Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Ever since the March 16th passing of the US Senate's $2.8 trillion budget resolution for 2007, which included a $3 billion benefit from gas and oil leasing on the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), I've been deluged with letters and emails from conservation groups urging me to act immediately to save the refuge. What actions do they urge me to take? Improve my home's insulation? Ride my bicycle to work? Don't be silly! All I have to do to save ANWR is write them a check!

The debate about whether or not to drill in ANWR has been brewing quite publicly for several years, so you'd think we'd all understand the situation pretty well by now, but I think I speak for more than my share when I say I'm still a bit lost. A couple of years ago I went to a public ANWR forum sponsored by the local chapter of one of the big national conservation groups, in hopes of gaining some insight on the issue. I'm not quite sure what I expected, but insight was not what I got--just overblown hyperbole and self-righteous chest thumping about how good ANWR is and how bad “Big Oil” is. It reminded me of George Bush's vilification of Saddam Hussein. Making Exxon or Hussein look bad isn't much of a task, folks; once you resort to lying and exaggerating, you've lost me. When the bluster and finger-pointing ended, we all left the building, and practically every individual got into his/her own automobile. Half an hour was required to drain the cars from the parking lot, leaving a lingering hydrocarbon perfume.

This exemplified the American conservationist's dilemma. We don't want logging but we want wood products. We don't want electrical plants but we want electricity. We don't want population growth but we want families. We don't want oil drilling and we want to be able to hop in our car and drive across town to talk about how much we don't want it. The real enemies of wilderness in this country are not the miners and ranchers, but our own pursuit of an ever higher standard of living and our paradigm of continual economic growth. Most of the major conservation groups, I'm afraid, have completely bought into these models. In most cases, less good comes from donating $1,000 to a conservation group than from simply failing to earn it in the first place.

Our entire reality is based on the fact that for the past century, we've had essentially free energy in the form of petroleum. Soon, perhaps very soon, the supply will be increasingly difficult to extract, and increasingly more expensive, both monetarily and ecologically. Right now, the question I'd like to be able to answer is, “What kind of oil production does the least ecological harm?” I've seen appalling degradation in the Gulf of Guinea, where some 15% of America's petroleum originates. Here in Utah, much of our local oil production is small scale stuff that has a comparatively minimal impact. The problem with these little operations is that each one has the potential to explode overnight into a huge "city" like the Jonah Field, where the sage steppes have been rendered useless for wildlife.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comprises 19 million acres (about the size of Maine) in the northeast corner of Alaska, dwarfing the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, to the west. The entire area lies above the Arctic Circle, and is divided into three sections. The southern 9.16 million acre parcel runs mostly through the Brooks Range, and is designated as a refuge. To the north of that lies 8.31 million acres of legal wilderness. It is the 1.5 million acres of coastal plain, an area slightly larger than Delaware, in the northwest section of ANWR that is in dispute. This is the so-called 10-02 area, which has a complicated legal designation. If I understand correctly, it has always been open to oil and gas exploration, but only with prior congressional approval.

I have never been to the arctic and have little knowledge of arctic ecology. I'm still unsure where ANWR oil drilling would fall on the scale of ecological destruction, but it's clear that neither the oil interests nor the conservation interests will be of much help in figuring that out.
upper: ULTIMA THULE--MUSK OXEN (1989) acrylic 15" x 20"
lower: GRAY GYRFALCONS (1999) acrylic diptych 15" x 20"; 30" x 20"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog and your artwork is fantastic..keep up the good work!!!


10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

s goes to five or six bucks a gallon, poeple won'rt mind if rigs are pumping in Yosemite Vally in the shadow of El Cap-- as long as they can still drive to the corner store.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The balance is so difficult to achieve--to want "conservation" and yet also want the products that the use of those raw materials provides.

I've lived out on the Cape--Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and one of the biggest recent conservation issues had to do with installing a wind farm on the waters off shore there. The locals threw a fit--they thought that being in view of a wind farm would bring their property value down as opposed to the uninterrupted seascape.

The funny thing is that one news show, through computer technology, showed what the wind farm would look like. It was pretty far away from the shore anyway, so barely visible, and honestly, it didn't detract from the view--it was almost graceful, quiet, peaceful--small propellers moving with the motion of the air.

I never understood what the fuss was about after that.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

once they open up ANWR, the floodgates will open for other areas.. I buy hemp products when possible (paper, clothes, etc). While searching for a snowy owl in a county north of me today, we passed no less than 30 lumbermills. Many of them had pallets stacked next to them. To think of an old cedar or any tree ending up as a pallet hits me in a place that feels very uncomfortable.
There are no easy answers- but one thing is for sure, sooner or later our resources will be gone if it continues at this rate. Quite honestly I'm glad I won't be here to see it, and I'm glad I didn't bring children into the world for that reason. I personally feel it's going to get much worse and often wonder if we've passed the 'turning back' point.

