In this July 18, 2018 photo, an 18-year-old sow black bear, tag number 25, escorts her two cubs of the year along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

In this July 18, 2018 photo, an 18-year-old sow black bear, tag number 25, escorts her two cubs of the year along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

A resolution for a sustainable new year

We face a future with great challenges.

Last week in the Empire, an editorial cartoon offered a high-tech take on New Year’s Eve symbolism. Typically in New Year’s Eve cartoons, a wizened Father Time hands over his hourglass to Baby New Year in a scene of continuity and rebirth. In this version, however, Father Time looks up astounded as 2019 hurdles toward him in the form of an hourglass-shaped, quadcopter drone — no baby in sight. The artist catches Father Time mid-stride, sand still left in his hourglass, suggesting a different relationship to the future than New Year’s cartoons usually convey: that definitively modern one of risk and disruption.

On the one hand, the drone’s faceless nature and the premature obsolescence it forces on Father Time evoke the chaos that algorithms and automation runamok have wrecked over the past year in civil society. On the other hand, its squiggly flight across the cartoon frame seems almost lighthearted, a bit of fun poked at the next generation’s unaccountable new toys. For all its topical urgency and invitation to interpretation, however, one thing the cartoon doesn’t do is change the plot of our New Year’s stories. Whether Father Time peacefully passes on his hourglass and retires, or gets terminated by the hourglass-drone, the same ending remains: out with the old, in with the new, as if this were the nature of time itself.

[An autumnal mediation on salmon and sustainable decision making]

Thinking sustainability is fundamentally a practice of thinking time. And if the past year’s challenges to our society’s economic and ecological sustainability have taught us anything, it’s that our sense of time needs to be much more nuanced, yet also broader. We aren’t on a river flowing forward, as Heraclitus had it some 2,500 years ago, but riding something more like tides, coming and going, awash with rips and undertows. In terms of thinking a sustainable Alaska, that means situating decisions about our health and wealth within a much broader historical context than our public discourse commonly acknowledges.

What would it look like to widen the cartoon frame, beyond the instant of disruption, and beyond its conception of futurity as primarily a matter of technological advancement — for those who can afford it — rather than a more equitably livable, sustainable world? What else would the artist need to include? For one thing, we’d need to see who’s controlling the New Year’s drone. In terms of thinking a sustainable Alaska, that means looking ahead to see who, and in pursuit of what values, are flying their preferred versions of the future our way. Equally, it means looking around us, honoring, for example, Alaskan indigenous intellectual authority established and refined since always, alongside the diversity of others who call this place home. And it means zooming out further, to understand who will inherit the particular futures we bring into being.

[The problem with fossil fuels]

Perhaps nowhere is this wider perspective more needed than with regard to Alaska’s changing climate, whose collective impacts on our economy, environment and ways of life are one of the single greatest challenges we face. These impacts, already visible around us, are altering Alaskan cultures and ecosystems millennia in the making, and will do so for far longer than we are accustomed to looking, beyond the next election, or economic boom, or bust. It’s telling that religious institutions, long accustomed to looking before the beginning and beyond the future, are increasingly addressing climate change and its human impacts as a matter of justice — the sustainability of one’s own soul, not just other species.

Another institution that sheds light on where we’re going in part by understanding where we’ve been is the University of Alaska Southeast, tasked specifically with developing and disseminating the knowledge needed to meet Alaska’s challenges. As we move into 2019, let’s plan ahead for the sustainability of the institution that plans ahead for the sustainability of our state. Let’s resolve to support higher education in Alaska, else we find ourselves like the aforementioned Father Time, caught unprepared for a future that is always and already arriving.


• Dr. Will Elliott is a Term Assistant Professor at the University of Alaska Southeast and lives in Juneau. Dr. Elliott is a member of the University of Alaska Southeast Sustainability Committee. “Sustainable Alaska” is a monthly column, appearing on the first Friday of every month. It’s written by UAS Sustainability Committee members who wanted to promote sustainability. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Alaska Southeast.


A resolution for a sustainable new year

More in Home

Rep. Sara Hannan (right) offers an overview of this year’s legislative session to date as Rep. Andi Story and Sen. Jesse Kiehl listen during a town hall by Juneau’s delegation on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Multitude of education issues, budget, PFD among top areas of focus at legislative town hall

Juneau’s three Democratic lawmakers reassert support of more school funding, ensuring LGBTQ+ rights.

Allison Gornik plays the lead role of Alice during a rehearsal Saturday of Juneau Dance Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland,” which will be staged at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé for three days starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
An ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that requires quick thinking on and off your feet

Ballet that Juneau Dance Theatre calls its most elaborate production ever opens Friday at JDHS.

Danielle Brubaker shops for homeschool materials at the IDEA Homeschool Curriculum Fair in Anchorage on Thursday. A court ruling struck down the part of Alaska law that allows correspondence school families to receive money for such purchases. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Lawmakers to wait on Alaska Supreme Court as families reel in wake of correspondence ruling

Cash allotments are ‘make or break’ for some families, others plan to limit spending.

A waterfront view of Marine Parking Garage with the windows of the Juneau Public Library visible on the top floor. “Welcome” signs in several languages greet ships on the dock pilings below. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)
The story of the Marine Parking Garage: Saved by the library

After surviving lawsuit by Gold Rush-era persona, building is a modern landmark of art and function.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of the Inupiaq village of Nuiqsut, at the area where a road to the Willow project will be built in the North Slope of Alaska, March 23, 2023. The Interior Department said it will not permit construction of a 211-mile road through the park, which a mining company wanted for access to copper deposits. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Biden shields millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness from drilling and mining

The Biden administration expanded federal protections across millions of acres of Alaskan… Continue reading

Caribou cross through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in their 2012 spring migration. A 211-mile industrial road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to build would pass through Gates of the Arctic and other areas used by the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest in North America. Supporters, including many Alaska political leaders, say the road would provide important economic benefits. Opponents say it would have unacceptable effects on the caribou. (Photo by Zak Richter/National Park Service)
Alaska’s U.S. senators say pending decisions on Ambler road and NPR-A are illegal

Expected decisions by Biden administration oppose mining road, support more North Slope protections.

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 13. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House members propose constitutional amendment to allow public money for private schools

After a court ruling that overturned a key part of Alaska’s education… Continue reading

Newly elected tribal leaders are sworn in during the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s 89th annual Tribal Assembly on Thursday at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)
New council leaders, citizen of year, emerging leader elected at 89th Tribal Assembly

Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson elected unopposed to sixth two-year term.

Most Read