"Regardless of the beauty of the scenery, if an individual is cold, hungry, or unemployed, he is in an ugly environment."
--From "Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution," by former Alaska governor Walter J. Hickel
No stranger to national politics and well-known in Beltway circles, two-time former Alaska governor Walter Hickel recently penned a letter to President George W. Bush.
"I told him 'I support what you're doing,'" Hickel explained in a phone interview, "'but next time, you should skip the war and go straight to the Marshall Plan.'"
Hickel's point, that economic relief is essential to peace and prosperity, was, apparently, not lost on the president, who sought Hickel out at a White House reception shortly after receiving the letter to compliment him on its contents.
That Hickel's ideas should still be turning heads in Washington, even after years of being out of public life, is not surprising. The longtime Alaskan, who has been instrumental in Alaska's evolution since before statehood, has devoted his life to making Alaska a better place for all -- not just the privileged few. In many ways, Hickel is synonymous with Alaska.
With his just-released book, "Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution," Hickel offers up a solution to human suffering not just for the country, but for the entire world. His approach, gleaned from a lifetime of accrued practical knowledge, is as fresh as it is thoughtful. Above all else, though, it is warmly and deeply human.
"This is not a book against anything," Hickel said. "It's just an idea, because the world is owned in common. ... We have poverty because the commons is not managed to benefit all."
Hickel's concept of "the commons" refers to publicly owned land and resources. The crisis referred to in the book's title is the way in which the commons is managed. In the book's opening chapter, Hickel explains, "our future depends on learning to use and develop this commons for the good of the total, and not just for the few."
It is an idea derived from a life lived in Alaska, where nearly 90 percent of the land is publicly owned and residents over the years have helped forge the nation's only "Owner State," as Hickel calls it.
"Using neither classic capitalism nor socialism, we have developed a new way to prosperity, based on common ownership and rooted in constitutional democracy," he writes. "Alaska today is a diamond, a brilliant star, a state with an outstanding quality of life, celebrating a glorious natural environment and a robust, healthy economy. We are now ready to share what we have learned with the world."
Hickel puts forth, in a straightforward and common-sense manner, the idea that Alaskans have learned much from the "obligation of ownership." That obligation involves both being good stewards of commonly owned land and resources and electing leaders who will further the common good, rather than the good of their corporate sponsors.
As governor of Alaska, first from 1966-69, then again from 1990-94, Hickel likened his role in protecting the commons for the good of all to being the foreman of a ranch.
"The governor here has got to be able to stand up to BP, or whomever, and say, 'this is the way we want it done,'" Hickel said. "You've got to be very careful."
He took his knowledge to Washington in 1969, when he was called to serve by President Nixon, who gave Hickel charge of the entire nation's commons as Secretary of the Interior.
His experience as a world traveler also showed Hickel the negative impact of exploited resources.
"In Africa, I've seen tremendously rich countries with poor people. That's the problem," he said.
Now, Hickel's simple thesis -- that there are, in the world's commons, riches enough for all -- is outlined with great clarity, vitality and passion in an instantly engaging, compelling and immensely readable fashion. "Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution" is filled with hope and compassion. By sharing his remarkable vision for a better world, Hickel solidifies his stature as an Alaska treasure, offering up in the process a bounty of riches for the benefit of humanity.
Stan Pitlo is the publisher of the Peninsula Clarion and director of Alaska newspapers for Morris Communications Corp.
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