Editor's note: Our blogger has relocated to Dawson City, Yukon, for a three-month stint as writer-in-residence in the Klondike, 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle and more than 300 miles north of the nearest chain store. Below is his first dispatch from one of the coldest and most unique places on the planet.

A gold rush is, at base, pretty much the polar opposite of what we mean by sustainable. When we want to describe a certain kind of thinking focused on high-risk, short-term goals at the expense of all else, we call it a gold rush mentality. This is particularly true when it comes to building strong communities and durable cities, where a gold-rush approach is synonymous with poor planning and rapid, unsustainable growth.

And yet here’s Dawson City, the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, more than 100 years old and still thriving enough to support a permanent population of more than 1,300, host 60,000 tourists each year, and welcome a new writer-in-residence at Berton House – childhood home of Canadian-household-name writer and historian Pierre Berton – every three months.

I’m the current occupant of Berton House, and though I just arrived three weeks ago and certainly wouldn’t dare say anything categorical about Dawson just yet, I already suspect it’s got a few unexpected things to tell me about what sustainability is. It’s a town that overflows with surprising true stories and tall tales that turn out to be real – there’s a guy called “Caveman Bill,” for example, who lives off the grid in a cave just across the Yukon River, year-round, within a couple hundred miles of the Arctic Circle – and so for the next couple months I’ll be sharing the ones that seem most relevant to my usual themes of sustainability and resilience. 

By way of introduction, here’s some background on Dawson. (It’s also one of the settings for Discovery’s reality TV series "Gold Rush.") Here’s the (very) short version: At the peak of the gold rush in 1898, Dawson City was the largest city west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco, a boisterous boomtown of 40,000 (though the North West Mounted Police, precursor to the RCMP, kept things a lot less lawless than U.S. frontier towns). By 1911, the population was less than 1,000, a more appropriate scale for the modest gold mining industry the Klondike deposits could support. I’m sure it only seemed a matter of time before the city-turned-village was a ghost town.

But gold mining carried on and the Klondike legend (and the dozens of surviving Klondike structures in downtown Dawson) started to draw tourists and dreamers. Skagway, Alaska, became a cruise-ship port of call, and a bus trip the Klondike gold rush town with the cabaret shows and casino and can-can girls in period costume became a popular excursion. And more recently, the spiking price of gold has given a boost to the local mining industry. And so Dawson entered the 21st century as stable as it’s ever been.

I won’t pretend to know much more than that about Dawson yet, aside from the fact that it’s ridiculously welcoming, particularly given that it’s the dead of winter, when the skies are dark 20 hours a day and the temperature frequently flirts with minus 40 degrees F, and even the heartiest of Klondike souls could be forgiven for hibernating under a thick down comforter or escaping to Puerto Vallarta for a spell.

That said, I will float a trio of hypotheses that I’m guessing may guide a lot of my investigations of sustainability Dawson-style.

1. Prediction is a mug’s game. Dawson has always been a gambler’s haven, and I’m sure you couldn’t have found many people in the local gambling halls back in 1911 willing to take your bet that Dawson – then pop. 615 and plummeting – would survive into the 21st century, let alone that it would welcome 60,000 tourists every year.

Climate scientists can show us the parameters of our future climate in 20 years or 50, and energy forecasters can extrapolate current trends to show some pretty thorny supply crunches ahead. But in anything other than the short term, it’s anyone’s guess how human populations will respond. Which means that when we’re thinking about sustainability – in Dawson or anywhere else – we’re mainly talking about taking actions now that will allow us to respond better to an unknowable future, not to safeguard that future on some known trajectory. If someone tells you that we must do X or we’re doomed in 2050, take it with a big ole nugget of salt. They’re playing in the kind of fuzzy terrain that couldn’t have possibly predicted, even 10 years ago, that economic calamity in 2008 would trigger a modest second gold rush in the Klondike.

2. Culture and community are as valuable sustainability-building tools as any given technology. Actually probably moreso. It’s another failure of predictive models: they underestimate the resilience and tenacity of actual communities that people have decided to invest deeply in.

Before I got to Dawson, I heard from numerous people that it was a ridiculously friendly place. This turns out to be, if anything, an understatement: it is such a singularly cohesive place that I probably already know more of the people I interact with in my daily routine of errands and shopping than I do in my downtown Calgary neighborhood.

And what this means is not just that Dawson’s got a great little art gallery and a fantastic film festival and that when the beloved watering hole Bombay Peggy’s closes for the winter months, there’s a group of people who organize regular Friday-night get-togethers in a rotating series of homes to give everyone somewhere else to knock back a few drinks. It means that people are collectively invested in making the town work, despite its isolated location and harsh climate and dark winters and the rest.

An example: there is no public transport of any sort in Dawson City. No intercity buses in the winter months, not even a single taxi. There’s an airport shuttle run by a local hotel that stays open through the winter, but it’s just for guests. But if you land at Dawson airport without a ride, someone who’s there to pick up someone else will offer you one. As the Berton House writer landing at Dawson last weekend, I had someone meeting me. The bewildered Danish tourist standing next to me didn’t. My ride became his ride. If you get yourself here, you will be looked after.

If people are sufficiently invested in their community, in other words, they will find a way to meet challenges and keep it humming along. This is a hugely powerful force for sustainability. The more connected we are, the better prepared we’ll be to survive calamities in the years to come. And Dawson’s way better prepared than the average.

3. Resilience is a toolkit, not a prescription. This is a sort of corollary to the previous point. Dawson City is resilient in ways that, say, Manhattan is not, and vulnerable in different ways as well. And vice-versa. When we talk about enhancing the resilience of a community, the common goal will require a much different set of tools in Dawson than it will in Manhattan or anywhere else. (I realize this probably sounds obvious, but something about Dawson’s isolation and improbable survival brings the point into particularly high relief.)

When I first started writing and talking about sustainability and cleantech in the mid-oughts, a lot of attention was being paid to carbon footprints, and so naturally a great many organizations and communities sought to shrink or erase theirs. These were noble goals, to be sure, but the singleminded focus on the numbers game left entirely too many other issues unaddressed and unresolved.

In my hometown of Calgary, there’s a new community of hyper-efficient, net-zero homes being planned for the outer-belt suburb of Rocky Ridge. Residents will have no carbon footprint – until they decide to go anywhere at all, at which point they’ll be be pretty much obliged to drive. This is not to denigrate the community’s admirable efforts at footprint reduction, merely to point out that the gas-furnace houses of Dawson, arranged close together on a compact, walkable 1898 grid, make up a community at least as resilient as any given outer-belt suburb, no matter how advanced its cleantech might be.

Which brings me back to my main point: I think Dawson’s got some lessons to teach us all. Keep watching this space for the next couple of months for tales of green Klondike gold.

To trade tales of the Klondike 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

Related sustainability story on MNN: 3 reasons why Copenhagen is the world leader in urban sustainability

Sustainability tales from the Klondike
Dawson City might seem like the last place to look for innovations in sustainability. But its surprising resilience has lots to teach us.