Skip to main Content

Alaska must end its addiction to oil; we'll still have a great place to live

  • Author: Kim Heacox
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 24, 2015

A few years ago Alaska Business Monthly quoted University of Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith who said were it not for oil, our human population and economy in the 49th state would be about half its current size. We'd be like Maine, "a great place to live but not the best place to make a living."

I wondered then as I do now: Isn't "a great place to live" good enough?

Do we Alaskans have to have it all: Big trucks and homes, private planes and fancy boats, dividend checks and Hawaiian condos?

And so we find ourselves comforted and imperiled by our addiction to oil (and coal), burning it at unprecedented rates, flying here and driving there, pumping our atmosphere with carbon dioxide, an invisible greenhouse gas that warms the only planet we'll ever call home -- and threatens to change everything. Atmospheric CO2 is not an oiled bird. It's not a dead sea otter. It's worse. It's pernicious. Every week the world discharges three times more oil through exhaust pipes -- as a CO2 oil spill into the sky -- than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Over the past 800,000 years, atmospheric CO2 has oscillated between 180 and 280 parts per million. Today it's at 404 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year.

The world burns a cubic kilometer of oil every 45 days. At that rate, should nothing change, in less than a decade humanity will have burned enough oil to raise the average global temperature 2 degrees Celsius above historic levels. We'll then cross the "uh-oh threshold" into massive environmental, economic and geopolitical instability, a global health crisis of epic proportions.

Fiction? Then why does the Pentagon have hundreds of people working on this?

If we continue business as usual, we'll likely pass tipping points that will release massive amounts of methane (trapped in permafrost and at the ocean floor) that will accelerate the problem. All this according to the best science. Not ideology. Not Fox News. But bona fide, peer-reviewed science.

Presently, oil giants sit on five times more oil worldwide than we'd need to burn to cross the "uh-oh" threshold. To preserve this beautiful and bountiful earth, and our rightful place in it, we'll have to leave a lot of oil in the ground.

This won't be easy. The greatest concentration of money and power in the history of the world is aligned against this, from Koch Industries to the Saudi royal family.

Best-selling author/psychologist Mary Pipher notes that climate change requires we go through four stages: awareness; pain; acceptance, and action. In effect, it's time for action, for a clean energy revolution. One is already under way. Witness the streets of Anchorage this coming Monday, democracy at its best, the protests against Shell Oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Yes, the problem seems insurmountable. We're addicts. And addicts make poor decisions. But golden opportunities often mask themselves that way -- as insurmountable challenges. It's time to embrace comfort less, change more. As Nelson Mandela said, "It always seems impossible, until it is done."

President Obama, soon to arrive in Alaska for the GLACIER Conference, is acutely aware of climate change. But he's disinclined to invite pain and sacrifice into the lives of the people he's charged to protect.

Yet that's exactly what must happen. We did it in the American Revolutionary War, and in World War II. We sacrificed. Now we must do it again, this time in a war against our own worst materialism and wasteful ways. Yes, we've been clever. Now it's time to be wise. Time to wake up.

Every day, tides around the world produce five times more energy than is required by humankind, and Alaska has massive tides. Add to that wind and solar power. It's time to tell Shell to go to ... well, to go away. It's time to innovate and create. Alaska can do one of two things: Lead America -- and the world -- into the clean energy future, or be dragged into it kicking and screaming.

As ecological economist Tim Jackson observes, we're now "caught in the untenable bind of ... crash the system or trash the planet."

As for Monday's climate rally? Do I leave my little town and fly to Anchorage and burn carbon to demand of my president we burn less carbon? The irony.

Obama and others have noted our generation is the first to feel the effects of climate change, and will be the last to be able do anything about it.

The other day I saw my friend Hank Lentfer at the Gustavus Recycling Center. He was in his old truck. "You know," he said, "if gas cost 100 bucks a gallon, like it should, we'd ride our bikes to this place and pull our recycle stuff on carts."

"And get good exercise."

"And hear more birds."

"And Alaska would still be a great place to live."

Kim Heacox lives in Gustavus and is the author of the Alaska memoirs "Rhythm of the Wild" and "The Only Kayak," and the acclaimed novel, "Jimmy Bluefeather," just now arriving in bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)