SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
DAVID J SKORTON: Thank you. I feel the same about being here today. This is a very, very exciting setting, special occasion. I want to welcome everyone to 2012 Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture. As all of you know, this is Cornell's premier annual event on the environment, a subject that we take so seriously and should take even more seriously. Since 1999, when we opened the series with Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland, the chemist and Nobel laureate who first warned about CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, depleting the earth's ozone layer, the Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture program has brought renowned scholars, scientists, policymakers, opinion leaders, and writers to this campus to discuss critical issues facing us all and our planet.
I thank Jill and Ken for establishing the lecture series. Jill is an educator activist and president of IF Hummingbird Foundation, a family foundation established in 1989 to support domestic and international efforts to strengthen democracy and reduce the social, economic, and educational inequalities that threaten it. And Ken, who is here today, has owned and operated personal communications businesses for more than three decades.
He's a proud member of the Cornell class of 1960, a life member of the Cornell University Council, and was a founding advisory council member of Cornell's Center for the Environment, the forerunner of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Jill and Ken are the parents of two Cornellians-- Zach, class of '01, a graduate of arts and sciences, and Kiva, '03, a graduate of Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Ken, would you please stand and be recognized?
Thank you for making this possible. I also want to recognize and thank David, class of '60, and Pat Atkinson, who are here today and are major benefactors to the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, which sponsors the Iscol Lecture. And I want to thank the Iscol Award Committee and its chair Nelson Hairston, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Environmental Sciences, for selecting this year's lecture. David and Pat, would you please be recognized? And Nelson, please.
David and Pat with the attractive younger people toward the back, and Nelson, who's the guy my age, in the front. Anyway, it's a great honor and a privilege and really a great personal thrill to introduce Peter Matthiessen as this year's Iscol Lecturer. The author of some 30 books, many of which are on our shelf at home, and the only American writer to win a National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction, Peter has combined a love of literature and a love of adventure, the intellectual and the physical, along with a commitment to be the voice for those who cannot speak for themselves, including native peoples, migrant farm workers, and many others.
At age 85, which will seem improbable once you see him, Peter might be called the Pete Seeger of environmental writing. Or, as some of us believe, Pete Seeger might be called the Peter Matthiessen of environmental singing. A powerful voice that has grown ever stronger through lifelong commitment, Peter was born in New York City and educated at St. Bernard's, Hotchkiss, and Yale, spending his junior year at the Sorbonne.
As a new college graduate, he taught creative writing briefly at Yale, then returned to Paris in 1951, where he founded The Paris Review with Harold Humes and George Plimpton and wrote his first novel Race Rock at the age of 26. Returning to the US in 1953 with a young family to support, he worked for three years as a commercial fishermen and charter boat captain out of Montauk, writing in bad weather and during the winter months and publishing a second novel The Partisans, which he had begun during his time abroad. Although his first forays as a professional writer reflected the civilized world in which he grew up, he always had a strong affinity for nature.
In 1956, at age 29, he set off across the country in a green Ford convertible, it is said, to visit every National Wildlife Refuge and to write about wildlife. The result was Wildlife in America, first published in 1959, three years before Silent Spring. In Wildlife in America and his other nonfiction offerings, based on travels that have taken him literally all over the world, Peter demonstrates that what one biographer has called "Thoreau-like powers of observation, coupled with meticulous research and a careful, fluid writing style" have made his works enormously readable and, I believe, enormously compelling. The late William Styron, who knew Mr. Matthiessen from their years together in Paris, called him "an original and powerful artist who has produced as distinguished a body of work as any writer of our time. He has immeasurably enlarged our consciousnesses."
In The Snow Leopard, his account of a 250-mile trek through the high passes of the Himalayas, Mr. Matthiessen not only recounts his travels with biologist George Schaller in search of the blue sheep of Nepal and the elusive snow leopard, but also chronicled a portion of his own spiritual journey as a relatively new student of Zen Buddhism as the travelers make their way to the Crystal Monastery, an ancient Buddhist shrine. As with so many of his books, if you haven't had a chance to delve into The Snow Leopard, I hope you will. The Snow Leopard earned two National Book Awards in 1979 for contemporary thought and in 1980 for general nonfiction in paperback. And Peter's fascination with zen would lead him in 1981 to be ordained as a Buddhist monk.
Mr. Matthiessen's travels to South America inspired him to write The Cloud Forest, a nonfiction work published in 1961 and the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, nominated for a National Book Award in '65 and made into a movie in 1991. Similarly, a journey aboard a turtle-hunting boat in the Caribbean led to an article in The New Yorker about the green sea turtle, its hunters, and its dwindling habitats. But he saved the best material from that trip, including the rich dialogue of the Caymanian crew for his 1975 novel Far Tortuga, which Thomas Pynchon called a "masterfully spun yarn," full of music and strong, haunting visuals. And like everything of his, it's also a deep declaration of love for the planet.
Mr. Matthiessen has also written books of social advocacy, including In the Spirit of Crazy Horse in 1983 in defense of a Native American convicted of killing two FBI agents, which spawned one of the most bitterly fought libel suits in US history and which Mr. Matthiessen and his publisher Viking ultimately won. Other works in this genre include Indian Country, 1984, Salsa Puedes, 1969, about Cesar Chavez's attempt to unionize farm workers in California, and Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork, 1986, about the seine hauler fishermen he knew on Long Island, whose way of life was being threatened by government policies. Peter Matthiessen was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974, and among his other awards are the John Burroughs Medal in 1982, a Global 500 Environmental Achievement Award from the United Nations Environment Program in 1991, the Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002, the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction for Shadow Country, a reshaping of his early trilogy about frontier life in South Florida, and the Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression in 2010.
