The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the sanctity of ALL life

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Recently President Obama proposed giving wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Many Republican senators, including Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, strongly oppose the President's proposal. Much of the opposition to the President's proposal is expressed as frustration and outrage that the President is hindering Alaskans from having control over their economic future. Senator Murkowski asserts,

What's coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive…. It's clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. . . . I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.

The ANWR is home to significant untapped petroleum reserves that lie beneath the land the President is seeking to protect. This fight over protecting the ANWR—keeping it pristine and undisturbed in order to support Alaskan wildlife—and promoting economic growth and development through oil drilling is a fight that has been going on between Democrats and Republicans for years.  

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement he may be forced to accelerate oil and gas permitting on state lands to compensate for the new federal restrictions.

While I believe I understand the arguments made by advocates on both sides of this debate, it seems to me there is a fundamental ideological (and possibly theological) premise that often goes unacknowledged in these debates.

While listening to Senator Murkowski share her opposition to the President's proposal with Renee Montagne on NPR Morning Edition, I was intrigued by the rationale the Senator put forward as a basis for her opposition. 

When addressing what the proposal means for the people who live in the ANWR area, Senator Murkowski said,

There's so much focus on the wildlife, on the polar bear and the critters, and the birds—and they are important, don't get me wrong—but equally important—more important—is the obligation that we have to the people who live there, who have been there for centuries many of them.

I was intrigued by the senator's emphasis on the length of time many people have lived in the ANWR. She states many of them have lived there for centuries. I assume the same could be said for much—if not all—of the wildlife in the ANWR.

While I agree with the senator that the consideration of human life is "equally important," I found it interesting that she didn't stop with the phrase, "equally important." She went on to assert that the consideration of human life is "more important" than the consideration of non-human life.

Why exactly is it insufficient to say all life—human life and non-human life—is "equally important?" Why exactly is the welfare of human animals "more important" than the welfare of non-human animals?

I ask this question as an individual who is not a vegetarian, so I acknowledge that my own dietary practices suggest that I consider non-human animal life less important than human animal life. This reality, however, does not prevent me from asking, "Why do we as human animals believe non-human animal life is 'less important' than human animal life?"

Do non-human animals have less intrinsic value than human animals?

The intrinsic value of a non-human animal refers to the value it possesses in its own right, as an end-in-itself, as opposed to its instrumental value—its value to other animals (especially human animals).

An acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of non-human animals implies that the interests of non-human animals are not automatically subordinate to the interests of human animals.

It seems to me, at the heart of the ANWR debate is the question, "Do the interests of non-human animals—and of the environment itself—prevail over those of industry;" if not, why not?

Should the notion of sanctity of life be extended to non-human animals as well as human animals?

While I do not claim to have answers to these questions, these questions need to be part of the conversation Congress and the nation will be having regarding the President's proposal to give wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion Department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is the founder of the online social media platform Clamoring for Change and is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners Commentary blog series.

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  • January 30 2015 at 5:17 pm
    Princess Lucaj

    I'm glad you raise this perspective as truly we should be considering the inherent rights of Mother Earth.  What right for instance, do the Porcupine Caribou Herd have to continue to migrate and give birth on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge uninterrupted?  Or what right do the salmon have to continue to spawn in uncontaminated waters.  Humans have for far too long designated themselves more important than the land and animals.  We should look to our Maori brothers and sisters and what they have been able to accomplish in New Zealand with the legal rights given to their Ancestor the Whanganui River.  This is an important dialogue we should be having.  I, for one, applaud the President and pray that Congress act to designate the Coastal Plain as Wilderness as this is the homeland of my Ancestors.

  • January 30 2015 at 5:51 pm
    Guy Nave

    Princess Lucaj,

    Thanks for the response. I'm not sure if this response is from the Alaskan actress, writer, and social/environmental activist Princess 'Daazhraii' Lucaj, but if it is, I'm honored that you took the time to comment on this post. Thanks for reminding us of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand. A people more than 1000 years old who recognize their connection with the environment rather than believing in a superiority over the environment. 

  • February 5 2015 at 5:44 pm
    Steve Bakke

    I found the question asked by Mr. Nave to be very interesting, and following him on his pathway to the answer would be very interesting. I struggle with a different question about the sanctity of life, and I think it is even more important: "When does life begin?" This question actually applies to human animals and non-human animals alike, because the biology is the same.

  • February 5 2015 at 6:53 pm
    Guy Nave


    Thank you for not only reading but also for taking the time to respond to this blog. I greatly value the process of collaborative thinking and reflection.

    As in the case of Senator Murkowski, I tend to question the practice of asserting that a particular concern is "more important" than another. It's not always clear to me the basis upon which such claims of superior importance are made.

    Just as I don't understand Senator Murkowski's claim that human animal life is "more important" than non-human animal life, I don't quite understand your assertion that the question of "when does life begin" is "more important" than the questions of "Do the interests of non-human animals—and of the environment itself—prevail over those of industry;" if not, why not? and "Should the notion of sanctity of life be extended to non-human animals as well as human animals?"

