Kayaktivists need to suggest solutions to oil-dependent reality

Earlier this month, a flotilla of colorful kayaks provided a photo op for media as a few hundred protesters opposed to Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic surrounded one of the drill rigs located in Elliott Bay. The "kayaktivists" held signs that called for an "Oil-Free Future" and "Climate Justice."

That protest drew a big response from critics, especially in the comments section of the Alaska Dispatch News where a story was displayed. One of the biggest complaints was that these activists drove cars -- using fossil fuels -- to the protest with their kayaks -- made of petroleum products -- loaded on top of their cars, then put on neoprene wetsuits -- made from, you guessed it, petroleum products -- and paddled out to protest the acquisition of the very resource they, like the rest of us, are dependent upon.

If you try to imagine a world without fossil fuels, you probably won't get beyond cars and snowmachines before you start to realize the gravity of the situation. But it goes much farther than that. For most of us, the basics -- food, water and shelter -- are heavily dependent on oil. Even the most environmentally savvy among us ride bikes with rubber tires, talk on cellphones made with oil products, and cannot avoid the myriad of ways our world has become oil dependent since the mid-19th century, when coal was replaced as the fuel source of choice.

Does that mean, however, that one cannot protest drilling for oil in the Arctic when floating in a kayak unless it is made with hand tools from wood? Some might argue so, but they would be avoiding the reality that there are safe places and not-so-safe places from which to extract oil. Chances are good that many of the protesters in Seattle, where spring flowers have long given way to summer, have little idea what conditions are like in the Arctic. Much like the campaign to save the polar bears, many people have a fictional idea of what the Arctic is like. Alaskans bristle when people in the Lower 48 claim to know what is best for us for good reason. It's reasonable to want people to come walk a mile in our shoes before telling us how to manage our resources and our land.

But the flip side to that argument is that there is a time and a place for everything, even resource extraction. Even the late Sen. Ted Stevens -- certainly not a man afraid of developing resources in Alaska -- was opposed to the proposed Pebble mine on the grounds that it was the wrong mine in the wrong place. Many argue that safely drilling the Arctic is feasible given today's conditions, but since we don't really have anything on which to base that premise except the calamitous 2012 Arctic drilling season, it's pretty hard to argue legitimately on either side of that debate. It's all speculation, really. The conditions are so remarkably different in the U.S. Arctic than anywhere else drilling has occurred that defining safe practices is really just a shot in the dark. The unknowns far outweigh the knowns in this case, and anyone developing in such an environment is basically crossing their fingers and hoping that all their assumptions are correct.

It's also true that opposing oil extraction across the board while driving a car to and from work is a pretty thin stance at best and hypocrisy at worst. Until we come up with an alternative, oil extraction needs to occur for most of us to survive. Some might even say that from a global health standpoint, it's better off being extracted in the United States than in a country with more lax environmental standards.

The bottom line is that more energy needs to be put into lobbying for alternative energy sources and more support given to scientists coming up with the innovative technology that will hopefully help us out of this oil addiction. Protesting one activity in one location, like drilling in the Arctic, is all well and good if you have an alternative at the ready, but falls a little flat when the reality is very few of us are prepared to go oil free. Beyond that, reducing your own consumption of energy and fossil fuels -- and teaching your children to do so as well -- is a giant step in the right direction.


Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

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)alaskadispatch.com.