Mr. Matthiessen has called himself a fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of environmental or social causes or journals of expeditions to wild places. "For many years," he wrote, "I discounted my nonfiction books as worthy in their way, yet somehow inferior to my fiction." This was in an interview for The Paris Review. "Finally, an insightful friend, a painter, pointed out that my fiction and nonfiction in their various forms were only different facets of a single, immense work, the same rage about injustice, the same despair over our lunatic destruction of our own habitat and that of other creatures, an evocation of our splendid Earth in an elegy to the land and life that is being lost. Both lie at the heart of my fiction and nonfiction."
Arctic Alaska is a place that Peter Matthiessen had visited over many years, studying wildlife in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Prudhoe Bay, and the National Petroleum Reserve in talking with native peoples on the Arctic and Bering Sea coast, where climate change is already taking its toll. His topic for today's lecture speaks to those experiences and is entitled "Big Oil and Our First Climate Change Refugees." Please join me in warmly welcoming the 2012 Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecturer Peter Matthiessen.
PETER MATTHIESSEN: Got to make sure you're there. Can everybody hear me? OK in the back row? OK, good. It's a good system. Well, thank you all very much for coming out on this dreadful afternoon.
And I think, first of all, I should thank Cornell, Dr. Hairston, and Dr. [? Defalco ?] and all of the faculty. I've met a number of the faculty in the last few days-- two days-- and they all seem to know more about my subject than I do, which is sort of daunting. But they do know a lot. They're very prominent that way. And also Dr. John Fitzpatrick, who is going to welcome me tomorrow, is here. Where are you?
DR. JOHN FITZPATRICK: Here.
PETER MATTHIESSEN: How do you do? We've talked on the phone, but we haven't really met. Anyway, thank you. He's going to conduct me through your beautiful laboratory, which is famous the world over.
I'd like to also thank Mr. And Mrs. Iscol for having me, as I'm very honored to be a lecturer here after such people as James Hansen and Bill McKibben. I don't know Dr. Hansen. I do know Bill. And they, of course, are very eloquent on the subject of global warming.
The very kind staff of-- oh, I first should thank Paul [? Edward, ?] who has been my constant companion on the phone, making sure everything went smoothly. And it has. And also thank the teachers and students I worked with this morning.
They are very, very generous and hospitable. They didn't all agree with my political stance, but that's OK, too. I'm 85 now. I can say what I want. Hope I make sense; that's all. The old lady who said, how do I know what I think until I hear what I say, as it tends to be with me.
And I also have two guests here. I don't see one of my guests, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga nation. Oren, are you here anywhere? He's on Indian time. All right. But I do want to thank him.
He's been a very staunch friend and ally through a lot of troubles I had with the establishment a few years ago, that lawsuit Dr. Skorton mentioned. And Oren-- actually, I didn't even ask him to do it. He just came all the way from Onondaga, which is near Syracuse, all the way to New York City to speak up for me, representing Indian people at a hearing at the PEN Writers they had for me on freedom of speech. And he just showed up there and gave a talk and said, more or less, we trust this guy; he's a good guy.
So I was honored and delighted. And in absentia, I thank you, Oren, yet again. And also, my grandson Andrew is here somewhere, skulking shyly in the crowd.
ANDREW MATTHIESSEN: [INAUDIBLE].
PETER MATTHIESSEN: Hey! I'm very happy to have him here, too. He's a good guy-- very good guy. So let's get started here.
Let me establish my street cred. I went to the Arctic pretty early in 1957. I have to think. I'll try to figure it out.
And I went all over-- oh, is this a pointer? Is it one of these things? No, that's a pen. It's a pointer. What do you do?
SPEAKER 2: Hit the button on the side right there.
PETER MATTHIESSEN: Oh, good. So you just shoot it up there. Am I still tuned in here? I'm electrified up to the nines. You can't believe it. I'm all wired up.
And I got to travel with Fish and Wildlife Service Pilots. They very kindly got interested in my project, which was a study of extinct and vanishing wildlife. And they endorsed it and they flew me all over Alaska, which was terrific. And well, you can't see on this map. It's actually way out to Nunivak Island, and I went to the Kenai.
No, I didn't go to Nunivak quite yet. I went to the Kenai Peninsula. But the best trip, really, of all, I flew over the Brooks Range, which is here-- you can see these wrinkles-- and up to Point Barrow. And this was the first time, of course, I've ever seen the Barren Ground. It's a huge region up here. It goes all along the coast, between the mountains and the coast, and it has its own very distinct wildlife, but it's untouched.
And I thought, my God, I want to be there on the ground, but I could never get there. It was expensive and very hard to do in those days. I did get to Point Barrow. It was kind of an early flight to Point Barrow, and it was a big thrill.
There were four tourists on the plane, including myself, and there were about 20 local people there, Inupiat Eskimo people. And it was an amazing sight because the tourists were-- boy, they were ready to go. They were photographing as they came off the plane. I'm almost noticing that. And the Inupiat people were photographing them as they were coming off. It was a real standoff.
And I had a great time. And they had a little evening, and they had songs and everything. And they were still very much intact. They still had their sleighs and sled dogs and everything.
In fact, I tried to go birding, and I made my way out. I tried to. I didn't. But they kept the old sled dogs from the winter. They killed most of them, and then they keep the best dogs.
And they're on chains, but their chains are rigged so tight that you've got a dog and a dog and you have to walk a very narrow line or you get eaten. They are very, very savage animals. They're half-wolf, those dogs.
Anyway, but it was exciting and it was a real taste of Eskimo life that I hadn't had. I even saw a guy coming in with a sleigh with a seal on it, and he'd harpooned it and stuff. So that was a thrill.
Then a couple of years later, I was over in-- it's not on the map-- the Ross River, part of the Yukon headwaters, which is over in here. And we were capturing caribou for a domestic herd. And I think the next time I went down the Kuskokwim River to-- it's on the other map, too.
See that little island off the coast? Can you see it? Probably not. There's a little island in the southwest corner of Alaska there, right there. It's called Nunivak, and it was the only place in North America where they still had muskox.
