Skip Navigation

Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2016

ResizeResize Text: Original Large XLarge Untitled Document Subscribe

Editorial - The Transition to Sustainability Is By No Means Smooth

Getting to sustainability will be hard pounding. Two articles in this issue, by Bob Harriss and by Rachel Donkersloot and Courtney Carothers, reveal the hardships of the sustainability journey lurking beneath the turbulent waves of the sustainability transition. From a sustainability perspective, new exploratory oil drilling on the Arctic Shelf is out of order. The “keep it in the ground” lobby is well organized and vociferous. Bob Harriss analyzes the very special risks associated with extending oil drilling into the Arctic seas. These risks not just the storms, the currents, and the intense wind chill. These seas are full of life-supporting marine organisms whose survival would be lengthily jeopardized by even small spills. The adverse implications for the economically and culturally vital coastal fisheries, as Donkersloot and Carothers lucidly document, are massive but not fully known. Harriss also documents the lamentable safety record of Shell in these very treacherous conditions, where there were repeated violations of environmental safeguards. All of this seriously damaged Shell's reputation in the mainland United States as well as overseas.

Yet it is not clear that either Shell or the Alaskan economic development promoters have given up on Arctic oil. The dramatic collapse of global oil prices and the slowdown of the Asian economic engine have combined to place on hold any new exploratory drilling, even by the Russians. One gets the sense that the costly infrastructure already in place at Alaskan and Russian Arctic seaports, including idle but expensive icebreakers, means that lurking in the murky mists of future time there could still be drilling. So much for any taint of unethical oil.

Where Harriss is most helpful is in his assessment of the opportunities of this exploratory pause for the betterment of the native Alaskan populations. Their livelihoods and cultures are being seriously damaged by warming seas, sludgy coastlines, and migrating fish and other marine mammals. With depleting oil income, the emerging Alaskan budgets are being propped up by increased taxes, some of which target alcohol, which adversely affect such vulnerable populations. Faced with migration from their traditional villages and hunting grounds, these people are the outcasts of climate change and global economic weakening. Any sustainability assessment would consider the creation of special funds for their overall betterment for training, support for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, sensitive relocation, and improved educational and health provision. Yet this is the least propitious time for such funds to be created, despite the lengthy historical period of oil and gas largesse in the state.

Donkersloot and Carothers follow a similar theme. The alteration of the Arctic fisheries due to historical overexploitation and shifting ocean currents and temperatures is meddling with the catch rates. Changes in the arrangements for licensing are adding to the costs of entry and restrict the continuation of fishing activity. The overall result is the exclusion of young and ambitious fishers, the increasing costs of entry into the fishing fleets, and the growing uncertainty of a reliable revenue and catch amount. Even more relevant is the lack of hope when traditional forms of marine harvesting are reduced by licensing restrictions or economically excluded by rising permit costs. Only one-fifth of young people feel that there is a viable future for them in their home communities. This proportion rises where effective fishing arrangements remain in place. From a sustainability vantage point, there is little on offer for members of the coming generation to be confident about. Nor do many of them apparently feel valued or cared for.

Any sustainable future for young Alaskans needs to place into the mix the relationships among aspiration, cultural intelligence, economic opportunity, social enterprise, and the geography of coastal habitation. Surely here is an opportunity to establish a series of “conversation circles” embracing young people, their parents, government listening staff, environmentalists, and business “startup” enterprises. Such conversations could lead to a realistic reassessment of Alaskan futures where the generations most at risk, yet most in need of being heard and supported, are directly involved in shaping their well-being.

The significance of the collapse of nonsustainable resource extraction activity should lie in the opportunities this creates for fresh approaches to sustainability governance, not in the gnashing of conventional economic teeth and the desperate search for more of the same, or placing on hold expensive exploration kits for a sunnier clime. Any transition to sustainability will be challenging. Not to confront it when the opportunity is rife is a letdown to those most deserving of the effort to safeguard their betterment.

—Tim O'Riordan

Editorial Archives

In this Issue

Taylor & Francis

Privacy Policy

© 2018 Taylor & Francis Group · 530 Walnut Street, Suite 850, Philadelphia, PA · 19106