Walking the Waters

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This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.

When you go to
the mountains, you go to the mountains. When it’s the desert, it’s the desert.
When it’s the ocean, though, we generally say that we’re going “to the beach.”
Land is our element, not the waters of our world, and that is an unmistakable
advantage for any oil company that wants to drill in pristine waters.

Take Shell Oil.
Recently, the company’s drill ship, the fabulously named Noble Discoverer, went adrift and almost grounded in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
That should be considered an omen for a distinctly star-crossed venture to
come. Unfortunately, few of us are paying the slightest attention.

Shell is
getting ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean,
an ecosystem staggeringly rich in life of every sort, and while it’s not yet
quite a done deal, the prospect should certainly focus our minds. But first,
it’s worth reminding ourselves of the mind-boggling richness of the life still
in our oceans.

Last month began with a once-in-a-lifetime sighting in Monterey Bay, California,
startlingly close to shore, of blue whales. Those gigantic mammals can measure
up to 100 feet, head-to-tail, and weigh nearly 200 tons–the largest animal by
weight ever to have lived on this planet. Yes, even heavier than dinosaurs. The
biggest of them, Amphicoelias fragillimus, is estimated to have
weighed 122 tons, while the largest blue whale came in at a whopping 195 tons.

The recent Monterey Bay sighting is being called “the most phenomenal showing of th[os]e endangered
mammals in recent history.” On July 5th alone, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported
sightings of “12 blue whales, 40 humpback whales, 400 Risso’s dolphins, 300
northern right whale dolphins, 250 Pacific white-sided dolphins, and two minke

you go you just see blows”–that is, the blues spouting–Nancy Black, owner
of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. It seems that the
abundance of krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that the whales feed on,
attracted about 100 of the blues. Until the beginning of the twentieth century,
they were abundant with an estimated population of more than 200,000 living in
theSouthern (or Antarctic) Ocean alone. Then they were hunted
nearly to extinction. Today, only about 10,000 of them are believed to exist.

Dog Day
Afternoon in the Arctic

If you follow
the pacific coastline from Monterey all the way
north, sooner or later you’ll arrive at Kivalina along the Chukchi Sea
coast in the Alaskan Arctic. Keep going along that coastline even further north
and you’ll pass by Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainright, and finally Barrow–the
northernmost town in the United States.

At Barrow, you’ll
be at the confluence of the Chukchi and Beaufort
Seas of the Arctic
Ocean. Now, head east along the Beaufort Sea
coast to Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik, both Iñupiat communities. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are remarkably rich in krill, and
home to the endangered bowhead whale. It may not be quite as large as the blue,
but head-to-tail it can still measure an impressive enough 66 feet and weigh up
to 75 tons, and it has one special attribute. It is believed to be the
longest-lived mammal on the planet.

Like blues,
bowheads were also abundant–an estimated population of 30,000 well into the
mid-nineteenth century. Then commercial whalers began hunting them big time,
driving them nearly extinct in less than 50 years. Today, about 10,000 bowhead
whales live in the Arctic Ocean. Blues and
bowheads could be considered the elders of the sea.

While the blues
were feeding in Monterey
Bay, Shell’s drill ships,
the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk, were migrating north, with the hope of
drilling for oil in those very waters this summer. Unlike the jubilant
tourists, scientists, and residents of the California coast, the Iñupiat people
of the Arctic coast are now living in fear of Shell’s impending arrival; and
little wonder, as that oil giant is about to engage in what may be the most
dangerous form of drilling anywhere on Earth. After all, no one actually knows
how to clean up an oil spill that happens under the ice in the harsh conditions
of the Arctic Ocean. Despite that, the Obama
administration has been fast-tracking Shell’s dangerous drilling plan, while paying
remarkably little attention to the ecological fears it raises and the potential
devastation a major spill or spills would cause to the native peoples of the

No need to
worry, though: Shell swears it’s dealing with the possibility of such a
disaster, even to the point of bringing in dogs “to detect oil spills beneath
snow and ice.” No joke. “When it comes to drilling for oil in the harsh and
unpredictable Arctic,” the Guardianreported in March, “Shell has gone to the dogs, it seems. A
dachshund and two border collies to be specific.”

