native Alaskan inhabitants before them, have struggled mightily to gain a toehold at this edge of civilization. Natural disaster is simply something to live with. The state experiences 11% of the world’s recorded earthquakes. Avalanches will block your local commute to work and volcanic eruptions could leave entire metropolitan areas covered in ash. It’s no wonder people here would write off the distant threat of North Korea’s nuclear program.
Another reason we’re not talking much about North Korea? It’s summer. We’ve been cooped up for eight months of rain, cold, and darkness … so much darkness. In Seward’s Icebox, as soon as the mercury nudges above 55 degrees, most of us are donning shorts to splay our pasty torsos out on rocky shorelines. We look like beached whales, breathing heavily and going slightly giddy while recovering from vitamin D deficiencies.
Perhaps it’s nothing to be proud of, but the short answer is that we simply cannot be bothered to care about geopolitics when the sun comes out and the salmon start running.
Besides, we have a long list of things that need to be done in the short summer season. First and foremost, there’s an empty freezer to stock with salmon, halibut, crab, rockfish and cod.
And finally, if you haven’t been following the news in one of the nation’s least populated states, we’ve got no need for explosions — we’re doing a fine job of imploding.
Per-barrel prices of oil have crashed in recent years from well over $100 to as low as $26. Because the state sources much of its budget from oil and gas revenues — up to 90% between 2005 and 2014, when oil prices were high — the dip in prices has ballooned our state’s deficit to 2.5 billion dollars.
Budget debates have turned into a bitter, partisan fight in Juneau. The state legislature barely avoided a July 1 government shutdown this year, setting a record for the longest session in Juneau’s history. The rancor was so entrenched, so uncompromising, the state had to go so far as to issue pink slips to its 15,000 employees before the Legislature could pass a Band Aid of an operating budget.
Long lauded for its wealth and financial prudence, the state that can afford a version of universal basic income — paying each resident around a $1,000 each year out of its massive sovereign wealth fund in the Alaska Permanent Fund — has now drained a large portion of its piggy bank, opting to address its deficit with a nest egg rather than join the majority of states by instituting an income tax. This has already translated to personal income dropping in Alaska for the first time in a decade.
In the realm of climate, our beloved wild king salmon are disappearing in Southeast Alaska, our permafrost is dying, climate change threatens to send whole villages into the ocean and British Columbia’s under-insured and under-regulated mining projects threaten to pollute the watersheds of some of the world’s biggest salmon populations.
I’m not minimizing the awesome threat they could someday pose — or the damage they could inflict. But right now, with all of our more immediate troubles, you can hardly blame Alaskans for not caring about Kim Jong Un’s missiles.