There was a herd of muskox there, and we were trying to make a domesticated herd for the Inupiat people to give them another economic hold. You know that muskox have the underneath guard hair called qiviut-- q-i-v-i-u-t. It's the only word in the language that has no "u" after the "q" and is therefore a great favorite in crossword puzzles. If you do crossword puzzles, remember qiviut.
The project didn't work. Qiviut was so good. It worked so well. It was like cashmere. It was very, very soft, and it was very, very hot. We couldn't make a sweater that anybody could keep on more than two minutes. It was really, incredibly hot stuff.
So that kind of failed, and they moved these animals to Palmer, outside of Fairbanks. And then they moved them and they scattered them around. They put a little herd in at Nome, which is not on the map, either, and another in the Arctic Refuge and another-- where's that third one? It will come to me. I assume there's still a little herd on Nunivak-- maybe a big herd.
So then I went to work for a guy who was on the board here at the Lab of Ornithology called Victor Emanuel, and he has a nature safari, ornithological safari company out of Austin, Texas. And I've been a field leader for him for 30 years, and we've been everywhere in the world. It was a great boon to me. It was free travel to places I was dying to get to anyway.
On my wildlife survey with the pilots up there, we went up to Barrow, and then we flew east and west out of Barrow, looking for polar bear up there. And in those days, we still had ice in the Arctic Sea, and it was solid frozen right up onto the land. There was huge, thick ice barrier, ice wall. Unfortunately, it was marred by a lot of dead dogs, huskies, which had been executed.
And the ice hadn't drifted out. They usually have all their winter garbage out there, plus dead dogs, and they expect it to drift out at a certain time in the Spring. But the Arctic was still tight with ice, and they didn't drift out. But I bravely made my way out through them, went out exploring.
I had an extraordinary experience. I was out there about a half mile on the ice. There was nothing but white ice. Way in the distance, you could see a little water. And I saw a very colorful thing and an ice pool right in the ice cake of the ice pack.
And I rushed forward. I think I thought I was going to discover a new form of algae or something. It was very bright and oddly colored, and I thought, what can that be in this very wild corner. And what it turned out to be-- what do they call it? It's a little package of ice cream.
What was that called, that product? And it always had a picture of a movie star on it inside the cover. And what I was looking at, down through that water, was a picture of Victor Mature. Somebody actually sold ice cream to the Eskimos. They had done it.
I don't spend want to spend too much time-- I'm very easily distracted, so don't hesitate to yell. With Victor, I went to Churchill on Hudson's Bay, which is a wonderful wildlife destination-- terrific birding. I was lucky enough to hit it the year that Ross's Gull made its first nest in North America. It nested right in a beautiful little pond outside just the edge of the Eskimo village there.
And also, we went back again in October. And having missed the polar bears on Point Barrow, I saw 38 polar bear. They all convened at Cape Churchill on Hudson's Bay. They were waiting for that ice to come back, because they want to eat a seal worse than anything in the world. And they're not used to eating on land, and I'm afraid they're going to have to get used to it or go because the ice is going so fast now.
As you know, the Arctic Ocean is virtually clear in the summertime now. And even in my lifetime, it was solidly iced over. It would be. So that's too bad. And then I went back to-- where'd I go next?
Well, actually, I love the Arctic. So I went to Iceland and I went to far northern Greenland and Kamchatka and other places, sometimes with a bird tour, sometimes for a magazine article or something-- so another territory, so to speak. And then I started going, thank God, to the Arctic Refuge. I had never been able to get there, and I got down to the most extraordinary circumstances.
You couldn't get there. There are no roads in, there's no trail, there's nothing. You've got to fly in, and it's a very expensive duty. There's no airstrip in there, even. They land on the banks or on an ice floe or something. And I really had kind of given up hope of going there.
And a guy from Calcutta-- a young computer scientist is what he is, engineer, what he was-- and his hobby was photographing wildlife. And he went to Churchill, and he saw the polar bears there, which at that time he saw them in the Churchill dump, which is not a good way to see polar bears. And he was very frustrated, and he heard that he could see polar bears in the High Arctic.
So he went, he flew, used all his money. He was broke when I knew him. And he flew to Kaktovik-- do you see Kaktovik on there-- which is an Inupiat village, and it's on the shore. It's just all an island just off the shore of the Arctic Refuge. And he made friends with a guy named Robert Thompson, who was Inupiat and also Athabaskan Dene Indian.
And so he represents both tribes that are in that area. And they went out and they sat in a snow drift for 30 days, and they got pictures of a mother sow bear coming out with the cubs. He got some extraordinary pictures, and he's a lovely, enthusiastic man and a very good photographer. And he did a book called-- what was his book called; my memory is terrible, forgive me-- The Seasons of Land and Life.
And I wrote an article about the refuge and about big oil, and that was in that book, too. And then we went back. We went back to-- actually, I want to talk to what I'm really getting at here.
I don't want to talk too much about big oil. I have a very bad feeling about big oil. I don't mind telling you.
Of course we need petroleum. We need it for many, many things, and we're going to use oil for many years to come. We can't get ourselves-- won't be over to alternative heating anytime soon. We will increase the percentage of it, but we're still stuck with fossil fuel. And that's too bad, but that's the way it is.
And we have to work in those terms, always forcing our politicians to work toward fossil fuel. Exxon Mobil, which in my opinion is the biggest corporate outlaw in the history of the country-- and that includes the ghouls and Rockefellers and everybody-- they have been working for years. Let me say briefly. The Arctic Refuge didn't exist when I flew to Barrow the first time. It came in years later.
And then in 1980, its territory was doubled by the Alaska Lands Act, and all kinds of land was moved around. But the refuge, I'm glad to say, was doubled. Big oil insisted on a clause-- and here you see the refuge-- in there that a certain region-- it was called clause 10-02.