The Obama
administration has been no less reassuring. There will be a genuine federal inspector on board those drill ships 24/7. And
whether you’re listening to the oil company or our government, you should just
know that it’s all a beautiful dream, nothing more. When a spill happens, and
it’s minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind’s howling at 65 miles per hour,
and sea ice is all around you and moving, the idea that a highly trained
dachshund or federal inspector will be able to do a thing is pure fantasy.
Believe me, I’ve been there under those conditions and if the worst occurs,
this won’t be a repeat of BP in the Gulf of Mexico
(bad as that was). Help will not be available.

Hand Shell this
for honesty: the company has admitted that, if a spill were to happen late in the summer
drilling season (of course it won’t!), they will simply have to leave the
spilled oil “in place” for nine months to do its damnedest. The following
summer they will theoretically deal with what’s left of the spill, and–though
they don’t say this–the possibility of a dead or dying sea.

The U.S.
National Environmental Policy Act requires that the government must do an Environmental
Impact Statement (EIS) if there is reason to believe that a proposed activity
will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. The Department
of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement
avoided the time consuming EIS process, however, issuing instead what is called
a “Finding of No Significant Impact.”

In late June,
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “I believe there will not be an oil spill” from
Shell’s Arctic drilling, and proceeded full
speed ahead. Know this: in 2011 alone in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, Shell reported 63 “operational spills” due to equipment failure.
That happened in a tropical environment.

Oil companies
must have an approved spill-response plan before drilling can proceed. But
Shell’s government-rubber-stamped plan turns out to be full of holes, including
the claim that, should a spill occur, they will be able to recover 90 percent of all spilled oil. (In the cases of both the Exxon
and the Deepwater Horizon disasters less than 10 percent was recovered.) In fact, it’s a claim
from which the company is already backtracking. On July 10th, 10 environmental
organizations, including the Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for
Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous
Lands (REDOIL), filed a lawsuit challenging Shell’s spill-response plans in
an attempt to stop this summer’s drilling.

In addition,
Shell’s 37-year-old 294-foot barge, the Arctic Challenger, a necessity for its
clean-up plan, is still awaiting final certification from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Reporting on the failure to receive it so far, the Los Angeles Timespointed out that “[e]ngineers from the oil company say it’s
no longer appropriate to require them to meet the rigorous weather standards
originally proposed.” Unfortunately, there couldn’t be anything more basic to
drilling in the Arctic than its fearsome
weather. If you can’t hack that — and no oil company can–you shouldn’t be
sending your drill ships northward.

And a massive
spill or a series of smaller ones is hardly the only danger to one of the more
fragile environments left on the planet. The seismic testing that precedes any
drilling and the actual drilling operations bring “lots of noise” to the region. This could be very harmful to
the bowhead whales, which use sound to navigate through sea ice in darkness.
Seismic testing represents, as Peter Matthiessen wrote in 2007, following a trip we took together along the
Arctic coast of Alaska,
“the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment I can imagine short
of naval warfare.”

In addition,
Shell’s drill ships will put significant amounts of toxic substances into the
Arctic air each year, including an estimated 336 tons of nitrogen oxides and up
to 28 tons of PM2.5–fine particles that include dust, dirt, soot,
smoke, and liquid droplets. These are harmful to human health and will degrade
the Arctic’s clean atmosphere.

opposition from indigenous Iñupiat communities, the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) nonetheless approved air quality permits for the ships in January.
On June 28th, however, Shell admitted that the Noble Discoverer “cannot meet the [EPA’s]
requirements for emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia” and asked the agency
to loosen air quality rules for Arctic drilling.

Add to this one
more thing: even before Shell’s drilling begins, or there can be any assessment
of it, the Obama administration is already planning to open up more Arctic waters to offshore drilling in the
years to come. Think of this–and of the possible large-scale, irremediable
pollution of the Arctic’s watery landscape–as
the canary in the coalmine when it comes to the oceans of the world. Especially
now, when global warming is melting northern ice and opening the way for energy
corporations backed by governments to train their sights on those waters and
their energy riches.

