Towards environmental justice for a changing Arctic and its original peoples
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Rising temperatures in the Arctic are spawning a new era of industrial interest in this region. While development projects like the Arctic offshore drilling program present the opportunity for much-needed regional economic growth and employment they also represent a significant risk to the traditional subsistence way of life that has been pursued by the Iñupiat on Alaska’s North Slope for millennia. The difficulties that the Iñupiat now face in terms of finding ways to balance their economic and cultural needs within a changing Arctic have only been exacerbated by a colonial ‘politics of nature’, which has both historically as well as currently worked to limit their abilities to effectively advocate for their own self-determined lives and futures as a sovereign people. Within the offshore drilling program, this has meant that the concerns and perspectives of the Iñupiat have been marginalized by its decision-making processes because of the intellectual superiority long afforded to Western ways of knowing, which is itself the product of a socially constructed divide between culture and nature that is upheld by dominant society. Such contemporary injustice is further compounded by those ‘well-meaning’ acts of forced cultural assimilation such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which has profoundly altered the economic and political positioning of the Iñupiat in ways that have left them vulnerable to the siren call of offshore development. By exposing the indirect exploitation and procedural marginalization that the Iñupiat have thus far experienced within the offshore drilling program, this project highlights how intervening in these cycles of injustice requires a willingness to meaningfully engage with cultural difference and other ways of knowing and relating to nature. The integrated understanding of culture and nature held by many indigenous societies like the Iñupiat fundamentally rejects the idea that ‘business as usual’ development scenarios should entail such potentially high environmental and social costs. Ultimately, contemporary global society must be willing to respect and explore these perspectives in order to build an environmentally just future for a changing Arctic that reflects both the contemporary desires as well as the traditional values of its original peoples.