10-02, they call it. It's this darker area here. You see, these are the mountains. You can see the wrinkled mountains, and then the 10-02 is this area just here and all the rest of the refuge is mountain-- very sharp, inhospitable desert kind of mountains and then forest. This is all taiga forest here.
And so it's a small area. And it's also just the westward part of the thing. And that 10-02, unfortunately, ajoins the Prudhoe Bay oilfield and what's called the Barrow Oil Formation, which goes really from Barrow around in kind of a circle. All this area out here is very, very promising for oil. But the oil companies wanted to drill in the 10-02, and the 10-02 is a sacred place for American Indian people.
There's an Athabaskan tribe called the Dene, called the [INAUDIBLE], Dene-speaking like the Navajo, and they live in these forests here and over in here, also in Canada-- Porcupine River. And the Porcupine River herd of caribou is a very big herd. It has the longest migration route of any terrestrial animal on Earth, and at the end of the route it arrives in the 10-02.
We call it the 10-02, or that place over there, but they call it the sacred place where life begins. That's how valuable and precious it is to them, and they never go there. They feel it's a sacred transgression.
They wait for the caribou. The caribou go out there. It's very rich cotton grass out there. It's also, as you will see, close to the mountains. But if they go out there, it's far enough away that the grizzlies and the wolves, who've been pursuing them the whole way of their-- their migration begins way, way down here.
And they work out and they work out. They wander in these woods, they go over into Canada, and then they work their way back and they go across here and end up there. Very rich cotton grass, very good nourishing grass, and very good for the milk they need for the calves because they haven't got much time.
And also, way out near the coast, there's not many mosquitoes, which otherwise are plaguing them. You can't believe. They're covered with flies and mosquitoes, the poor things. But there they are.
But as I say, the [INAUDIBLE]-- they think of them more or less as the Plains Indians thought of the Buffalo and the Pacific Coast tribes thought of the salmon. It was a sacred, sacred, sacred creature. And in the wintertime, the caribou come back more or less due south, and they work their way back into the Porcupine River drainage and they're hunted. That's when they hunt them.
And they use every single bit of that animal. Nothing is wasted. And they need it. It's critical to their existence. The Inupiat are marine hunters, of course. They do hunt polar bear, but they're after whales. They hunt bowhead whales up there and seals, of course, and polar bear. But they also have a shorter hunting season, and they do come into the 10-02.
And I asked Robert Thompson, this guy who lives in Kaktovik, a hunter. I said, what do you people call that region? And he said, we have no name for it. He said, it's just home. That's the name.
And what wonderful simplicity. That is home. And, like most indigenous people, they are the people. Hey, look at us, we're the people; that's home, that's our home. I love that. You get everything down that, and you'll be great.
He's an extraordinary man, and he has now become-- he just was a hunter and a harpoon man on a whale cruise for the bowhead, but now he's become a real voice for Alaskan conservation. And he's one of the key people in the organization called Red Oil, which is the indigenous groups which are fighting the big oil companies. It's a very, very tough fight. Big oil owns Alaska. I'm sorry to say they really own the White House and the Congress, too.
If you look at it carefully, they really do. They have such a grasp on our economy and market system. And I'm just going to get it off my chest. When I see these people reward themselves million dollar bonuses on top of their million dollar salaries, right in the face of millions of Americans really suffering, really suffering their whole lives shadowed and shattered by this recession and these guys choking in the money, I tell you, I don't know how you could do it.
I don't know how you could look at yourself in the mirror. And yet, oh, we owe it to the stockholders. The stockholders are loaded, too, of course. And on top of that, of course, the pollution, the terrific pollution.
And they're not very careful about it. They will do as much as they can get away with. They fight regulation as anything. They don't like rules and the regulations which protect us from chemicals and mercury and everything. And Exxon is particularly bad because they undercut the whole climate science as best they can.
They have think-tanks. They have paid scientists who are always speaking up. They call themselves skeptics. Hey, 97% of the qualified scientists in the world think there's no question about climate change, global warming-- no question. And they have contempt for this and contempt for the people who are always trying to shoot them down.
And unfortunately, we have a lot of very ignorant people like that in Congress. They come in and they still want to hammer down all the legislation, all the work. I know so many good people whose work for many, many years, including myself, but I'm not talking about myself. Because I at least have my writing. But if I were a scientist and I devoted my whole career to finding out the facts and trying to make some sense of it and getting legislation through that would control some of the pollution and corruption and then this all being shut down by these climate skeptics.
I equate them with Holocaust deniers, people who fly in the face of incredible archives of fact and just say that it never happened, that kind of thing-- or Flat Earthers, maybe, Flat Earthers or creationists. Over half the people in this country-- and a lot of them are in the Congress-- believe in the creationist theory, the intelligent design, so-called, which is roughly the idea that the world was created 6,000 years ago, despite, again, mountains of evidence to the contrary. There are 60,000 species of beetles alone.
I can only say I know why the intelligent designer rested on Sunday. He was busy, boy. So I'm sorry to rant at you, and I promised myself I would not get on my soapbox. But I've just got to get that off my chest.
But luckily for the world, the Arctic Refuge in 1980, when they went in there, they reserved the right to drill and prospect in the 10-02, Big Oil did. And as soon as it went through, they started lobbying like hell, paying off people. And by 1989, they more or less had it.
People were licked. They just could not fight the surge of money and power and bought-off senators and people whose whole campaigns were paid for by these people. And it looks like it was done until November 1989, and something happened called the Exxon Valdez spill. Remember the Exxon Valdez?
Here's Prudhoe. This is the so-called [INAUDIBLE], the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It goes down up north and south. It's the only railroad in Alaska, but it does that. And it goes all the way south to a port called Valdez. And this big oil freighter of Exxon Mobil-- it was called the Exxon Valdez.
