Resisting the War on Alaska’s Arctic with Multispecies Justice

In her 2010 Sydney Peace Prize acceptance speech, Vandana Shiva asserted that the “bigger war”—bigger than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—was “the war against the planet.”

With the slogan to make the United States “energy dominant,” the Trump administration, aided by Alaska’s congressional delegation and the State of Alaska, has unleashed an expansive war on the Arctic. The specifics of this attack can be summarized with a brief timeline:

6 December 2017: The Department of Interior offered the largest-ever oil and gas lease sales within the inappropriately named and eco-culturally significant National Petroleum Reserve, home of the largest wetland complex in the Circumpolar North, the Teshekpuk Lake wetland. In this lease sale, a total of nine hundred tracts, covering more than sixteen thousand square miles, were offered. But the response from the oil industry was tepid, resulting in only seven bids totaling $1.16 million in revenue split between the federal and state governments.

22 December 2017: President Trump signed the highly unpopular Republican tax bill, which authorizes oil and gas development in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a biological nursery of global significance and a place the Indigenous Gwich’in people of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

4 January 2018: The Department of Interior released a draft five-year (2019-2024) offshore oil and gas leasing plan that aims to open up nearly all of US federal offshore water—more than a billion acres—to oil and gas development. The plan includes nineteen lease sales in Alaska, including six in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic, which are rich in biological diversity and are among the least understood and most ecologically complex seas on earth.

This swift and reckless attack on Alaska’s Arctic comes at a time of rapid warming, which is having profound impacts on biotic life and Indigenous communities. More than a decade ago two important publications first documented some of those impacts. In 2002, The Earth Is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, noted that “the residents of the Circumpolar North, especially the indigenous communities, are already witnessing disturbing and severe climatic and ecological changes” (355). Two years later, Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment warned that “biological diversity is most at risk from climate change in this sub-region [Alaska, Western Canadian Arctic, Chukotka, and adjacent seas] because it is currently home to the highest number of threatened plant and animal species in the Arctic” (19).

By attempting to turn significant biological nurseries and feeding grounds in Alaska’s Arctic into oil fields, in the midst of accelerated Arctic warming and the sixth mass species extinction, the Department of Interior is laying the groundwork for an ecocide. This attack also represents a possible ethnocide for Indigenous peoples who rely on the biotic life.

The Indigenous Gwich’in people say, “we are the caribou people,” as they depend on the Porcupine caribou herd for nutritional, cultural, and spiritual sustenance. They have done so for millennia. The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge where drilling has been authorized is the calving and nursing ground of the herd. Similarly, the Indigenous Iñupiat people of northern Alaska call the Arctic seas, “Our Garden,” and themselves, “People of the Whales,” as they depend on the whales and other marine life of the Beaufort and the Chukchi seas for sustenance.

Oil and gas exploration and development in the Arctic Refuge, the National Petroleum Reserve, and in the Beaufort and the Chukchi seas will endanger food security and health and violate Indigenous human rights.

The expansion of fossil fuels development in the Arctic is also “incommensurate” with the efforts to mitigate climate change, a recent study in Nature concludes. But the proponents of Arctic drilling ignore such warnings. Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott argued in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last November that the revenue from oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “will allow us to invest in climate change adaptation and modification and promote an energy transition” (3). This is a profoundly reckless argument that ignores the long-term devastation caused by fossil fuel development to fixate instead on short-term revenue schemes. If the richest nation on earth argues that we need more oil and gas development to mitigate climate change, then other less affluent oil-producing nations may also decide to embrace similar rhetoric.

With this discouraging background in mind, how, then, do we fight the war on Alaska’s Arctic?

With multispecies justice.

Multispecies justice is not theory or analysis: it is praxis. It brings concerns and conservation of biotic life and habitats into alignment with environmental justice and Indigenous rights. These social movements are often at odds with one another. This is because environmental conservation has had a long colonial history with crimes committed against Indigenous peoples, people of color, and poor peoples around the world.

A little-known story from Alaska’s Arctic, though, changes our understanding of that adversarial relationship and revises the history of environmental justice. The campaign to stop Project Chariot was not only the first major environmental justice campaign but also the first major multispecies justice campaign.

