The saboteurs who punched a hole in the Alaska pipeline the other day hit the country where it lives. The development of Alaskan oil and the connecting pipeline represents a supreme achievement in modern America. The pipeline and the fields are engineering wonders that point a way out of the central social and environmental dilemma of modern technology.
Hardly anybody needs to be introduced to the difficulties generated by scientific progress. Smog, congestion, cancer, overpopulation, urban decay, radical nationalism and - on the individual level - rampant neuroticism all find their roots in the unthinking and often uncontrolled adoption of technological innovation.
Disillusion with technical advance has fostered among Western intellectuals - now and indeed over the past century - an essentially retrogressive, anti-scientific spirit. In our own day, the most visible expression of that view lies in the No Growth movement and the Small Is Better philosophy.
Those views have been taken up by leading politicos, and by almost all other right-thinking persons, including President Carter and California Gov. Jerry Brown, not to mention the environmentalists, Naderites, feminists and the Club of Rome. All of them now rail against the mindlessness and brutality of modern technological life.
The development of oilfields here and the engineering wonder of a pipeline to bring the products south to the 48 states, provided a vital test for this central issue. For development in Alaska threatened everything associated with the wholesome, unspoiled order of things.
First of all, the environment itself. The permafrost that covers the ground, holding water and soil in icy suspension, was obviously vulnerable to pipelines bearing hot, pressurized oil, and even to the large heated installations that had to be built for humans to work effectively around the oil wells. Laying the installation for the pipeline flat on the ground would have turned an extraordinarily beautiful tract of nature into a mud wasteland.
Under pressure from environmentalists, however, the oil companies bestirred themselves. The came up with technology to beat back the threat from technology. The heated buildings are mostly built above the ground, on stilts, which do not melt the permafrost. The pipeline is also carried overground so that the high temperature of the oil does not affect the permafrost. The few heated buildings that do rest on the ground lie upon foundations that are refrigerated to preserve the permafrost.
Wildlife, notably the great flocks of wild geese and the caribou herds, also seemed vulnerable. A particular fear was that the caribou, unwilling to cross any barrier they cannot see beyond, would let pipelines pen them in to grounds insufficient for feeding purposes.
But the companies have built special caribou crossings - either by dipping pipelines so the caribou can step over, or by raising them so the caribou can wriggle under. While not conclusive yet, the evidence is that the herds are intact.
Pollution of air and water seemed a certain menace to the marine and bird life. But the companies burn all their exhaust gases in flues that do not allow any chemical emission to escape to the open skies. The wild geese have been as numerous as ever. As to wastes, the companies collect them, then process them chemically to a degree that yields water fit for drinking. The water is poured into the sea, and marine life seems not to have suffered in any way.
Most important of all are the indigenous people, the Eskimos, so apt to be wiped out by the white man's high science. The companies have, in fact, not been able to find jobs for many of the Eskimos. But large sums from land sales and leases have accrued to an Eskimo corporation. Through that corporate body, the Eskimos now own and manage various services. It seems indicative to me that the other day, when an oil executive was complaining about red tape, an Eskimo shot back that the problem was white tape.
I have not seen enought of the North Slope to render conclusive judgements - the more so as I am ignorant of native conditions here. But from what I have seen, an important principle arises. The answer to the problem of modern life does not lie in turning technology off or arresting growth, as prescribed by the cultural pessimists. The lesson of the Arctic is that a far better way to cure the problems caused by technology is to address those difficulties directly with more technology.