That's how it got its name. And it spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Prince Edward Sound. Now, it's on the record. People have written editorials about it.
The first thing that Exxon Mobil did was not, how do we clean this up, go to the Coast Guard, go to who might deal with this incredible mess, this ship just spouting. And it's a huge ship. It was just out of the port. The captain turned out to be a little drunk, which is part of the whole callus way they went about things.
And instead of that, they went right to Madison Avenue, and they got a publicity firm to cover their butt. That's what they're interested in doing. That was the big interest. They were convicted in court of damages-- very large damages, too.
And I read a court report about this. They spent 10 years trying to dodge payment to these people, who are poor people and were out of business, who were really out of business. This great polluted thing that had been there, fishing ground all those years and Valdez and all the other ports there. And that company's whole record has been like that.
Now, the other big oil we saw-- at least BP and their spill, they did pay damages. They immediately did that. I think maybe they learned off Exxon. There was such public outcry about Exxon's performance, but they at least did that. But their methods were just as sloppy, just as bad, and it happened through carelessness.
It wasn't an accident. It was almost doomed to happen the way they were set up, and they'd had a spill in Alabama a few years before that that killed 15 people. This is BP again. And in the Arctic, they're terrible polluters up here at Prudhoe-- terrible. They lead the way.
In fact, the whole pipeline had to be closed down because of BP spills. And by the way, spills weren't just the Exxon Valdez. There's an average spill every day on that pipeline in Prudhoe Bay-- smaller, of course, but nonetheless that's a hell of a lot of wasted oil.
They just have not been responsible or careful or considerate of other citizens. It's our refuge. This is the state of America. It's not owned by those people.
Well, what I want to talk today is Shell Oil. Shell Oil also has a checkered career, to put it very mildly. Some of you may remember the [? Ngoni ?] in Nigeria. They control the oil in the Niger Delta-- a very, very big oil deposit. And they've been exploiting it for years with the cooperation of the dictator there, Sani Abacha.
And they actually, apparently with Shell connivance, had eight people executed, Ngoni tribes people who were dissidents. They said, you ruined our whole land and it's just auto pollution and mercury and God knows what. The whole place was a terrible mess, and they executed eight people on the beach of that delta.
And one of the people was the great Nigerian poet called Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was really a very good poet. And he had been protesting. It's our job as writers to protest, and I'm glad he was there. But they executed him, too, and he was a real big guy in Nigeria.
Shell was-- they were guilty in that, too. But anyway, Shell are the people who now want to drill in the Arctic Sea. When I was out there, when I was working out there, they had been there for years. They have never been able to prepare an environmental impact statement that passed muster, even with our Department of the Interior, which often is not particular.
They finally passed one with what's called the Minerals Management Service, which is part of Interior, which turned out to be-- surprise, surprise-- in bed with the oil company and literally in bed, in some cases-- a lot of freeloading and drink and who knows what-- a very corrupt service. And I will say for President Obama, when he came in they threw it out. They dismantled that whole thing. It was so corrupt, it was a disgrace. But it really is a big boon to big oil, and they did pass Shell's environmental impact statement. And so everything was said again, and then, thank God or court, a judge threw it out and said, this is unsatisfactory, inadequate, and so forth.
Well, I have so much to tell you, and I'm still so passionate about it that I've gotten-- where do I go next? I'm going to just step back for a second. Have you all seen my nice lecture coat?
I want to say something about the refuge itself, a far more agreeable subject than the big oil companies. You know, Senator Stevens-- big oil owns Alaska completely, lock, stock, and barrel, and they pay people's taxes and nobody's going to get rid of them. They are locked in. They're solid, so you can't possibly win politically up there.
And Senator Stevens was a big oil lobbyist before he died, and he went out and he looked at the refuge-- a wasteland out there. And Senator Murkowski said the same thing-- ah, terrible place. Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, who's independent, he went and he said in Congress, Senator Chafee-- Senator Stevens, I don't know what you're talking about. That's the most beautiful place I've ever seen, and I've been in all 49 states. I agree. I was amazed at how beautiful it was.
You go up there through this spectacular piece. The Brooks Range is an extension of the Rockies, and they are really- it's not just a little line of hills. They're really beautiful, beautiful mountains. And you go over the mountains, and then this-- where we were, it was-- well, it doesn't matter. You can sort of see a river system. It's called the Kongakut River. And the plane put us down on a sandbar, Caribou Pass. It was on the caribou migration route.
And we were there. And we rafted down from there. Incredibly beautiful. You have all three North American bears are there, you have muskox, which occur almost nowhere else, you have moose. Now, the moose is really a product of global warming, things are warming up, but nonetheless, they're there. And this extraordinary herd of caribou, thousands and thousands and thousands of caribou. Enormous-- if you like wildflowers, wow, it's an incredible place. Wolverine, wolves, everything.
I wrote a book about the cranes, the [INAUDIBLE] cranes, and sandhill cranes are they're bugling all the time. And we went all the way down to the lagoon on the coast, and there you can fish for grayling and Arctic char. I had a fly rod. Very good fishing. And we camped out, finally, out on this reef called Icy Reef and just looked back at the mountains, which are right there. They're only 20 miles away from the coast there. It's just this-- everything is kind of a golden haze and mist, and you see these caribou silhouettes and these big cranes, and anything that comes along you, just see them moving through the mist. And it's just absolutely ravishing. And behind them the snow peaks rising up, because there's still snow at that time of year.
And wow, if you're a birder, birds come to that refuge from all over the world. I mean, all over. New Zealand, two species of Asian curlews, everything, I mean it's just incredible. And the song and everything is going all the time. It's just a thrilling place to be. And lots of seals, and lots of big bear tracks. Polar bear, too, boy, they are very impressive tracks. And especially near your tent. I loved it there. It was truly beautiful. Falcons-- and then, I was there, we were there about a week, and then I flew to Kaktovik, talked to Robert Thompson about the Inupiat problem. And he was the guy who really first sort of filled me in on the problems Inuit people were having now because of global warming.
