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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Beyond the Environment
distributed 5/15/15 - ©2015

An Australian comedy sketch, The Front Fell Off, is a family favorite. It offers wonderful satire about a horrendous 2007 accident, when an oil tanker off the coast of Australia split in two, dumping 20,000 tons of crude oil.

The skit is a staged interview with "Senator Collins", whose words of reassurance are utterly clueless. Go ahead and watch the 2 minute routine -- I'll wait.

The Front Fell Off came to mind this week when a normally sensible commentator on world affairs channeled Senator Collins in an op-ed piece in favor of drilling for oil in the icy seas of the Arctic. I get very worried when the advocates for environmentally risky oil exploration use the punch line from a joke as a core part of their argument.

Greg Dobbs -- a long-time correspondent for ABC News -- had a column in Wednesday's Denver Post, Drilling in the Arctic is worth the risk. In the first paragraph, he acknowledges that "Whether above the Arctic Circle or in the heart of Weld County, there will always be some level of risk when we're hunting for oil."

Weld County is in the northeast corner of Colorado. There are 22,000 operating wells in the county, yielding 85% of Colorado's oil production. Somehow, I find it hard to equate the risk of drilling on a prairie with abundant infrastructure close at hand, with drilling from a ship in the Arctic Ocean. If you ask the question, "Gee, what could possibly go wrong?", that rig bobbing around amid the ice floes does have a lot more possibilities.

But it was the final three sentences of the opinion piece that brought to mind the satire. Dobbs considers it good news that the Arctic is profoundly isolated.

"The Arctic is a thousand miles from nowhere. It is almost irrefutably rich in resources -- oil and natural gas. If we want to wean ourselves from foreign obligations, we should run the risk."

Do you hear the echo of Senator Collins? Is Greg Dobbs really as clueless?

Here's the dialogue from the end of the skit.

Interviewer: So what do you do to protect the environment in cases like this?

Senator: Well, the ship was towed outside the environment.

Int: Into another environment....

Sen: No, no, no. it's been towed beyond the environment, it's not in the environment.

Int: Yeah, but from one environment to another environment.

Sen: No, it's beyond the environment, it's not in an environment. It has been towed beyond the environment.

Int: Well, what's out there?

Sen: Nothing's out there...

Int: Well there must be something out there.

Sen: There is nothing out there... all there is .... is sea ... and birds .... and fish

Int: And?

Sen: And 20,000 tons of crude oil.

Int: And what else?

Sen: And a fire.

When Greg Dobbs says that the Arctic is a thousand miles from nowhere, I think he's saying that it is "beyond the environment." If there is an oil spill, nothing will wash up on the beaches of tourist resorts. Pollutants won't contaminate shrimp fisheries. There are no cities and businesses nearby. News crews won't fight north to take pictures of tar balls on frozen shorelines.

It is worth the risk because the damage from a spill won't impact people like us. It is outside of the environment that makes a difference to us.

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"The environment" is a surprisingly difficult concept to nail down.

There have been well-founded complaints that privileged environmentalists have worked to protect pristine and isolated settings, while being unconcerned about pervasive pollution in highly-impacted human communities. The environmental justice movement coined a definition that brought things closer to home: "the environment is where we live and work, play and pray."

Both of those sides of the movement speak truth, and do important work. And both of them miss the point when they focus on preservation of a place that is emotionally powerful -- whether an urban neighborhood that is home, or a wilderness area that is a sanctuary. When the environment is a cherished place, then there are other places that are beyond the environment, and outside our circle of concern.

A more encompassing definition of the environment refers to the complex, intertwined web of life. The entire planet is our cherished home, and what happens -- for good or ill -- almost always has far reaching effects.

Pollutants spread around the planet, concentrating far away from where they were produced and released -- even into the Arctic. National Geographic reported, "Various studies in recent decades have found that animals from polar bears to killer whales, not to mention native peoples like the Eskimos, or Inuit, carry unusually high levels of human-made chemicals in their bodies." Those chemicals include dioxin and PCBs, borne north by wind and ocean currents.

And, as we all now know, greenhouse gas pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, has a global, not a local, effect. There is nothing that is "beyond the environment" when we consider the network of physical and biological relationships that sustain life on the planet.

There are at least two reasons why drilling in the Artic is not "worth the risk." The first is the high probability of an ecologically devastating oil spill in the fragile northern environment. The containment and clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was difficult. Something even vaguely similar in the Arctic would be impossible to remediate.

The other reason is global. It has become clear that -- to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate chaos -- 80% of known fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground. As study earlier this year tried to identify the 20% that could most efficiently and responsibly be used. Those researchers made the absolute statement that "all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable." Even if there was no risk at all of oil spilling into the ocean, that hard-to-extract Arctic oil should never be extracted.

This weekend, a "festival of resistance" will take place in Seattle targeting the Shell drilling rigs that are being staged in that harbor in preparation for exploratory drilling this summer in the Arctic. The "sHellNo" campaign names both of these reasons why Arctic drilling is not worth the risk.

There are no places that are "beyond the environment." Even with settings that are "a thousand miles from nowhere", we are all tied together in a web of relationships.

May we pay heed to the global, interconnected environment that is the Earthly part of God's creation. May we reject foolish risks that endanger us all.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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