The Moral Case for Developing ANWR
Last week, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources debated Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s proposal to establish a competitive energy resource leasing and development program within a sliver of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) known as the 1002 area. In simple terms, the committee deliberated over the question should we drill.
Rather than asking, “Should we drill?” I submit that we ought to reframe the question and instead ask, “Why is a federal government ban on productive economic activity the status quo?”
My answer is that this prohibitive norm exists because our public discourse has been permeated by the idea that nonhuman life on earth has intrinsic value and that we as human beings have no moral right to affect it for our benefit.
Through this ecocentric lens, any human activity that impacts the nonhuman world is a transgression. And because, to date, it has remained beyond the reach of sustained and transformative human development, Alaska’s ANWR region is an environmental holy grail.
The problem with this view is not that it glorifies nature, as we all appreciate the beauty of the natural world, but that it regards nature as a superior end to human activity, development and flourishing.
I call this perspective “nature for nature’s sake.”
The advocates of “nature for nature’s sake” are not to be swayed by appeals to the benefits energy exploration will bring to Americans and energy-starved people around the globe. For them what matters is that the nonhuman world remains beyond our reach. Kristen Miller of the Alaska Wilderness League exemplifies the “nature for nature’s sake” perspective. "Some places in our nation are simply too special, too sacred to drill,” Miller wrote. “And the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of them. This exhausted debate needs to end, once and for all."
Miller’s premise—that humanity is a blot on the perfection that is nature—is widely shared, if unacknowledged, and colors our entire debate on the development of energy resources and the development of human civilization more broadly.
With ANWR under consideration, Congress has an opportunity to address the “nature for nature’s sake” perspective and shift the paradigm from one in which human activity qua human activity is suspect to one in which claimants of environmental degradation bear the burden of proof.
The fact of the matter is that human flourishing requires that we transform the natural world to meet our needs. The outcome of this transformation is longer, healthier, happier lives for all who are left free to benefit from it.
The development of our natural endowment of energy resources is a forerunner of modern civilization. ANWR’s 1002 area, which was designated as a prospective site for exploration when ANWR was established in 1980, is a logical starting point for a campaign to challenge the “nature for nature’s sake” view.
ANWR is in the uppermost remote corner of northeast Alaska, making it inaccessible to virtually all Americans. It hosts only around a thousand visitors per year, despite being about the size of the state of South Carolina, and is home to a permanent population of only a few hundred in the coastal village of Kaktovik.
Notably, Kaktovik residents have offered longstanding support for development. In testimony submitted to the Senate at a hearing earlier this month, tribal administrator Matthew Rexford offered pointed criticism of the effort to prevent resource development: “We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence and no hope for the future of our people.”
Given this context, what other than a “nature for nature’s sake” argument explains the prima facie objections by groups like the Alaska Wilderness League to energy development?
ANWR’s 1002 area contains an estimated 7.6 billion barrels of oil according to the U.S. Geological Survey—a sum equal to 20 percent of global annual demand. Perhaps more pivotal than the fruits of drilling in ANWR, however, is the mindset shift we are now positioned to affect.
After decades of a default to ecocentrism, the time is right to reject the “nature for nature’s sake” view in favor of a default position of anthropocentrism—a central focus on human wellbeing.
Jordan McGillis is a policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research.