They're whalers. They're only allowed three whales a year, and they only whale one day. The International Whaling Commission has a limit on indigenous whaling. By the way, this whale meat is never sold. It's given away. They take care of the old people and poor people, and that's what it is. But it's ceremonially just as important as it is as food, but it's quite a lot of food, you see a whale laying on the beach, you know.
And he said now, because the ice is melting, what happens, they have to go further and further from shore to get to the ice. When they get there, it's thinner. A man steps out of the kayak, tries to get onto the ice, and it breaks. And the polar bears, when they try to do that, it breaks. And there are a lot of polar bears drowning now, is unheard of, just dead bears washing up. And the polar bear's like the iconic animal. This is the one we think of, is representing it. But it's also the walruses and the seals, they're just as bad shape. These are all animals that the ice is part of their habitat. It's just a kind of a thing out there. And they need it very, very badly, and those animals are vanishing.
Now, what I am speaking about today is the people, because fond as I am of wildlife, these are people, and they're very good people. You know, I liked them so much the first time I went down [INAUDIBLE]. I just thought that they have a terrific spirit. They are cheerful and they're funny, and they're so adaptable in what they can do.
I remember they have-- they'll take an old outboard motor that somebody else threw away, I mean a real junker, rust-filled outboard, and they'll take it back to the camp and they will take it apart, and they'll take it apart, every-- down to the last nut, because if you're out on the ice and you have a breakdown, you've more or less had it. You've got to be able to put that thing, get it working again. And even little things like the [INAUDIBLE], they use elk sinew, they do little things, you know. And I was actually thrilled-- I saw a young girl, 14 or 15, and she had a big outboard, out at the edge of the village, there, and she was taking it apart, even now. Even if they have a new outboard, they do it.
And of course, they are the pilots, they're the air pilots of Alaska. They're very, very good pilots indeed. And I remember one of them, I got in a plane to go somewhere, up to Fort Yukon or somewhere. People in the plane were slapping mosquitoes, there were a few mosquitoes trapped in the plane, you know, and they had a guy-- Eskimo guy who was the pilot. And so he said, without cracking a smile, of course, he said, you better get the last one, because if one of them things bites me, I tend to pass out.
That is Indian humor. [INAUDIBLE]. Am I still audible back there? I don't seem to have much of a voice.
OK, so then, I had more direct experience of the whaling and the Shell Oil Company. We went up again and we went to Coldfoot, you see where Coldfoot is there on the [INAUDIBLE] road. And we then from there we flew, and we went back through Anaktuvuk Pass, which is here. No, I guess it's about-- yeah, about there-- which means caribou dropping pass, because it's a big passageway for caribou migration north of the-- this is a separate herd. This is the western caribou herd. It's even bigger, but it also has this annual migration. And it is hunted, but not nearly as hard, because there aren't so many people there. I mean, there's nobody there. This is really empty empty, empty, empty country.
And we flew up to see the [INAUDIBLE] plateau, which is about here. And that is part of the national oil preserve. For all this talk about dependency on foreign oil and all that kind of thing, that oil preserve, which has got a lot of oil in it, a lot of coal and natural gas, too, that's been available since 1923. It's sitting right there. They can lease that any time they want. Why aren't they there instead of out in the Arctic Ocean?
I'm going to read you something in a second about drilling in the Arctic Ocean that is terrifying, what they're up against. And you think, oh my god, if that can happen in the gulf, how about here? We went up there, but before I tell you about that other, I'm going to tell you about something that happened on [INAUDIBLE] Plateau. We flew over, overflew that caribou migration, the western caribou. And there were caribou all along the [INAUDIBLE] river, they were coming down. And the little plane's great which you can see. You can see ptarmigan taking off, and they're being up by [INAUDIBLE] falcons, you know, and these white-- like confetti suddenly going.
You see thing like that. And you can see the animals. You can see the herd animals. You can see the grizzlies and stuff like that. I didn't see a wolf from the plane. I've seen it elsewhere. But it was quite an exciting trip. We made camp on a beautiful river and there were a few caribou there around already, and they were coming in. And we had nesting [INAUDIBLE] and all kinds of stuff. It was a lovely place.
We took a walk the next day up the river, and the guy who was paying for everything, he's our sponsor, he's a businessman from Seattle, very, very generous guy. And he loves the Arctic. And he had a telescope and he was fiddling with it, and he said wait. And he said, I have a wolf in the scope. So we all came forward to look, and there in the lens was the most beautiful white wolf. Pure white wolf. I had never seen a white wolf. And you could tell that it was a bitch wolf. You can tell it was a female. There was something so delicate about it. And not only that, it was laying on the edge of the river on sort of sedges that had washed up and were sort of matted. It was laying on a kind of a bed of sedges, dry sedge. And it lay-- it was lying like this, and it was watching us.
If you have a dog and you see a dog lying like this, it's a pretty secure dog. It's not a natural thing for a wild animal to do, to cross its legs, because you want to go away. But there she was. And she just watched us in this absolutely peaceful way. And then out from the sedges behind her came a male wolf, a big gray wolf. And he saw us too, , and he didn't care, but he wouldn't fight neither.
So it was a funny thing. She trotted up across the little stream and she went up on the riverbank and came down near us. She was only-- she was about as far away as the wall here. And then the male came into us. He just wanted to see what these things were, and he came in and, then the willows kind of ran out on him. He completely ran out of cover. He didn't-- and he stopped. He didn't want to come out into the completely open ground, but he was as close as you are. First row. Gave us a real look over. And then he went over and he joined the female up on the bank, and then they both looked at us.
