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Chronicling the War of Nature vs. Greed: A Review of “Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point“

The collected essays of Native Alaskans, environmental activists, scientists and researchers form a counternarrative to Big Oil’s PR blitz in the increasingly polluted Northern Hemisphere.

Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point
Edited by Subhankar Banerjee
Seven Stories Press
New York, 2012

According to editor Subhankar Banerjee, “the Arctic is warming at a rate double that of the rest of the planet.” This, of course, has already had a discernible impact on the animals, fish and people of the region – and beyond. As rising temperatures have put many scientists and everyday folks on high alert, they are increasingly primed for battle against profit-hungry corporations and the drill-baby-drill crowd, who see the Arctic’s immense stock of coal, oil and other natural resources as a tremendous boon – environment be damned.

The 31 essays in “Arctic Voices” contest this destructive greed. Some focus on the indigenous cultures that stand to be eradicated by the folly of energy companies; others address the visible destruction of the lands and waters of Alaska, Russia, Iceland and Greenland. Dozens of photos – both black-and-white and color – hammer the realities of contamination and pollution. It’s a sobering read, especially for urban dwellers whose existence is far removed from the subsistence lifestyle of the Gwich’in, Inupiat and Inuit people.

“We’re all connected to the northern hemisphere,” Banerjee writes in an introduction to the volume: “

Hundreds of millions of birds migrate to the Arctic each spring from every corner of the earth – including Yellow Wagtail from Kolkata – for nesting and rearing their young and resting – a planetary celebration of global interconnectedness. On the other hand, caribou, whale and fish migrate hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, connecting numerous indigenous communities through subsistence food harvests – local and regional interconnectedness. However, daily industrial toxins migrate to the Arctic from every part of our planet, making animals and humans of the Arctic among the most contaminated inhabitants of the earth.

Indeed, Banerjee notes that the breast milk of women in Greenland and northern Canada is “as toxic as hazardous waste.” Additionally, author Marla Cone, in an excerpt from a book entitled “Silent Snow,” presents evidence that Inuit women, who eat a diet rich in whale and seal meat, have high levels of mercury and PCBs in their bodies. As a result, when they breast feed, these poisons are passed to their offspring, putting them at risk of cancer and other diseases.

But let’s step back a bit. Martha Shaa Tlaa Williams’ essay, “A Brief History of Native Solidarity,” puts today’s crisis in historical perspective by zeroing in on the mistreatment of Native populations both before and subsequent to Alaskan statehood. As early as the 1920s, she reports, Native communities challenged racist laws that barred Indian children from public schools and took issue with pervasive stereotypes that viewed them as savage and unsanitary fodder for Christian missionaries. More than 30 years later, when Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, the average indigenous person had only a sixth-grade education, infant mortality rates were extremely high and tuberculosis was epidemic. Worse, the average lifespan of Alaskan Natives was just 34.7.

Despite these obvious problems, Williams writes that “the proverbial Phoenix rose from the ashes as a direct result of the Statehood Act.” The Act specifically said that the state could claim lands only if they were “vacant, unappropriated and unreserved,” but Williams concludes that the Alaskan government simply grabbed what it wanted.

The upshot was that indigenous people’s property rights were often trampled – land and waterways that had long been relied upon for sustenance were taken for nuclear testing and the building of massive dams. While Native people prevailed in stopping Project Chariot, a 1959 plan to detonate enormous atomic bombs on Alaska’s north slope, they have been less successful in stopping either dam construction or corporate avarice.

Pamela A. Miller’s “Broken Promises: The Reality of Big Oil in America’s Arctic,” presents the rationale for opening up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies. Essentially, pro-drilling forces have always argued that the process would not harm the environment. Take a statement issued by BP when Prudhoe Bay was first opened to development in the late 1970s: “No unsightly drilling rigs are left to mar the landscape; they are moved as soon as their task is done. Only a relatively small system of flow lines will be installed above ground to carry the oil from each well to the gathering centers. Formal clean-up programs keep Prudhoe Bay part of the wilderness.”

Not so, Miller writes. In fact, since oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the pipeline began removing it in 1977, an area the size of Rhode Island has been continually plundered. What’s more, more than 6,100 exploratory and production wells, 500 miles of roads, two refineries, 20 airports, 1,000 miles of pipelines, 27 production plants, hundreds of residences and numerous power plants have been erected and now cover 1,000 square miles of once-pristine land. “Prudhoe Bay air pollution emissions have been detected nearly 200 miles away in Barrow, Alaska,” Miller writes. “The oil industry on Alaska’s north slope annually emits approximately 70,413 tons of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog and acid rain. This is more than twice the amount emitted by Washington, D.C. according to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than many other U.S. cities.” Among the pollutants found: Carbon monoxide, methane, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds.

As if this weren’t heinous enough, Miller reports that more than one spill occurs each and every day. Although such accidents rarely make national news, she writes that there have been 6,000 spills of 2.7 million gallons since 1998. And predictably, recovery is nearly impossible due to ice, snow and cold, even in an era of global warming. Furthermore, Miller concludes that more than 100 sites are already badly contaminated – a fact substantiated by a 600 percent spike in respiratory illnesses in and around Prudhoe Bay.

That the oil industry shrugs this off – and minimizes the damage wrought by large-scale disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill and BP explosion – has not only enraged environmentalists, both Native and not, it has led to action and organizing. Indeed, for the first time in decades, Native groups have banded together to fight big oil and preserve the cultural continuity that has defined their people for tens of thousands of years. Their reverence for, and connection to, the earth – its animals, water, mountains and land – is beautifully described in “Arctic Voices,” and each essay is as much a prayer as a call to activism.

Despite the area’s relatively small population – on the American side, 65 Native communities are home to an estimated 27,500 people – their fierce commitment to their way of life makes them a force to be reckoned with. Just ask George W. Bush. Much to his displeasure, GWB’s attempt to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development was defeated thanks in part to opposition by a group called the Gwich’in Streering Committee. That said, the struggle is far from over, and the task remains twofold: to clean up the damage that has already been done and to stop further encroachment. It’s a tall order.

“Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point” is an eye-opening account of a precious place that few of us will ever visit. At the same time, the many writers included in the anthology not only share their love of nature, but also raise important questions about our reliance on oil, gas and coal. In addition, one basic point drives the collection. In the words of Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council: “The Arctic is the barometer of the health of the planet and if the Arctic is poisoned, so are we all.”

If she’s right, and there is plenty of scientific evidence to back her claim, we’re nearing the point of no return. The contributors to Arctic Voices – scientists, indigenous people, environmental activists, researchers and scholars – have given us the tools we need to understand the calamity. As Vandana Shiva, author of “Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development,” writes, “The earth and her beings have been speaking. We stay deaf at our peril.”

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