philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


Close to 20 million acres of northeast Alaska became the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1980. Before that, it was a federally protected area; calls for the preservation of this area go back to at least the 1950s.

ANWR is not a ‘range,’ as Congressman Don Young if fond of saying, but a ‘refuge,’ set aside as a sanctuary for nature. This area is also the calving grounds for the massive Porcupine Caribou heard and home to a vibrant ecosystem.

There is also oil in the refuge. An area known as area ‘1002’ sits north of the Brooks Range along the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean. This contains some billions of barrels of recoverable crude.  A renewed effort is currently underway to open this section of the refuge to drilling.

Weather or not area 1002 can be sustainably developed for large economic gains, with minimal impact to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, is often the focus of debate—emphasizing two questions:

One of impact: Would drilling lead to decline in caribou and other wildlife or aspects of environmental quality?

And another of cost-benefit analysis: Can we gain economic benefit, energy security, and jobs while paying a relatively low cost?

Many in favor of drilling point out the large number of caribou near Prudhoe Bay coexisting with drilling operations, while those opposed cite risks of oil spills, habitat fragmentation, and other modeled degradation. Those in favor of drilling say the benefits are great while the costs are minimal, while those opposed say the greatest costs are not included in the price tag because they are ‘externalities’ paid by the environment and small local communities.

Much ink has been spilt on both sides. I will not rehash those arguments here.

Both questions are no doubt important, but both questions assume this debate is about consequences. By focusing arguments about drilling on what the impacts would be, both sides of the ANWR debate implicitly agree that those impacts are what make drilling permissible, pertinent, impermissible, or wrong.


Here’s a thought experiment:

Imagine for a minute I promise to watch your dog, spot, while you are on vacation. Once you are gone, I call you to say that I have a better use for my time and don’t want to watch your dog. You then tell me how spot really needs to be walked, fed, and taken care of. You worry that spot can not survive stuck on his own.

Suppose then I tell you in response that your dog is heartier than you think and likely fine on his own. Also, the reason I can’t look after spot is that I have a chance to work extra shifts at my job. My family is not poor, but could certainly use the money, and with it I will buy things in the community and help out local business.

Do any of my reasons matter if I have promised to look after spot? Would my argument hold if spot was in fact heartier than I thought, or would you still feel I owe it to you to look after him?


The very act of establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a collective promise. We don’t hook up geothermal generators to the geysers in Yellowstone and we aren’t mining for gold in Yosemite not because we couldn’t gain anything from such development, but because that’s not what is done in National Parks. ANWR similarly offers a context for looking at how our obligations extend beyond consequences alone.

So, what happens if we ask, should we drill even if we knew for certain there would be no impact to wildlife?

Is nature intrinsically a resource, or do we make nature into resources? Explicitly establishing a refuge is to set preservation as a priority over use--suggesting that ANWR is much more than just potential energy.  

Maybe money justifies opening a national commons. Maybe energy security, development of the arctic, and access to the land should motivate congressional action. Maybe caribou deserve greater moral consideration. Maybe losing another final vestige of wildness is intolerable for any extraction. Unless we talk about these factors as reasons for rather than just effects of we aren't having the right conversation, because we aren't discussing what might free us from our past promises.

I would say more, but I promised my wife I would go walk the dog.

Written by ComET member Alex Lee.