And he sniffed all around, tried to find out. And then he led her back. He was uneasy, but he was just naturally, like a wild animal would be, but he was not the least bit frightened. He led her back a few yards and they just lay down in the grass and took in the show with these white guys that are-- and I realized, it was so thrilling. I realized these animals had never seen a human being before. Never. This was their first taste of human company. There are hundreds of them about maybe 200 miles from the coast, and so even the Eskimo hunters hadn't gotten up that deep. That was thrilling.
And imagine playing games with that. Imagine seeking to destroy the Arctic Refuge, which is the most precious landscape we have. It's our most valuable national park. It's a greater wildlife park even than Yellowstone, which has been our greatest park. And to sacrifice it, and they found out now there isn't really very much oil there. All the oil is offshore. That's where Shell Oil has its-- is getting its permits. It's supposed to be out there this summer. It has permits to drill four wells out there this summer. If they pass its environmental statement, the final permit, that's what they're going to be doing.
I want to just read you-- I won't do this in full or anything, I'm just giving you a little taste of what they're up against.
When the energy industry's 27-year campaign to drill the refuge coastal plain was forestalled by the Republican loss of Congress in 2006, the Inupiat and the [? Tshimshian, ?] who had the most to lose, were among those Americans most relieved that Big Oil's unrelenting pursuit of fossil fuel into the heart of America's most pristine and magnificent wildlife sanctuary had at last been slowed. We thought, at last, you know. But as it turns out, the industry was less interested in the refuge as a marginal oil and gas field than as a shore base for a vast drilling operation in the oil-bearing strata not far off the coast, with even more ominous implications for the native people.
Faithfully supported by the Bush administration, corporations like Shell Oil are expediting plans to prospect and develop Alaska's continental shelf, littering the Beaufort Sea with drilling ships and wells, supply ships and barges, airplane and helicopter racket, blasted out harbors, ice-fortified steel piers, and hundreds of miles of pipe. Not only an immense increase in contamination and disturbance, but an incalculably risky project that threatened to overwhelm the adaptive capacity of the indigenous sea hunters and an entire precious ecosystem already seriously under stress from Arctic warming.
You know, it's the Arctic, for some reason, that's not quite explained yet. This is Alaska, and the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, both poles, are warming twice as fast as any other place on Earth. And they don't quite understand the mechanics of that, how that is happening, but it is happening. And the permafrost is all melting, and that's-- I'll get in a minute, briefly, to the villages that are suffering.
Environmentalists are quite aware that despite society's desperate need for clean energies, carbon fuels will drive the world economy for years to come, and political pressures from ocean drilling may be insurmountable. But the risks of ecological disaster from irreparable accidents such as oil spills in Arctic seas are truly enormous, which is why critics feel so strongly that the oil industry's ambitions are premature at best, and at worst, reckless. In addition to severe operating and maintenance difficulties in fierce Arctic conditions, never satisfactorily tamed even on land, any offshore drilling operation would have to deal with freezing ocean storms, hurricane winds, shifting ice, and four bitter months of white darkness-- of winter darkness.
When one considers the more than 4,000 spills recorded by the oil industry in its land operations in the last decade, and keeping in mind that offshore hazards are far greater, the inevitable accidents seem certain to accumulate into an ongoing and permanent calamity, a black effluvia of crude petroleum and drifting mud-- and drilling mud and chemical pollutants would spread inshore, suffocating plankton and invertebrates and bottom-dwelling fish and poisoning great stretches of Arctic coast with the viscous excrescence. The same toxic mixture will blacken the drifting ice, fouling the pristine habitat of Arctic birds, the Pacific walrus, four species of seals, and the beleaguered polar bear while contaminating the migratory corridors of the white beluga whale and the endangered bowheads.
All this defilement made much worse by the grim fact that no technology has ever been developed for cleaning up spilled oil in icy waters. Shell admits that if a spill occurred within-- they have only a two month period of operation without the ice-- if something occurs outside of that, they can't do anything about it until the next year. So all the while, the well is pumping and pumping and pumping oil out. To take that chance, even, is insane. They admit they can't control it, but they claim, they claim, actually, they dare to claim they will pick up 95% of any spill. They know that's not true.
How is it that our corporations feel free to lie? They lie, and they lie, and they lie, and monstrous, dangerous lies like that. The Exxon Mobil-- to clean up their-- the Exxon Valdez, rather, I think they got-- and they did, finally, a pretty good job, as best they could, 15% of the spilled oil. The spilled oil is still there in the undersand layer. It's still seeping even now, 30 years later. The Deepwater spill two years ago, they got about 3%, because it was pumping oil all that time without any containing.
And yet Shell Oil has the gall to tell us they're going to pick up 95% of theirs in an impossible environment. These are offshore wells. That means running a pipe-- they're 40 miles offshore, their drilling sites. That means running a pipe from somewhere that's really off the refuge, so mainly where they're out here somewhere. They have to run pipes from there under shifting eyes and enormous storm seas, all the way to land, and it's too far to go to [INAUDIBLE].
What they want to do is they want to bring to shore in the [INAUDIBLE], which means an incredible big infrastructure of buildings, roads. You can't even build roads except in the dead of winter, because it's so soggy. And it's getting soggy by the minute because it's melting. Completely unstable platform for all of this building construction. And they know nothing, or next to nothing about the ecology of the Arctic Ocean. So they're going in there completely ignorant.
I'm just amazed that we put up with it. I really am. I don't see why. There should be a revolution. I know you think I'm a roaring old communist, but I'm not.
I don't like the communist system at all, but this is very bad. It's very bad. It's the plutocracy we live in here. And so all these studies which have pointed out that this inequity of income is fatally damaging. It skews the whole society and it has a very toxic effect on virtually everything. And in the last 30 years, since 1980, it has taken hold. There's no more accountability. Have you ever seen an oil executive take into account? The Deepwater Horizon killed 11 men. At BP's earlier one in Alabama, 15 people. Those were people who were killed out of carelessness. Are they just expendable? Well, it's been shown that these people have been careless and they're forgotten to put the plug in or something.
