This true story was just called to mind by reading a searing letter to Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. That letter, written by Terry Tempest Williams, was itself inspired by the sad vote in the U.S. Senate last week in favor of opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil development.
About a dozen years ago, while working with the team of lawyers prosecuting the massive civil case against Exxon over the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I took a break after a day of depositions to work out. The day was spent in a conference room of the law offices of Bogle & Gates in Anchorage, Alaska. I had done my best that day to defend a ruined salmon seiner under brutal examination by lawyers for Exxon. My client had filed a claim for emotional distress. The distress was caused by the sight of 11 million gallons of crude sloshing around his workplace, destroying his livelihood and registering other deep insults to his way of life.
The tools available to me were limited by federal rules that typically grant broad latitude in the discovery phase of a case, and also by a decision of the presiding judge that the claims of emotional distress by plaintiff commercial fishers and native villagers opened the door to questioning about everything personal and emotional in their lives. This included question about their sex lives, their most intimate relations and thoughts. The questions were as brutal as they were unnecessary and the day left me seething again, as well as a bit depressed. This was what I was mulling over in the fitness room of Anchorage's Captain Cook hotel when I literally bumped into Senator Stevens coming out the steam room.
I was struck by just how diminutive, how physically weak, was this substantial legislative gladiator. I had never met Stevens before but I knew his face and reputation. I understood that this little guy was a champion of the great oil colossus. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the same interests that pummeled my fisherman client (who was also his constituent) just like they relentlessly, if negligently, hammered mother earth every day. Both Senator Stevens and I managed to hold on to the towels wrapped around our respective waists and we both apologized at the same time. A very cordial, fleeting moment in the locker room.
What I did not know then, but learned just today in Ms. Williams' letter below, was that at that moment both Ted Stevens and I were likely both depressed over the status of the oil industry. At that time I happened to be feeling again the raw pain of great harm done wild places, to harmless creatures, to simple nature and good life. I had felt it often before but mostly kept the feeling at bay.Today, I was also particularly depressed over the thought of people, like the lawyers smugly deposing the Alaskan fisherman, who in their professional lives suspend their humanity and their connection to nature to serve the interest of a massive revenue machine to get a small piece of the action.
Senator Ted Stevens apparently was himself suffering from longstanding depression that he apparently attributes to his failure (to date) to enable a victory for the oil industry over one of nature's dwindling frontiers. I have read since that Senator Ted Stevens is also concerned about the effects of global warming on the Arctic regions of his state. He refuses to make connections between the rapacious appetite for coal and oil and the great damage that is being done to the world day by day. If Stevens did make those connection, he would have to re-evaluate his entire career in public life. He would likely have a great deal of soul-searching to due, but he might still have a chance to live out his years relieved of depression.
Jon Hinck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an environmental attorney at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.