We cannot drill our way out of this mess: A review of Arctic Voices

  • A mother polar bear plays with two cubs near their den, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, March 2002.

    Subhankar Banerjee, images courtesy Seven Stories Press
  • Brant and snow geese dot the muddy waters of the Teshekpuk Lake wetland, July 2006.

    Subhankar Banerjee, images courtesy Seven Stories Press

Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point
Subhankar Banerjee, editor.
560 pages, hardcover: $35.95.
Seven Stories Press, 2012.

In 2001, on the U.S. Senate floor, one of Alaska's pro-development politicians held up a blank white piece of posterboard. "This is a picture of ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) as it exists for about nine months of the year," he said, trying to persuade fellow senators to open that protected area to drilling. The sublime winter scenes that appeared in engineer-turned-photographer Subhankar Banerjee's Seasons of Life and Land (2003) -- which a Democrat in turn  displayed in a later Senate session -- showed that there was a lot more to the Arctic landscape than just empty white space. The threat to the refuge's wealth of wildlife and habitat was averted, but only temporarily; conservationists knew that the battle wasn't over.

Now, Alaska Congressman Don Young is making his 11th attempt to open the refuge to oil and gas development. Leases have already been sold farther west, in the Chukchi Sea and the National Petroleum Reserve, and in the Beaufort Sea to the north. Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is pushing road construction in undeveloped areas, while the nations of the Northern Hemisphere squabble over shipping routes suddenly opened up by the changing climate.

Just in time, then, comes Banerjee's latest volume, Arctic Voices, a wakeup call from 39 artists, writers, biologists, Alaska Natives and activists. As in Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony (a 2001 book edited by Hank Lentfer and Carolyn Servid), the eyewitness accounts and reports in Arctic Voices question the wisdom of relying on fossil fuel fixes, urging restraint in our approach to the nation's last great wilderness area.

The Arctic is the planet's ecological tipping point: The polar regions not only suffer greater warming than lower latitudes, but the rapid loss of sea ice and permafrost there is accelerating the process to where it could spiral out of control, beyond even the direst predictions. Arctic Voices also touches upon Iceland, Greenland and Siberia, driving home the point of global connectedness. "Climate scientists have made it clear," writes Ricki Ott, a toxicologist and fisherwoman who witnessed the Exxon Valdez spill, "that if people wish to have a livable planet for their children, the Oil Age must end soon, regardless of how much oil is left to extract."

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