Just the Arctic

Here’s the
simplest fact: we are killing our oceans. Rapidly. Already, the massive
atmospheric accumulationof greenhouse gases from the burning
of non-Arctic fossil fuels has, scientists believe, caused a rise in sea surface temperature of 1 degree Centigrade over
the past 140 years. This may not seem impressive, but much of this increase has
occurred during the past few decades. As a result, scientists again believe,
there has been a potentially catastrophic 40 percent decline, largely since
1950, in the phytoplankton that support the whole marine food chain. Headlines
from media reports on this decline catch the grim possibilities in the
situation: “The Dead Sea,” “Are Our Oceans Dying?

In addition, the oceans absorb about 25 percent of the
carbon dioxide (CO2) we put in the atmosphere and this has made
their waters abnormally acidic, transforming coral reefs into graveyards. Earlier this year, we learned
that “the current acidification is potentially unparalleled in at least the
last 300 million years of Earth history, and raises the possibility that we are
entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.” This July, Jane
Lubchenco, chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, referred to such ocean acidification as climate change’s
“equally evil twin.”

Similarly, the
rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is already proving catastrophic
for a host of species, including narwhals, polar bears, walruses, seals, and
sea birds. And you have undoubtedly heard about the massive
of garbage, especially plastic, now clotting our oceans. Chris
Jordan’s powerful photographs of dead albatrosses at Midway Atoll,
their bellies full of plastic, catch what this can mean for marine life. And
then there’s the increasing industrial overfishing of all waters, which is
threatening to decimate fish populations globally.

And keep in
mind, that’s only so far. Drilling for what Michael Klare calls “tough oil” or “extreme energy” in a range of
perilous locations only ensures the further degradation of the oceans. In
addition to the possible opening up of the Arctic Ocean, there has been an
expansion of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling in “Iceberg Alley” near Newfoundland,
deep-offshore drilling in the Brazillian “pre-salt” fields of the Atlantic
Ocean, and an increase in offshore drilling in West Africa and Asia.

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

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.

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?

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
. Environmentalist John Muir made the connection between walking
and land conservation explicit through his unforgettably lyrical prose about
hiking the mountains of California.

Later, novelist
Edward Abbey showed us how to walk in the desert, and also gave us a recipe for
” –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.

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.

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

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.

Instead of
harshly criticizing Obama’s offshore drilling policy, green groups have generally
appealed to his good environmental sense and instincts–a strategy that has not
worked. This attitude is changing however. In May in a letter published in the
New York Times
, David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, wrote: “Imagine: a president who ignores the advice of his
own scientists on a key environmental issue, dredging for votes in an election
year. Sound familiar? The administration is ignoring warnings from the Coast
Guard, the United States Geological Survey, the Government Accountability
Office, and hundreds of scientists. All say the [oil] industry is not prepared
to drill safely in Arctic waters. Their nightmare scenario: a BP-like blowout
in an ice-locked sea.”

Litigation has
been the next best option. Iñupiat activists and green groups have, in recent
years, filed numerous lawsuits meant to impede or stop Shell’s drilling plans.
Some were won, others lost, but the plans to drill remain ongoing.

wrenching is the last resort. Greenpeace has been leading the charge on that
with creativity and passion in their Save the Arctic campaign. Above all, though, if we are to
protect our oceans, the public must be engaged. If our children and
grandchildren are to experience the excitement of seeing blue whales breach and
feed, we better get busy. After all, Shell is adrift in Arctic waters. It’s
time to bring them back to shore.

Banerjee is a writer, photographer, and activist. Over the past decade he has
worked tirelessly to conserve ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human
rights and climate change. He is the editor of a new book,
Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven
Stories Press) and won a 2012 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award.
Arctic photos can be seen this summer in three exhibitions, All Our Relations at
the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia, True North at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, and Looking Back at Earth at the Hood Museum of Art at
Dartmouth College. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio
interview in which Banerjee discusses the importance of the Arctic,
click here or download it to your iPod

TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,

Copyright 2012
Subhankar Banerjee

Image by Mike Baird,
licensed under Creative

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