Well, you didn't come to hear a soapbox lecture. We went-- from the wolves, we went down to the coast to Point Lay which is here. That's Point Lay there, I think. And Point-- no, that's Point Hope, sorry, that's Point Hope. Point Hope is probably the oldest settlement in North America. It could easily-- it is arguably the oldest. It's at least 11,000 years old. And it's an amazing place, because it's, as you see, it's a point. It sticks way out into the Bering Sea.
And amazingly enough, we walked out to the tip of the point. There are not one, but three villages that they've had to abandon. They're always backing up. And there's three villages, the remains of three villages out there. You see the beginning of what's happening. It's not quite so bad yet in the Beaufort Sea. Kaktovik, they've had to change the airport. The airport got flooded out, but the village is still more or less intact. But they're all-- there's not a village on that coast, there's about 200 villages, and they're all extremely easy, and a few of them are in emergency. And they cannot-- they decided to move 20 years ago and they haven't gotten any help.
And it's not that much. They'll say, well, it's expensive, of course, to move a village, but when it's only 100 people, 120 people, it isn't so bad. And if you think back, if you think on it a bit, the bonus, the bonus of a big oil executive would pay for moving the whole village. What kind of justice is that? And these people can't do anything. And this is a noble culture. This is a culture we do not want to lose, I think. They are incredible. They're wise and they are just wonderful people. And there aren't very many of them. All these coastal, little coastal villages. And those villages, one by one, are being flooded out, and with it, probably the language, the peoples, the families aren't together anymore. They scattered. Great, great, great, great pity.
Kivalina-- if you want to read about this, by the way, there's an excellent book called Kivalina. Kivalina's a village. It's actually south of where we are. This is Point Hope, and Kivalina, well-- why do I have such trouble with this thing? I think I'm not mechanically inclined. Kivalina is actually down about here. And then there's another village called Shishmaref. Those two are really being flooded out all of there. They've flooded out the oil generators, they flooded out the sewage system, and they're living in terrible- all the little huts are sort of swaying on boardwalk planks. And nobody is helping them, least of all, you know who.
I'm just going to finish up my tour. We went from Point Hope up to Point Lay, which is up in here. And there we saw Point Lay has to move, too. But they don't hung the bowhead whale there. They hunt the beluga, the white beluga whale, which is a small-toothed whale. And it's not-- the bowhead is in trouble. It was very scarce for a while, now it's come back quite a lot. But it wasn't bad trouble. The beluga is not really in trouble. It's quite a common animal.
And they have a hunt there. It's the same as the one in Kaktovik. They hunt only one day a year, and they do not sell the meat. They make sure that everybody-- and they said they sell meat-- and they send meat to all their relatives in [INAUDIBLE], [INAUDIBLE], and all these places. And we got to go on this hunt. Now I don't like-- I've been arguing against whale hunting forever, but I don't have any objection to an indigenous whale hunt where every scrap is used. And also, they've done-- they do their hunt, it's worked out very mercifully. Even though they kill a number of beluga, they're not allowed-- they finish them off with rifles, where they harpoon them first, so that any wounded animal won't get away, and then they come up, bang. It's pretty quick and there's not much thrashing around. But they do take quite a few of them.
But what we were doing is we were herding these animals. They come up from the south along the coast. And they get word--I don't know how they get word that the beluga are on their way, right. And they go out on little skiffs, tiny skiffs in the Bering Sea. And it's rough. It can be rough. And they just sort of guide these whales along. They guide them and they cut them off if they try to go into a lagoon, they keep them out in the open water. And they herd them all the way to their village, which is up at the top of that. Let's take a look, lagoon there, right in front of the village. And that's where they have the killing. And then they haul them across to the burial island.
But there's no night, so it's about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, crazy Arctic midnight sun, you know, it's a wonderful light. And I remember coming through that lagoon, coming through the pass, and these white animals just churning around the boat, they're as big as the boat. You know, they're not big whales, but they're whales. And it was one of the most exciting things I've ever seen. I felt very sad. I felt sorry about the whales, but it was in a good cause, in this case. It helps these people keep going and it's part of their tradition.
I had all kinds of good things to tell you, but I want to tell you one little Indian saying that I heard. It was from a [? Gwitch'in ?] elder from Arctic Village. We were [INAUDIBLE] Arctic Village for awhile, which is just outside the refuge in the woods and the rivers. And this was the guy that for whom that refuge was sacred. Arctic Village is up in here, I think, maybe in here. Anyway, just outside, right about here. It's a wonderful village.
And these people, who have no money, and they refused the term of the Alaska Lands Act, which they could have-- given a great big piece of land, they said no, our ancestral land was thus and thus, and we're holding out for that. And they are poor as church mice. But with the little money they have they've introduced solar, alternative power to their-- they have a tiny laundromat, and the laundromat is solar heated. Everything they do, they're bringing old people back to the village to teach them their language, because when a tribe loses its language it's pretty well shot.
An extremely impressive bunch, and they would not give in. And they kept suing the oil companies, and they refused. And meanwhile the Inupiat did sign up. They were broke, too, but they've come around now. Now they're against Big Oil, and they politically have come full circle, and they are with the [? Gwitch'in, ?] and a solid body of people trying to do something. So I hope we all wish them well. Anyway, [? Trimble ?] Gilbert, who is an elder in Arctic Village, and he said for all of this-- he was telling me about all the little [INAUDIBLE] and things which have disappeared, even swallows, since oil came in there. And he said, God may forgive us, but our children won't. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER 2: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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Author and conservationist Peter Matthiessen, a two-time National Book Award winner, delivered the 2012 Iscol Environmental Lecture before a packed Statler Auditorium April 23.
The annual Iscol lecture, presented by the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, brings prominent leaders to campus to discuss crucial environmental issues.