It happens all around the world, every day – corporate enclosures of shared, sustainably managed renewable resources. Brutal abuses of the land, colossal disruptions of communities. And yet investors and corporate management always cast themselves as the champions of progress, civilization, jobs and the public good – and respectable opinion somehow accepts the ecological insanity of the plans as necessary. We know the rest of the story.
These thoughts were provoked by a recent commentary about a massive proposed open-pit mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska. The project is being pushed by a British-Canadian corporate alliance, the Pebble Partnership, which audaciously claims that its mining could power “green energy initiatives.” The Pebble Partnership's website helpfully notes that “the difference between being a stone age culture and a post-stone age culture is metal,” implying that the Pebble Mine is just another step forward for civilization and away from the Stone Age.
The truth is that under a best-case scenario, the mining of copper, gold and molybdenum near Bristol Bay will destroy up to 90 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands. The mining operations will supposedly confine billions of tons of mine tailings within 700-foot tall dams. But in a place where earthquakes are common and the land is wet and the wilderness pristine….well, we all know that “accidents will happen.” If the mine is built, you can be sure that a BP-style disaster will eventually ruin the biggest spawning grounds for sockeye salmon in the world.
I think it helps to take these discussions down to the human level rather than leaving them at the abstract, impersonal macro-level, the plane of discussion that most economists and politicians prefer. Callan J. Chythlook-Sifsof, an indigenous Eskimo of Yupik/Inupiat background, was raised in a remote region of Alaska whose everyday culture revolved around salmon. As he writes in a recent NYT essay:
Fishing is what every family does. It is who we are. I spent my summers on the back deck of family fishing boats working multiple fisheries. The boats and fish camps are maintained by generations of families harvesting salmon not only for income, but also for food.
I remember long days of processing hundreds of pounds of salmon, setting nets, cleaning and filleting, filling tubs of salt brine, putting fresh water in clean white buckets and hanging neat rows to dry and smoke. Enjoying the bounty over the winter, my family would affectionately praise me for my hard work and contribution to our food. When I was 8, I went into business for myself, lugging a little cooler around the boatyard, selling sodas to the fishermen, welders, port engineers and fabricators.
As a child, I had no idea what magic this life was — it was just the way we did things. It’s the way many Alaska Natives live — through self-reliance and hard work to harvest the many gifts of the land and sea.
Now, if the massive Pebble Mine becomes a reality, outside corporations will not only jeopardize the pristine Alaskan habitat that supports the sockeye salmon. It could easily ruin the livelihoods of an estimated 12,000 people whose full- or part-time incomes or subsistence depend upon the salmon.
The company’s slick website touting the Pebble Mine lathers on the socially responsible reassurances. But companies that enclose a locality don’t care a fig about what is locally distinctive about a place. Their interest is in achieving a grand rip-and-run. Let government pick up the pieces and mop up the mess.
The CEO of Pebble, John Shively, has said that if the salmon habitat is harmed, it will build “comparable” habitat nearby – as if money can take care of anything. He touts the jobs that will be created – but four in five Native Alaskans with ancestral ties to the Bristol Bay region oppose the proposed mine. Chythlook-Sifsof has pointed out that Shively has already warned that government or someone else may have to handle the messy aftermath of mining if ‘we’re not available to work on closure’.”
Enclosure, 21st Century style: It’s all about roping a commodity-rich ecosystem into the global market grid – and once that dependency has been secured, the fix is in. There is no turning back to the former way of life because market criteria -- profits, jobs, growth -- will govern. The commons will be lost. Instead of seeing one enclosure after another on its own term, I say it’s time to see all of them together as a scandalous, recurring theme of our times: market enclosure. If we’re serious about environmental defense, let’s move beyond the “market-based solutions” that beckon with false promises, and embrace the ones that are serious about protecting our ecological commons.