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Subhankar Banerjee: Shell Game in the Arctic

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As Klare writes in his new book, The Race for What's Left, "Drilling for oil and natural gas in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Pacific is likely to accelerate in the years ahead" Even the ecological damage wreaked by the Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 is not likely to slow this drive." He adds that "the giant oil companies will spend an estimated $387 billion on offshore drilling operations between 2010 and 2014."

In other words, we're in a drill, baby, drill world, even when it comes to the most perilous of watery environments, and if the major energy companies have their way, there will be no turning back until the oceans are, essentially, a garbage dump.

From Standing on the Seashore to Interconnectedness

Of his epic photographic series Seascapes, artist Hiroshi Sugimoto wrote, "Can someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have?... Although the land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable."

All his seascapes are black-and-white with equal part sky and sea -- and in them the oceans do indeed look pristine and immutable.  If you stand on the shore of any ocean today, the waters may still look that way to you.  Unfortunately, we now know that those waters are increasingly anything but.

Seeing blue whales breaching and feeding is indeed a thrill and does breed an urge for protection and conservation, but what we see on the surface of the planet's oceans is only a miniscule fraction of all their life. It is possible that we know more about outer space than we do about what actually lives in the depths of those waters. And that catches something of the conundrum facing us as they are exploited and polluted past some tipping point: How do we talk about protecting what we can't even see?

Despite inadequacies, faults, and failures, the conservation movement to protect public lands in the U.S. has been something of a triumph, providing enjoyment for us and crucially needed habitat for many species with whom we share this Earth. Any of us, paying little or nothing, can enjoy public lands of various sizes, shapes, and varieties: national parks, national forests, officially designated wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges, state parks, city parks.

The success of land conservation, I'd suggest, was founded on one simple idea -- walking. Henry David Thoreau's famous essay "Walking" began as a lecture he gave at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851, and was published in 1862 after his death in the Atlantic Monthly. Environmentalist John Muir made the connection between walking and land conservation explicit through his unforgettably lyrical prose about hiking the mountains of California.

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Later, novelist Edward Abbey showed us how to walk in the desert, and also gave us a recipe for "monkey wrenching" -- forms of sabotage to protest environmental destruction and in defense of conservation that is alive and well today. There have been so many others who have written about walking on, and in, the land: Mary Austin, Margaret Murie, David Abram, William deBuys, Rebecca Solnit, and Terry Tempest Williams, among others. But this simplest of free and democratic ideas that helped make public lands familiar and inspired their conservation against industrial destruction falls away completely when we enter the oceanic realm.

We cannot walk in the ocean, or hike there, or camp there, or from its depths sit and contemplate our situation and nature's.  All we can do is stand on its shores and watch, or swim or surf its edges, or boat and float across its surface.  The oceans are not us.  We lack fins, we lack gills.  We are not naturally invested in our oceans and their riches, which are such potentially lucrative assets for those who want to profit off them -- and destroy them in the process.

Nonetheless, for their conservation, somehow we need to learn to walk those waters.  It's not enough to have the necessary set of grim facts, figures, and information about how they are being endangered. We need a philosophy, an "ocean ethics" akin to the "land ethics" that environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote about in his seminal book A Sand County Almanac. We don't have it yet, but a good place to start would be with the idea of "interconnectedness."

It's a very old idea, as German poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, "The truth was known already, long ago." Rachel Carson, for instance, gave meaning to interconnectedness on land in her famed book Silent Spring, published in 1962, by linking the fate of bird species to the rise of industrial toxins.  She symbolically linked the potential extinction of species like that national symbol the Bald Eagle, whose numbers had plummeted from an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states to about 400 in the early 1960s, to our own sense of well- or ill-being. The time has come to connect in a similar way the fate of marine life with the rise of offshore drilling, climate change, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, and industrial overfishing.

As I can attest from my decade-long engagement with the far north, the Arctic is no longer the remote place disconnected from our daily lives that we imagine. In fact, I often think about it as the most connected place on Earth.

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The tiny semipalmated sandpipers, a shorebird I can see along East Coast beaches any fall, is the same species I saw nesting each summer along the Beaufort Sea coast, near where Shell plans to drill. Hundreds of millions of birds migrate to the Arctic from every corner of the planet annually to rear their young -- a celebration of interconnectedness. But so do industrial toxins migrate to the Arctic from every region of the world, making humans and animals in some parts of the far north among the most contaminated inhabitants of the planet -- a tragedy of interconnectedness.

What happens there will also affect us in frightening ways. The rapid disintegration and melting of Arctic icebergs, glaciers, and sea ice is projected to raise global sea levels, threatening coastal cities across the northern hemisphere. And the melting of the Arctic permafrost and of frozen areas of the seafloor is likely to release huge amounts of methane (about 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas) that could prove potentially catastrophic for the planet. This is why the time has come to focus on oceanic interconnectedness -- if we hope to save our oceans and the planet as we have known it.

For more than a century, environmental organizations have focused on lobbying Congress as a (if not the) primary strategy for supporting land conservation against industrial destruction. But in the age of Citizens United, Big Oil and King Coal will certainly outspend the lobbying efforts of these organizations by orders of magnitude. In addition, when it comes to the oceans, Congress plays a minor role, at least so far.  Most of the crucial decisions go through the executive branch.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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