Dahr Jamail is an award winning journalist and author who is a full-time staff reporter for Truthout.org. His work is currently focusing on Anthropogenic Climate Disruption. We discuss the harm caused by massive military maneuvers off of Alaska.
Derrick Jensen: Something terrible is happening off the coast of Alaska. Can you tell me about that?
Dahr Jamail: The Navy is poised to begin what they call Northern Edge, a huge, joint exercise they’re doing in conjunction with the Air Force, Marines and Army. The Navy’s aspect is going to focus in a huge area – over 8,000 square nautical miles, off the coast of Alaska, between Cordova and Kodiak. In this giant rectangle they’re permitted to conduct active and passive sonar, weapons testing, and live-fire exercises, including bombs, missiles, bullets and torpedoes. It starts June 15th and continues for at least two weeks. They’re permitted to continue doing this year after year. Plans are in the works for them to request permits up to 2030.
What’s really troubling about this, aside from the obvious, is that the area in question is critical habitat for all five Alaska salmon species, as well as almost a dozen whale species, including the highly endangered North Pacific Right Whale, of which there are only about 30 left. It also includes dolphins and sea lions and hundreds of other marine species in the area. There are a dozen native tribes living along coastal Alaska who are going to be directly impacted by their subsistence living being damaged and poisoned: destroyed. Some of those tribes include the Eskimo, the Eyak, the Athabaskans, Tlingit, and the Shungnak and Aleut tribes,
There have been and continue to be uprisings in the communities in coastal Alaska against this. For example, the cities of both Kodiak and Cordova have passed resolutions opposing the Navy’s plans, but the Navy has basically thumbed their noses at these voices of protest and are loading up their bombs.
D.J.: How is this going to harm the creatures who live there?
Dahr J.: The Navy is permitted to release as much as 352,000 pounds of what they call ‘expended material’ every year. That includes the live munitions that I mentioned ― missiles, bombs, torpedoes, etc. ― but also other types of things that will be released into the marine environment. Just by way of example, one of the propellants in one of the missiles and torpedoes they want to use contains cyanide. The EPA’s ‘allowable’ limit of cyanide is one part per billion, and the type of cyanide in the Navy torpedo is going to be introducing cyanide into the waters of Alaska in the range of 140 to 150 parts per billion.
Other impacts include ‘takes’, which are basically a military bureaucratic way of covering over a death. The Navy’s own Environmental Impact Statement estimates that over the five-year period that their war games are going to be conducted, there will be over 182,000 takes.
There are two ways they’ll be killing marine mammals. First is direct impact of them literally being exploded by bombs or shot by bullets or internally hemorrhaged by massive sonar. Secondarily, essential behaviors will be disrupted like surfacing or having babies or nursing.
Over a dozen large ships will be roaming the area, preventing fisherfolks from using it. Natives relying on that area for subsistence fishing and living will not be able to carry that out.
D.J.: You mentioned sonar. Can you talk more about that?
Dahr J.: It’s not your average sonar that a transport vessel or a fisherperson might use to navigate or to track the depth of the water. We’re talking about weapons grade sonar. The Navy regularly conducts underwater sonar weapons testing. They’re developing different types of sonar that they’ve weaponized to use to knock out communications and electronics, and I think they’re aiming towards killing humans in Navy vessels from other countries.
The NRDC won a lawsuit against the Navy down off Southern California for using this type of sonar. They showed the Navy was knowingly, deleteriously impacting over nine million different marine biota ― fish, whales, etc. ― by the use of this sonar. There are well-documented cases around the globe of pods of whales, dolphins, etc., that get hit by this sonar, and then these mammals wash up on the shore. A lot of times you’ll see their ear drums are exploded and it causes internal hemorrhaging. There have been cases of dolphins washing up, literally with blood coming out of their heads because they happened to have been where the Navy is using this type of weapons grade sonar.
To be clear, this sonar is powerful enough to literally explode the eardrums of whales and dolphins. That is how these mammals communicate; that is how they navigate; having that ability destroyed or compromised in any way basically means these mammals are going to die. And when the Navy is using it in a way that literally explodes their internal organs to the point where blood is coming out of their head that gives you an idea of how powerful it is.
D.J.: Here is something I wrote in Endgame about a National Science Foundation ship that was using air guns to fire sonic blasts of up to 260 dB, to use for mapping the ocean floor: “Damage to human hearing begins at 85 dB, a police siren at 30 meters is 100 dB. And decibels are logarithmic, meaning that every 10 dB increase translates to ten times more intensity. And sounds ― because human perception is also logarithmic ― twice as loud.
So what that means is that the blast from those research vessels was ten quadrillion times more intense than a siren at 30 meters, and would sound to humans 16,384 times as loud. The sound of a jet taking off at 600 meters is 110 dB, a rock concert is 120 dB, and whales and other creatures are subjected to sounds 100 trillion times more intense than that. The threshold at which humans die from sound is 160dB.”