    Why are these question not equally important to the question of "when does life begin?"

    The existence of a planet that some estimate as being over 4 billion years old is at stake in the questions I raise. The existence of 2-50 million non-human animal species hundreds (if not thousands) of years old comprising tens of billions of non-human animals are at stake as well as the well-being of over 7 billion human animals.

    The scope of the questions I raise impacts hundreds of billions of human and non-human animals daily. I think this is at least "equally as important" as the question concerning when life begins for human and non-human animals not yet "born."

    Why do you feel the need to assert that your question is "more important"?


  • February 5 2015 at 8:17 pm
    Steve Bakke

    Guy: You ask an interesting question, "Why do (I) need to assert that (my) question is "more important." My question was: "When does life begin?" Or perhaps, you would prefer: "What is the definition of life?" The second question is very closely related to the first, but starts from a different place.

    As I think about it, perhaps "equally important" would have been a bit more useful. But a personal "need" has nothing to do with it. I think any discussion demands that one define what is being discussed, if not understood or agreed upon going into the exchange. Perhaps this came to me first in a religion course at Luther in the mid 1960s. Dr. Jenson, a religion professor and lecturer, attempted to make us think about our beliefs and not enter a conclusion prematurely, for the wrong reasons, or without complete information.

    A final exam question he gave one discussion group (not mine) said it all to me and I have never forgotten it. With this question, for me personally, he pounded home his "different thinking" (for the time) and approach to evaluating our values and beliefs. The question was "Who/what is God?"

    So, I believe that to discuss the sanctity of life, at any level, requires understanding and agreement what the definition of life is. I wasn't (consciously) attempting to introduce the important issue of abortion/choice/right-to-life, which I think you were hinting at in your reference to "not yet born." For me, the same concept should apply in both discussions. The definition of life, seems to me to be at the center of any debate about life.

    But I really want to separate the two discussions, for now, and find out how you proceed to conclusion on the relative intrinsic value of humans vs. non-humans. Would you prefer to continue in that discussion without defining "life," yet investigate the sanctity thereof? If so, I'll pay attention! 

  • February 5 2015 at 10:54 pm
    Guy Nave

    Thanks again, Steve.

    I totally agree with you that "any discussion demands that one define what is being discussed...." or at least establish the parameters of what's being discussed.

    As you can probably tell, my issue is with hierarchy or defining what's important and what's not important. I understand that some things are of greater interest to some people than other things, but get leery when people suggest or imply that certain things are universally intrinsically "more important" than others. I understand this is NOT what you were suggesting. I was just intrigued by your unsolicited assertion, "I struggle with a different question about the sanctity of life,and I think it is even more important."

    I guess it actually felt to me that assertion was "entering a conclusion prematurely." I regret I never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jenson; he sounds like he was an intellectually inspiring professor. I'm glad he made such a lasting impression upon you. I hope those of us currently in the Religion Department can continue this tradition.

    While I totally agree with you that it is important to establish an understanding and agreement regarding what the definition of life is, it seems to me the ANWR debate is not over the definition of life but over the belief that certain life is "more important" than other life. I think Senator Murkowski and all of her supporters would agree that the wildlife, the polar bear, the critters, and the birds are all represent various forms of life, it's just that they are not as important as human life. It is this belief that I was trying to problematize and draw attention to.

    I'm not suggesting that my questions are "more important" than the question you raise but rather that they represent the underlying questions fueling the ANWR debate.

    I'm not sure grappling with the question of "when does life begin" will help in the debate of deciding whether or not to give wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

    The question of how to proceed to conclusions on the relative intrinsic value of human vs. non-human animal life is what I am struggling with, and I don't have any specific answers at the moment.

    It seems to me that our "intrinsic value" is not based on who we are but on the worth of the one who gives us life. If this is so, then it seems to me that all life should have the same intrinsic value (if we agree that we are all given life by the same source).

    Instrumental value on the other hand is based on our importance to others, and history/practice seems to clearly suggest that not all life is considered equally important to others.

    Thanks again for thinking out loud with me.



  • February 6 2015 at 1:08 pm
    Steve Bakke


    But enough about my motivations and preconceived notions, which we all have. You are right, traditional "wisdom" has evolved its own hierarchy of importance for God's creatures, and your interruption of that to examine it is not only interesting but worthy. As I said, I'm willing to "listen" and react if I can add anything.

  • February 8 2015 at 7:33 am
    Guy Nave

    Thanks again, Steve, for taking the time to ponder out loud with me.

    I hope you, I, and others can find ways to interject into the debate regarding President Obama's proposal to give wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the importance of considering, promoting, and protecting the intrinsic value of all ANWR life (human and non-human).

  • February 8 2015 at 8:12 pm
    Steve Bakke

    I await other postings by you and others. Hopefully there are many! It's a worthy topic. It's your topic. So kick it off.


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