Sometime in the late 1990s, I went to see the left-leaning political scientist and prolific author Michael Parenti speak at the University of Oregon. Only one moment of his speech has stayed with me after all these years. He was standing at the podium, almost leaning over it, riled up and raucous as he talked about multinational corporations and greed.
?They want it all!? he said. He paused, for a half second, looking out at the full hall, and said is again.
?They want it all.?
And then again, this time in slow motion, his open-faced palms striking the sides of the podium with each word.
That?s why people are in the streets, from New York City to Tacoma, Washington. It?s why they?re not leaving, and why more come each day, to more places across the country.
The phrase came back to me yesterday morning as I thought not about crowded streets filled with humanity, but the wide open expanses at the tippy top of our planet that were once covered with ice and now, increasingly, are becoming a glistening stretch of open water?and corporate possibilities.
The lead story in yesterday?s business section of the New York Times read, ?Amid the Peril, a Dream Fulfilled? (the online the story is ?Warming Revives Dream of Sea Route in Russian Arctic?).
? Last summer was one of the warmest on record in the Arctic.
? Scientists say that over the last ten years the average size of the polar ice sheet in September (the time of year when it?s smallest), has been only about two-thirds the average during the previous two decades.
? A Norwegian group forecasts that within thirty or forty years, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer.
? Rick Perry might not believe in climate change, but Vladimir V. Putin is betting the bank on it. Russia has heaps to gain with the Northeast Passage shipping routes opening up due to warming.
? Who benefits? The likely suspects. Shipping companies, mining companies (extraction and transport of iron ore, lead, nickel, copper, and zinc all become more profitable from Arctic mines), and, of course, natural gas and oil companies.
Who doesn?t benefit? The polar bears that have already become clichéd as they drown into extinction, the cause of their decline clouded with denial. The narwhals and belugas, ring seals and ribbon seals. The dozens of circumpolar peoples, from the Sami to the Inuit, who?like the marine and land species?have evolved to survive in the harsh climate of the north, far away from most of the world. The Arctic and ice have been linked for at least forty-seven million years.
But the Arctic is about to get busy. Exxon Mobil teamed up with Russian OAO Rosneft to seal a deal in August for Arctic gas and oil exploration in the Kara Sea, off Russia?s northern coast. Earlier this month the Obama administration upheld controversial offshore oil drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea that were issued under Bush in 2008. The Times article recounts the increase in shipping traffic?commercial ships plying the newly exposed waters without the burden of ice-breaking machinery and shaving thousands of miles off their journeys between Asia, the Americas, Russia, and Europe. Even luxury liners are joining in. An Australian cruise ship company that began with a focus on the Antarctic is now heading to the opposite pole, where for fourteen days and $14,000 you can enjoy the pristine view from a captain?s suite.
They want it all.
There?s a little place called the ?Donut Hole? in the international waters in the middle of the Bering Sea where the weather and sea currents create a haven of biodiversity. It?s completely unprotected. The Pew Environment Group, recognizing that the plundering of the donut hole fisheries is imminent, released a report earlier this year calling for an international agreement to address the opening of the waters as the ice cover recedes year by year. Here, science director Henry Huntington of the Pew Environment Group?s Arctic Campaign explains why the agreement needs to be implemented immediately. There is no lack of cautionary tales, but the most relevant one is the example of pollock, whose population in the Bering Sea was wiped out within a few years in the 1980s because of unregulated fishing. The stocks have yet to recover.
Is it ironic that because of excessive use of fossil fuels, humans are warming the planet, making polar ice melt, making access to more fossil fuel reserves possible?
Someday, there really will be the last Last Frontier. On this planet, at least, the chilly Arctic might be it.
But the other 99 percent wants it all too. Clean water and wild places, a planet rich in biodiversity that is sustainable in the long term. An atmosphere that is intact instead of disintegrating. A place where humans can cohabitate with creatures great and small, each of us allotted our version of a home and work that keeps us fed and allows for a family.