In the 1950s physicist Edward Teller and his team developed the hydrogen bomb in New Mexico. Armed with the new technology, Teller went to Alaska in 1958 to promote Project Chariot. The plan was to create a deep-water harbor by detonating several thermonuclear bombs about thirty miles southeast of the Iñupiat village of Point Hope along the Chukchi Sea coast in northwest Alaska. If the project had been executed as planned the combined radiation from the blasts would have been equivalent to about 160 times the radiation from the Hiroshima blast, and the US government would have inflicted a crime of epic proportion on the Indigenous peoples and animals of the Arctic. The Iñupiat people of Point Hope organized a movement to stop the project. With assistance from three scientists and a handful of environmentalists, the people of Point Hope defeated the most powerful federal government agency of its time, the US Atomic Energy Commission. In August 1962, Project Chariot was shelved. The story of Project Chariot is told in Dan O’Neill’s book, The Firecracker Boys, and in a documentary film, Project Chariot, directed by Iñupiaq filmmaker Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, which is accessible online.

Standard histories of environmentalism and environmental justice usually go something like this: Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, first published in 1962, sounded the alarm about industrial pollution and sparked the modern environmental movement. In 1969, the Santa Barbara offshore oil spill finally galvanized public action, which in turn led to governmental policy changes. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and about twenty million people participated in the first Earth Day. This movement, however, was primarily led by a reasonably affluent white population and largely ignored the concerns of people of color and poor communities. Eventually, the work of Arturo Sandoval, Richard Moore, Robert Bullard, and others began to highlight race and class silence in the modern environmental movement, which in 1991 led to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. The story of Project Chariot is missing from this familiar narrative of environmental justice. Take for example, the recently published, nearly 700-page tome, The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice—there is no mention of Project Chariot.

With Project Chariot included, the story of environmental justice would go like this: The first major grassroots environmental justice campaign in the United States was led by Indigenous people of Arctic Alaska, with assistance from white scientists and environmentalists. In addition, Dan O’Neill points out in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Chariot “occasioned the first integrated bioenvironmental study—the progenitor of the modern environmental impact statement” (28). The study and the campaign raised alarm about the potential impacts on Indigenous people and the nonhuman biotic life that the people relied upon for sustenance.

Alaska and New Mexico got connected in an uncanny manner at the dawn of multispecies justice sixty years ago. Recently, they came together again.

From 21 February through 23 February 2018, I convened The Last Oil: A Multispecies Justice Symposium on Arctic Alaska and Beyond at the University of New Mexico. It was the first national symposium to apprehend the Trump administration’s reckless Arctic energy policy and to bring northern Indigenous struggles into conversation with similar struggles in New Mexico.

Shortly after the symposium, in early March, senior Department of Interior officials visited Alaska to lay the groundwork for oil lease sales in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On 7 March, while the Interior officials were meeting inside the Noel Wien Public Library in Fairbanks, Defend the Sacred Alaska organized a rally outside the library to protest the Department of Interior’s plan. A photograph from that rally, Arctic Refuge—Defend the Sacred Alaska Rally, which accompanies this essay, shows what multispecies justice looks like on the ground.

A lot of work lies ahead. A US-Canada binational coalition of Indigenous human rights, environmental conservation, environmental law, and climate justice organizations are working together now to defend Alaska’s Arctic. There are at least six key initiatives in this struggle: (1) Indigenous-led grassroots efforts are taking place in Alaska and the Yukon; (2) environmental conservation and Indigenous policy efforts are engaging various branches of government in the US and Canada; (3) legal efforts are taking a close look at various executive actions and considering potential future lawsuits; (4) corporate campaigns are targeting banks that may finance Arctic drilling and oil companies that may decide to drill in the Arctic; (5) educational outreach efforts and engagement with the press and media; and (6) international initiatives, including engaging with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. These activists say “the fight for Alaska’s Arctic has just begun.”

On 20 April 2018, the Department of Interior announced a Notice of Intent (NOI) to initiate an expedited process for oil and gas leasing, exploration and development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The public comment period on the NOI will end on 19 June 2018. Historian Finis Dunaway in Canada and I have co-organized an international letter campaign, “Scholars for Defending the Arctic Refuge,” as part of this public comment process. We intend this letter to be a form of praxis, a way to galvanize scholars from around the world and from a wide range of disciplines and practices in a struggle for multispecies justice. You, as a reader of this essay, can lend your voice by endorsing the letter.

cover image: Arctic Refuge—Defend the Sacred Alaska rally, Fairbanks, 7 March 2018. Photograph by Pamela A. Miller.

Subhankar Banerjee

Activist, artist, and scholar Subhankar Banerjee is Lannan Chair and a professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. He is author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. Banerjee works closely with Gwich’in and Iñupiat communities and conservation organizations to defend Alaska’s Arctic from destructive extractivism.