Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:
An Introductory Comment

Norman Chance


Of primary importance "...is the protection of the Arctic environment and its sustainable and equitable development, while protecting the cultures of indigenous peoples."

From the summary of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, signed
in 1991 by the ministrial representatives of the eight arctic-rim countries.


Although major public attention over the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge centers on economic development and national security versus protection of a unique wilderness area and the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the debate also raises broader issues of sustainability, equity, and human rights.

An appealing feature of the concept sustainable development is that it brings together in a common framework the limits that nature imposes on human societies and the potential for new directions in social development that respect those limits. However, in looking at the core assumption underlying this process, several problems emerge. For example, most descriptions of sustainable development stress the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. Development is thus viewed as a compromise between the two themes.

Critics, however, see a serious flaw in this description. As stated by the editor of the Swedish environmental journal Ambio, such an approach "says nothing about the net costs due to degradation of certain elements of society and its natural resources." In the mind of this editor and similar commentators, balanced development should be replaced with the view that effective environmental sustainability requires greater recognition be given to the limits of economic growth; that continuing present levels of resource utilization promoted by industry and government to ever-expanding consumer-oriented societies is not compatible with long-term sustainability; and, finally, that relying on the "interest" rather than the "principal" of given ecological endowments is essential.

A second topic to keep in mind in reviewing the following presentations is the issue of equity and social justice. Who participate in decisions concerning a given development project and who are excluded? Who are the major beneficiaries and who are being hurt? Are environmentally sensitive development policies more likely to be promoted by affluent populations far to the South than by Native peoples in the North? If this is the case, should the interests of the more affluent be given greater weight than those living in the North? Or is improving or maintaining the standard of living of the latter more important? And even if Native northerners attain priority at the local or regional level, is this adequate when the demands of the global economy systematically marginalize them? Each of these questions is applicable to the debate now taking place over the future of the Arctic Refuge.

To address complex environmental and social questions such as these may seem beyond the reach of many viewers of this Special Report. But that does not mean they should quietly withdraw. For the initial step in grappling with large problems is to see them in the context of smaller units. Thus, by reading the position papers of the parties involved in this debate, it is hoped that the viewer will keep in mind the larger forces at play. For sooner rather than later, all of us need to face the ultimate challenge of sustainable development: How to reconceptualize the consumer demands, human needs, and social relations of our societies in a manner that more adequately sustains nature's resources.