Daily Archives: December 15, 2005

Arctic oil driling: Environment, politics, and religion

George Will has an interesting op-ed today about the debate on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Congress may soon allow. Will is for it (the drilling, not the debate).

Conservatives and Republicans have a reputation for wanting to cut down the forests, kill the spotted owls, use lakes and rivers for toxic waste dumps, and pave over every acre of wilderness for factories and shopping malls. And they’ve certainly had a number of anti-environment wackos in their ranks (remember James Watt?). Protecting the environment, it seems to me, should be recognized as a legitimate function of the state even by (reasonable) proponents of limited government: it falls pretty clearly under any definition of the “general welfare.” We all like to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and surely the vast majority of Americans support the preservation of national parks and wilderness areas as a part of our heritage.

Nonetheless, I think Will makes some good points:

Area 1002 is 1.5 million of the refuge’s 19 million acres. In 1980 a Democratically controlled Congress, at the behest of President Jimmy Carter, set area 1002 aside for possible energy exploration. Since then, although there are active oil and gas wells in at least 36 U.S. wildlife refuges, stopping drilling in ANWR has become sacramental for environmentalists who speak about it the way Wordsworth wrote about the Lake Country.

Few opponents of energy development in what they call “pristine” ANWR have visited it. Those who have and who think it is “pristine” must have visited during the 56 days a year when it is without sunlight. They missed the roads, stores, houses, military installations, airstrip and school. They did not miss seeing the trees in area 1002. There are no trees.

Opponents worry that the caribou will be disconsolate about, and their reproduction disrupted by, this intrusion by man. The same was said 30 years ago by opponents of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which brings heated oil south from Prudhoe Bay. Since the oil began flowing, the caribou have increased from 5,000 to 31,000. Perhaps the pipeline’s heat makes them amorous.

Ice roads and helicopter pads, which will melt each spring, will minimize man’s footprint, which will be on a 2,000-acre plot about one-fifth the size of Dulles Airport. Nevertheless, opponents say the environmental cost is too high for what the ineffable John Kerry calls “a few drops of oil.” Some drops. The estimated 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil — such estimates frequently underestimate actual yields — could supply all the oil needs of Kerry’s Massachusetts for 75 years.

Flowing at 1 million barrels a day — equal to 20 percent of today’s domestic oil production — ANWR oil would almost equal America’s daily imports from Saudi Arabia. And it would equal the supply loss that Hurricane Katrina temporarily caused…

If there are practical counterpoints to Will’s pro-drilling argument, I’ll be glad to consider them. But I think Will is also right when he says:

For some people, environmentalism is collectivism in drag. Such people use environmental causes and rhetoric not to change the political climate for the purpose of environmental improvement. Rather, for them, changing the society’s politics is the end, and environmental policies are mere means to that end.

The unending argument in political philosophy concerns constantly adjusting society’s balance between freedom and equality. The primary goal of collectivism — of socialism in Europe and contemporary liberalism in America — is to enlarge governmental supervision of individuals’ lives. This is done in the name of equality.

People are to be conscripted into one large cohort, everyone equal (although not equal in status or power to the governing class) in their status as wards of a self-aggrandizing government. Government says the constant enlargement of its supervising power is necessary for the equitable or efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Therefore, one of the collectivists’ tactics is to produce scarcities, particularly of what makes modern society modern — the energy requisite for social dynamism and individual autonomy. Hence collectivists use environmentalism to advance a collectivizing energy policy.

And there is another, equally important factor as well: environmentalism as a religion (as Michael Crichton put it in a speech a few years ago, “the religion of choice for urban atheists”).

I wrote about this in a column a few years ago, dissecting a Nicholas Kristof column about ANWAR:

Kristof writes that, in his view, the danger drilling would pose to wildlife has been exaggerated by environmentalists; he also points out that it would benefit the local Eskimo population. Yet ultimately, he comes down on the anti-drilling side, arguing that development would damage “the land itself and the sense of wilderness”—the sense of “a rare place where humans feel not like landlords or even tenants, but simply guests.”

The refuge, in other words, is something like a living temple, which is not to be desecrated.

Some environmental writings have explicit religious overtones. A popular idea among environmentalists is writer James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis“—the idea that the Earth is a living entity with a super-consciousness of its own, of which we are all a part. (Gaia was, of course, the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth.) Native American religions with their nature worship are popular as well. Some people who turn away from traditional religion and then embark on a spiritual quest in a need to fill the void say that they find that spirituality in environmental activism.

Environmentalist philosophy has a religious dimension other than the fantasy of the Garden of Eden. Its anti-consumerist animus reflects, to some extent, the puritanical notion that material pleasures and comforts are wicked and corrupting, and self-denial is ennobling for the soul.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with religiously or spiritually based beliefs. But perhaps some forms of environmental philosophy and activism should raise questions about introducing religion into public policy—or public schools, where environmental education programs often have elements of Earth worship and moralist condemnation of consumerist sins.


The preservation of our natural heritage is undoubtedly a worthy goal. But when seen from the perspective of human benefit, it is one of many competing values that must be balanced—including the need to alleviate our dependence of foreign oil. To treat wilderness as something mystical and sacramental short-circuits the debate as surely as an appeal to biblical principles.

If it can be shown that oil drilling in ANWAR poses a risk of actual damage to the environment (e.g., contribute to climate change with unforeseeable consequences for humans), then by all means, continue the ban. If it’s about preserving a living church sanctified by mystical values, I think that, particularly at this point in time, a little separation of church and state is in order.


Filed under Uncategorized