When 20 or so 8, 9 and 10 year-olds came into my anthropology lab at Kenai Peninsula College to learn about sustainability, I knew I had to do something to get their attention. Brought by the Kenaitze Tribe and an Epscor/NSF Outreach science program, they gathered around me, polite and eager.
"Do you want to hear a stupid boy story?" I asked.
Of course they did. It was a scene that could have happened a thousand years ago, although then it would likely have been told quietly by an elder at night around a spruce fire. "Ki ch'qinaghe?nik'en ki?" the elder would begin, "Another stupid boy."
Once there was a boy who would not learn from his elders. His parents and uncles and aunts tried to teach him but he would not learn.
His aunt and uncle had set a deadfall trap in the woods to catch a lynx. (A traditional deadfall trap was made of logs the size of a door lashed together and propped up at an angle by a baited hair-trigger mechanism. One light touch on the baited trigger and the logs came crashing down, trapping the animal.)
"I'd like to check the deadfall," the boy later said to his aunt.
"Go ahead," she said.
"If nothing is caught, what should I do?" the boy asked.
"Well, grab the bait," she said.
The boy went to the deadfall where it still stood, baited and ready to be tripped. He crawled under the deadfall and grabbed the bait. Later, his aunt went to look for him and found his legs sticking out from under the logs.
The children's eyes got big.
"Did he die?" a little girl asked.
"Well ... yes," I said. "Why did he die?" I asked.
"Because he was stupid," a little boy said.
When someone does something dumb in modern mythology (movies, novels, etc.), they are often rescued and live happily ever after. In the old Dena'ina world, actions have consequences. Bad things happen when decisions are made that ignore observed reality -- true in the past, just as true now.
Modern times are notable for dumbing down science, the humanities. It's not just the short news cycle and the sound bite. It's a systematic and purposeful effort to manipulate information, causing people to ignore reality and to not act in their best interest to achieve the goals of those who would dominate.
Global climate change is a case in point. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists accept the role of human-generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in climate change. Most predict dire consequences of we do not take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 3 percent who do not are not necessarily stupid but interpret the data differently.
The people who could learn most from stupid boy are climate change deniers who attack the science but whose real motive is to maintain the economic order based on intense utilization of hydrocarbons. According to President Barack Obama's "Call out the climate change deniers" website, 162 senators, representatives and mayors deny that climate change is caused to a significant degree by doing things like burning coal and oil, thereby producing greenhouse gases that warm the planet and affect climatic patterns. The deniers are politicians supported by corporate interests and media hacks who attack the science not because it's wrong, but because its conclusions jeopardize the bottom line of multinational energy companies. Buy a politician, buy a little more time, make a lot of money.
That said, radical change from fossil fuel energy to something else in a short time would be chaos. But the things we can phase in (wind, solar and geothermal energy bridged by natural gas) and phase out (petroleum fuel for cars but not air travel) are well known, Dealing with anthropogenic climate change is a smart thing to do.
Later, I took the children out to the woods to see a thousand-year-old Dena'ina site by the Kenai River.
This, children, is a place your ancestors lived. They had salmon and other wild foods and a way to store them for winter. They had mechanisms for sharing and a belief system that incorporated forces of the natural world. Theirs was a culture that could have operated forever. They weren't stupid.
Like the children, we can learn from the stupid boy stories and we can learn from understanding how a sustainable culture is structured. In the end, sustainability is making wise decisions based on understanding the consequences of actions.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.