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We Are Custodians Not Owners
At 19 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest refuge in the United States. It’s home to polar bears, grizzly bears, seals, wolves, wolverine, migratory birds from six continents, musk ox, and caribou herds that make the longest land migration on earth. There are no roads, it’s prehistoric and almost completely inaccessible, making its value easy to forget. As Congress crafts their tax reform, they are once again attempting to open Section 1002 of the ANWR to the oil industry (Phippen). For 65 years Republicans have fought to open up the ANWR, now is their golden chance - as they only need a majority vote - to dig, trench, and drill America’s last great wilderness.
Why is drilling in the ANWR back on the table? Drilling in the Arctic is tough and expensive. A recent report by the Center for American Progress says that taking into account the expenses of drilling in ANWR, oil companies would have make $78 per barrel just to break even, which is well above the current rate of $56. There’s also the cost of litigation, as environmentalists would undoubtedly sue. In addition, the United States is not in need of more oil as from 2008-2014 the US doubled its oil reserves, we’re in a glut. There are two months of consecutive darkness and freezing weather. When it’s too warm, the ground is as stable as a soggy pillow - a condition that has gotten only worse with climate change. But, Alaska's state budget suffers from a 2.5 billion dollar deficit and drilling for oil in ANWR is the quickest and easiest solution (Phippen). David Houseknetch, a senior researcher with the US Geological Survey, worked on the last seismic survey of ANWR and believes ANWR to have between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of oil. If this proves true, ANWR would become the largest producing field in North America.
But, if opened, it would be years before a pipeline was installed and by then, oil may no longer be a profitable source of energy. Senator Lisa Murkowski claims drilling in the ANWR will, “..create thousands of good jobs that support families and help put kids through college.” However, the practices of searching for fossil fuels endanger both people and wildlife. The inhabitants of Nuiqsut, an Alaska village surrounded by oil and gas industry, suffer from chronic respiratory diseases caused by the particulate-matter pollution and natural gas flares (Meyer). The Aamjiwnaang, a indigenous community in southern Ontario, live near a petrochemical plant and health problems have plagued them. Between 1993-2003 the birth rate of boys drastically declined due to exposure to dangerous chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls. During that decade, only ? of their population was male. So relying on fossil fuels and extractivism for prosperity is short-sighted and unsustainable. We need to start thinking about long-term prosperity.
Why is drilling in the wilderness an issue? Wilderness provides refuge for species and ecosystems from threats such as forest degradation and the spread of diseases. Large, intact forests are more resistant to external stressors and give species options in space and time. They are able to cope with the impacts of large scale disturbances, such as wildfires and climate change, and therefore able to sustain ecological processes, such as long-distance migration, and maximize species’ adaptive capacities (Mackey and Rogers).
Three of the four major herds in Alaska are in severe decline, the only herd not affected is the porcupine caribou herd. Every year, more than 160,000 porcupine caribou migrate across the Arctic tundra. They begin in the meadows of the Porcupine River and travel north through the plains of ANWR until they arrive in their calving grounds in Alaska’s coastal plains, which are part of Section 1002. The Gwich’in, an indigenous tribe, have migrated with the porcupine caribou for 20,000 years. (Meyers). Drilling in caribou calving grounds will not only disrupt the caribou’s 2 million year old migration route but will be a direct attack to the Gwich’in way of life. Much of what we consider wilderness is in fact the ancestral territory of indigenous people like the Gwich'in; the land that they have cared for and treasured for generations. It’s value transcends utility, it consists of sights and practices that connect these people with their past, which is significant to them because of what their predecessors actions or values. It’s their heritage, it’s what defines them as a community. We have the responsibility to protect our heritage and pass it on to further generations.
Drilling in ANWR would ruin America’s last great wilderness and land that for centuries has been home to indigenous people. It would destroy fragile ecosystems and wipe out entire species. We have a responsibility to ensure that for every resource we use, we leave one of equal value to the future generations (Collier). Not doing so is a slightly more sophisticated version of plunder, yet still plunder. Societies collapse if they over consume their natural resources. A famous example are the inhabitants of Easter Island. They were a prosperous society but their systematic destruction of their forests for rolling logs decimated their natural resources leading them to the wretched state in which the Europeans found them. There are worrying parallels between collapsed societies of the past and our own society.
Our corporate capitalism is committed to the relentless pursuit of growth at all costs, it will ravage our planet within a generation and leave nothing for those to come. Focusing on short-term growth occurs at the expense of the long term. Short-term growth, which is counted in a country’s GDP, depends on the natural capital of our land. But if this growth damages our natural capital and we will soon not be able to make any sort of capital at all.
Our short-sightedness and extractivism will destroy our world. The responsibility for environmental management lies with the public, not with corporations. We need to build a new system, one that balances economic growth with sustainability. A system that focuses on stewardship and custody instead of ownership and exploitation.
Collier, Paul. The Plundered Planet: Why We Must and How We Can Manage Nature for Global Prosperity. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Mackey, Brendan, and Nicole Rogers. "Explainer: Wilderness, and Why It Matters." The Conversation. The Conversation, 01 Mar. 2018. Web. 06 Mar. 2018.
Meyer, Robinson. "The GOP Tax Bill Could Forever Alter Alaska's Indigenous Tribes." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 02 Dec. 2017. Web. 08 Mar. 2018.
Phippen, J. Weston. "The Dollars and Sense of Drilling in ANWR." Outside Online. Outside Online, 22 Nov. 2017. Web. 06 Mar. 2018.