Dahr J.: That gives people an idea of what we’re talking about: the military developing sound to use it as a weapon. As though the oceans aren’t already suffering enough, from the extreme amount of plastic pollution you’ve written and talked about for decades that’s now insidious around all the oceans on the planet, to acidification from rising temperatures.
And now on top of that, the military decides to go and use bombs and use sound weapons up in some of the most pristine waters on the planet outside of Antarctica. Bear in mind, these waters are at the end of an undersea current that is an upwelling, and this water is a thousand years old. This is why Alaska salmon are so prized, because they are a clean fish, they’re pure, and the Alaska salmon brand relies on it. Not to commercialize this, but it’s important to think about in regards to the people in Alaska relying so heavily on the salmon for both subsistence and to earn a living up there. All of that is being compromised.
The Navy’s action is creating some interesting collaborations between people across the political spectrum that normally wouldn’t mix.
D.J.: Leaving aside this culture’s death urge, why is the military doing this? What is their rationale?
Dahr J.: I mentioned in my article, Destroying What Remains: How the US Navy Plans to War Game the Arctic, that the Navy is increasingly focused on possible climate change wars up in the melting waters of the Arctic. In that context, it has no intentions of caretaking the environment when conducting its military exercises.
This connection was made amazingly clear to me in the course of writing this piece. I was in Alaska getting the ground data for this story, doing interviews. I went to Cordova, went over to Kodiak, passed through Anchorage, talking to people all along the way, and then I came back home to Washington State to write.
I live on Puget Sound, right on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I’m writing this story about the impending Naval exercise up in the Gulf of Alaska, the largest of its kind in the more than 30 years the Navy has been doing them in that area. Meanwhile, about two miles from my house, out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Shell is bringing their giant drilling rig over to the port of Seattle where it’s going to tie up. So we have the military exercises at the same time they’re positioning these rigs in Seattle, getting them ready to take up to Alaska to start drilling.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the writing on the wall as to the timings of these. It’s not a coincidence. The Navy is getting ready to protect so-called US interests to go up into the Arctic. They’re racing Russia; they’re racing Scandinavian countries. Basically anyone who has any kind of border with the Arctic is in full preparation to go up there, in a race for what’s left, to try to tap into the oil that’s been inaccessible under the ice.
Over a year ago I wrote about the Navy conducting their own study and estimating we would see ice-free periods in the summer in the Arctic starting by 2016. A couple of weeks ago, the current satellite data mapping Arctic ice, both in extent and volume, showed Arctic ice at its lowest volume on record. So it’s certainly possible that by late summer of 2016, meaning late August, early September, we’ll see ice-free periods.
So that’s the context in which all of this is happening. The military is getting ready. That’s why there’s this massive uptick in war-gaming across the entire country ― not just the Navy, but on land, the Air Force is doing things, the Marines are doing things ― because the military is positioning itself for potential war against Russia and China, but also, the race for the Arctic resources is clearly very high on their agenda.
D.J.: This is a great example of something I’ve long thought: that this culture will not have a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. Instead of being horrified that the Arctic will soon be ice-free, they are looking at it with what can only be deemed ‘lust’ for the resources that will be made available. I find it impossible to express through words the disgust, contempt, and hatred that that makes me feel.
Dahr J.: One reason I wanted to do this article was that I lived up in Anchorage for ten years. That’s where I was living when the Iraq war broke out, and my work as a journalist is ultimately what brought me to move out of Alaska. But I love the state, meaning I love the nature there, and I loved going into the mountains and camping and climbing, and going out on boats with people into the waters. I reveled in the powerful natural beauty of the state. And of course, that includes the oceans and the marine mammals. When I learned of the Navy’s plans, I wanted to go up there and report on it, kind of out of a protective urge for this place that is so close to my heart. And when I was up there working on this story and talking to all these people who were going to be impacted by these Navy exercises, I felt that same kind of anger.
Or maybe first I just felt mystified: not only are we going off the cliff as a species, because of the industrial growth society and what it’s done to the planet and what it’s doing and continues to do, but we’re accelerating! The planet is showing us every distress signal it possibly can; we’re watching huge parts of the ecosystem die, increasingly vast numbers of species go extinct, even more and more public awareness of the possibility of our own species rendering itself extinct; but instead of taking a precautionary approach, slowing down, pausing a minute to think that maybe what we’re doing isn’t the best thing, it’s ‘let’s accelerate as fast as possible’ into this dark, death-giving future of ‘we’re going to war game, we’re going to drop more ordinance, we’re going to get ready to go into one of the most pristine areas left on the planet, pollute it like it’s never been polluted before, all for the sake of drilling it, sucking out more oil that shouldn’t even be burned in the first place, because it’s only going to further accelerate what we’re already doing to the planet!’ It really is stupefying; it’s almost beyond imagination. It’s something out of a really bad sci-fi novel, but, unfortunately, it’s the reality.
D.J.: Can we talk now about some of those surprising alliances you mentioned?
