Romance Overrules Reason In ANWR About-Face
5/16/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
"That part of the (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) is one of the bleakest, most remote places on this continent, and there is hardly any other where drilling would have less impact on the surrounding life."
"It is hard to see why absolutely pristine preservation of this remote wilderness should take precedence over the nation's energy needs."
No, these comments about Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge aren't advance excerpts of President Bush's energy plan to be released this week. Nor are they from editorials in National Review, The Weekly Standard or The Wall Street Journal. They aren't even from Pave the Planet Digest.
They're from The Washington Post and The New York Times, respectively. You see, back in the late 1980s, the elite conventional wisdom held that dependence on foreign oil was bad, so domestic oil exploration was good - and exploration in a "remote wilderness," in the words of the Times, was great. Back then the Times editorialized "the likely value of the oil far exceeds plausible estimates of the environmental costs."
But by last January the Times succumbed not just to amnesia but to complete revisionism: "Mr. Bush's plan to open (ANWR) is as environmentally unsound and intellectually shaky as it was when Ronald Reagan suggested it 20 years ago and when Mr. Bush's father suggested it a decade ago." The Times concluded, "Finally, as this page has noted many times before, the relatively trivial amounts of recoverable oil in the refuge cannot possibly justify the potential corruption of a unique and irreplaceable natural area."
What explains such a bizarre, and arrogant, flip-flop? After all, in the dozen or so years since then, oil-drilling technology has improved by leaps and bounds while ANWR has remained the same. How could it be "bleak," according to the Post less than 20 years ago, and a "unique, wild and biologically vital ecosystem" as of a Post editorial last December?
It is, I suspect, the spirit of Mrs. Jellyby coming a-calling.
Mrs. Jellyby was the do-gooder from Charles Dicken's "Bleak House," whose concern for a problem was always inversely proportionate to her distance from it. Thus, she was obsessed with the plight of the African "natives of Borrioboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger," but entirely oblivious to the needs of her children, particularly her injured son. Truly, a limousine liberal ahead of her time.
Mrs. Jellyby's spirit thrives in the debate over ANWR. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is impossible to reach for 99.99 percent of the U.S. and world populations. Nine months out of the year it is covered in ice, snow and round-the-clock darkness. If you had to pick an impact point in Northern America for a huge meteor, ANWR is about as ideal as it gets.
And yet, ANWR has achieved an almost metaphysical role in our imaginations - as some sort of pristine land that time forgot ,which we must preserve for everyone to enjoy in their fertile imaginations but not at all in their real lives.
We even have our own version of the Borrioboola-Gha: the so-called "gentle the Gwich'in people," a native tribe that lives 150 miles away from the proposed drilling site. These folks, who often come to Washington D.C. for photo-ops in full tribal gear, are the poster children for the leave-ANWR-alone coalition.
The Gwich'in say, with soundbites provided by the environmental community, that exploring the estimated 2,000 to 10,000 affected acres (about the size of Washington's Dulles airport) out of the 19 million acre area (about the size of South Carolina) will permanently destroy the ecosystem, the caribou's migration patterns and, hence, the Gwich'in's blissful premodern relationship with nature.
Faith Gemmill, a Gwich'in leader, explains on the National Wildlife Federation Web site that "the Gwich'in have lived in harmony with the caribou for hundreds of generations."
Of course, what she leaves out is that the Gwich'in authorized oil drilling on their own tribal lands until the wells came up dry. We also don't see on the nightly news the Gwich'in using all-terrain vehicles, high-powered rifles and snowmobiles to chase caribou into the river and shoot them in large numbers.
Regardless, the fact remains there's no solid evidence that oil exploration is bad for caribou. In fact, the only data we have says the reverse. Since the massive, and more invasive, Prudhoe Bay installation was launched, the Central Arctic caribou population has increased fivefold. Some say the caribou like to put their bellies on the pipeline for warmth.
The real motive behind preserving ANWR is psychological. Environmental romantics like the (ital) idea (end ital) that such a place exists, even though they will never go there.
For example, President Carter, who passed the law preserving ANWR, wrote recently in The New York Times that drilling of any kind is unacceptable because the sound of it "would pollute the wild music of the Arctic." This is a true case of romance trumping reason, since no one is there to hear that music in the first place.