(and regarding the 'science blogs', I tend to avoid most of them. They quote from source after source and speak in circles.. and when it's all said and done, all we can do is tend our own gardens and hope to tend them well)

I'm a bit cynical lately ;)

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But if it weren't for the "paradigm of continual economic growth" you'd be out of a job, eh?

10:42 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Jen: Thanks! I'll do my best!
Darksyde: I'm very afraid that you're right.
Siskenyon: I remember that Cape Cod Controversy. Wind turbines can make for very efficient power plants in the right circumstances. I was impressed by how well they work in the Canary Islands. Quite often they can kill astounding numbers of migrating birds. Unfortunately, wind turbine transportation is a very long way off.
Cindy: I'm not convinced by that "slippery slope" argument against drilling on the 10-02 area, though you may be right. I don't how many wooden pallets have been worn out servicing my own wants and needs, but it's been more than a couple. I have no good arguments to talk you down from your pessimism.
Mystery commenter: You're dead on, my friend. I make my living selling luxury items that cost more than most people on this planet make in a year. I'm not proud of it and I make no excuses...and I'm far from alone in that.

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i disagree with your assertion that this is some sort of intractible problem because there is a fundamental incompatability between wanting wood furniture and maintaining ecological balance.

maybe if you watch al gore's new movie you'll see that you can have both, and the main problem (as with hunger) is not that "there isn't enough" but rather we are managing the systems we live in atrociously, resulting in huge amounts of waste.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful, deep artwork. You express your love for nature so talentedly, what a gift!!!

Like slskenyon, I live on Cape Cod and was, and still am, very much for the wind farm. I find that the wind turbines actually add a certain beauty to the landscape. Though not natural, it does give one the awesome feeling knowing that it is clean energy and in that knowledge alone a sense of pride that you are no longer completely guilty of big-oil consumerism. If you've ever been to Palm Springs, CA you would know what I mean. Set there amongst the hills, thousands of towering wind turbines spinning at random speeds. It's awe-inspiring. Wind was the way before oil, and it will be the way after oil too, wind is forever.

Love your site, I'll be back!

7:45 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Mystery commenter: Thanks for your input. I've read Earth In Balance, but I haven't yet seen Gore's movie. You're absolutely correct that there's much we can and must do to improve the efficiency of our extraction, but the notion that we can perpetually increase our extraction and consumption each year is hard for me to accept.
Sisterkris: Thanks very much. Here in Utah, pretty much all of our power grid comes from Coal-fired plants, resulting in an ever-increasing mercury level in the Great Salt Lake, among many other problems. I'd love to see more wind turbines and photovoltaics used here.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this post. And I agree with your response to anon: there's some good that can be done with efficiency, but it doesn't address the underlying issue that our whole economy runs on growth, constantly crowding up tighter and tighter against the limits.

About the ANWR - I did some digging a while ago, in response to a claim that CNN was "lying with pictures" by showing mountains in a picture of the disputed area. As I understand it, the Brooks Range is not as far from the 10-02 area as you suggest. A summary of my findings is buried in the comments at my blog.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recommended to Laura, and I recommend to you Where Mountains are Namless by Jonathan Waterman for relatively objective information.

I'm not quite a knee-jerk conservationist. But based on information from Prudhoe Bay, the risk of damage is high and the ability of the tundra to heal is low. And the whole of ANWR would produce a drop in the proverbial bucket.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Laura: Thanks for bringing more information to the discussion. I consulted some maps, and you're right--my initial description of ANWR with respect to the Brooks Range was inaccurate. I've re-edited it.
Mary Ann: Thanks also to you for a helpful contribution. Waterman's book is news to me. I'll look it up.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know...it's almost ashamed that what I do for a living is so far removed from the view of everyone.

I'm no apologist for what the oil industry has done in the past--I grew up with it and I hate it. But, today, things are so different. The rig I'm currently deployed too collects more recyclable material in one week than most small communities do in a month...

We're SO aware of our impact on the environment that it not only colors our day-to-day activities, but shapes and rules them. Rainwater doesn't even leave this rig.

The big super-platforms--the Spars and Tension Leg Platforms--have taken it all a step further. Not only do they recycle, they desalinate their own drinking water and generate their own electricity with the clean-burning natural gas which they are producing.

You know...we live here too.

9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting post, and Ryan's comment before mine brings info to the discussion that I hadn't considered.

We all sure can drive a lot less. That would go away toward weaning ourselves from oil. I laughed/cried at your description of everyone leaving the meeting in their cars and the lot taking 30 minutes to empty~

Considering how fat we are as a nation, I think bike riding and walking is a great alternative to driving your car every day! Some PR genuis needs to work on linking these two problems.

4:29 PM  

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