University of Cambridge > > Arctic Environmental Humanities Workshop Series > What Can We Learn from Ignorance? Arctic Energy Frontiers, Environmental Regimes, and Indigenous Rights Movements Since the 1970s

What Can We Learn from Ignorance? Arctic Energy Frontiers, Environmental Regimes, and Indigenous Rights Movements Since the 1970s

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Professor Michael Bravo.

Doug Pimlott was shocked. The University of Toronto zoologist — one of Canada’s leading environmentalists — had just discovered a government secret. In 1973, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs was planning an oil drilling program in the ice-choked Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean). What stunned Pimlott was not that the Department would target such a remote and challenging place for oil exploration. After all, the energy situation in North America in 1973 had grown desperate. Rather, it was that the entire discussion of the risks involved — to the delicate marine environment and to thousands of Inuit who relied upon its bounty — had been shielded from public scrutiny. “Nearly all the substantive information on offshore drilling plans is contained in various confidential proposals put forward by the oil industry and in restricted reports by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs,” the scientist wrote. “Why had native communities in the region not been consulted about offshore drilling plans? Why was this new phase of exploration cloaked in secrecy?” As Pimlott searched for answers, Canada’s Cabinet pressed forward. In 1976, they approved two wells for the Beaufort Sea’s outer continental shelf. A year later, they supported long-term drilling there. The world’s northernmost oil frontier had been opened. In this talk, Prof. Andrew Stuhl will examine the state of knowledge that Pimlott experienced as a constitutive element of energy frontiers, environmental regimes, and struggles for Indigenous rights in the late twentieth-century Arctic. That is, while actors in the oil industry and the Canadian government produced detailed studies about the risks and rewards of drilling in the Beaufort Sea, their circulation was limited — which also produced deliberate, widespread ignorance. Their efforts to maintain a state of limited knowledge blunted resistance from environmentalists and Indigenous rights advocates whose political power was on the rise. These activists attempted to slow or delay oil development by pointing out that oil companies knew very little about the sensitive ecologies and Indigenous claims to land in the Arctic. In response, oil companies designed elaborate consultation campaigns to nurture local support and undercut opposition to oil exploitation. Drawing on recently declassified sources from the Canadian federal government and the oil and gas industry, Prof. Stuhl will explore how studies of ignorance can thus help explain the shape of public interest groups, corporate social responsibility campaigns, oil and gas schemes, research agendas in the natural sciences, and environmental politics in Arctic North America over the last 50 years.

This talk is part of the Arctic Environmental Humanities Workshop Series series.

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