Dahr J.: There have been many. For example, the commercial fishing community in Alaska aren’t known for being ‘lefty/greeny’ environmentalists. They’re there to catch the maximum amount of fish allowed by law every season, and make as much money as they can. But when this news of the Navy’s plans started to spread around coastal Alaska, people from these very, very politically conservative fisherfolk across two different unions in the state started to band together, and literally everyone I spoke with about the Navy exercise ― every fisherperson, every person in the fishermen’s union across the state ― was opposed to the Navy’s plans.
And when the Navy played the national security card, saying they’re doing this to protect the state and the waters, the people in Alaska called B.S. Not just environmentalists, but people from all these other groups from the Alaska Marine Conservation Council to the Alaskans First! Coalition to fishermen’s unions to everyone banding together and saying look, we’re absolutely opposed to this.
It’s hard to find a silver lining to this story, but if there is one, that might be it: we’re starting to witness a coalescing of groups across the political spectrum who are seeing the madness perpetrated by the industrial growth society and who are starting to stand up against it together.
D.J.: Are people making that connection between these destructive activities and the industrial growth society? And were they making the connections that you were making, about how we’re going over a cliff and just accelerating?
Dahr J.: Not so much, unfortunately.. One of the most important voices in the story, however, does. Emily Stolarcyk works for the Eyak Preservation Council out of Cordova. It’s an environmental and social justice non-profit with a primary aim to protect wild salmon habitat, period.
Emily sees the bigger picture. She’s gone out of her way to sound the alarm bell on this and has therefore, of course, been targeted by the government of Alaska and the Navy itself. People are really coming after her now.
Unfortunately, the average person I spoke with tended not to see beyond the immediate economic impact. For a lot of folks, their prime motivation was not losing the Alaska salmon brand, in that they can’t have news come out that the salmon are contaminated in any way, because if that market tanks, they’re in big trouble.
D.J.: How is she being targeted?
Dahr J.: For example, the Navy has tried to discredit her, even though she has gone out of her way to quote directly from the Navy’s own Environmental Impact Statement. It’s online, people can look it up themselves, and she literally is using quotes. The Navy tells people she is not giving accurate information, that she’s inflating figures, and so on. The military is deified by mainstream America and by the corporate media as a benevolent force that is only there to protect us. Of course that’s absolute nonsense, but because of that misperception, most people still tend to believe the military.
Emily has also been targeted by Senator Lisa Murkowski, a hardcore right-wing, anti-environment, pro-corporate profit, pro-fossil fuel industry, pro-military senator up there in Alaska. She sent the state fisheries person down to meet with Emily. The fisheries person called Emily on her personal cell phone at night to cuss her out and threaten her. It was bad enough he later emailed her an apology for it. So there have been bellicose threats, bellicose language used against her from this person, and from the Navy itself.
The Navy has found anyone in these communities who could potentially be on their side and actively worked to turn them against Emily Stolarcyk and the Eyak Preservation Council. They’ve demonized them, putting out false statements, trying to make it seem the Eyak Preservation Council isn’t actually working for their stated purpose of preserving critical salmon habitat. Basically negative propaganda campaigns run against her and the organization she works for.
D.J.: How can people support her?
Dahr J: Other people need to take up the fight against the Navy. They need to get up on the facts of the story, understand what the Navy is planning on doing, and join in the fight. They don’t necessarily need to come work alongside Emily Stolarcyk, but to understand the relevance of her work and the importance of it. These types of Navy war games are happening off the coast of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California, and have been for a long time. So, anyone in proximity to those coasts, this is our fight, too. And all of us need to be talking about this, all of us need to be getting this into the media and getting as many activists involved as possible, people who might have other ideas about how they can help.
D.J.: You mentioned Lisa Murkowski. Is the problem there individual politicians, that if she were replaced these atrocities might not occur? Or is the problem more institutional, and widespread?
Dahr J.: Lisa Murkowski is of course terrible, as is Congressman Don Young. No matter what, those two are always full steam ahead with anything the military and the fossil fuel industry want. They are villains in this story: they are actively working against the interest of nature and the planet in every possible, conceivable way. But the problem really is institutional.
Let’s use Washington state as a case study. Governor Jay Inslee paints himself as the ‘green’ governor, and when I first moved here I thought, ‘yeah, this guy is doing a lot of good stuff. He’s taking the climate change issue head on, he’s saying a lot of the right things and sometimes doing some of the right things.’
But because of how deeply embedded the military is in this state and how much money the state gets from their presence, this is a governor who knowingly accepts what the Navy is doing here. He refuses to take a stance directly against the wargaming that’s already going on here or against future wargame plans for the state of Washington, and is basically in their back pocket. The same for Derek Kilmer, one of the representatives here. And the same is true for numerous other political so-called representatives.
I’m sure the same can be said for California. I think many people hear about these military exercises, and think, “The Democrats are in charge, and they wouldn’t do this.” But political party is irrelevant in this story with the military. The military is so embedded in these states and there’s so much money being brought into the states by their presence that you’d be hard-pressed to find a political so-called representative who is not on the take. That gives you an idea why there isn’t any real political pushback against these exercises.
D.J.: We all know that the military is a form for massive corporate welfare. It’s a giant Keynesian stimulus. And we all know capitalism relies on subsidies. But that always leads to the question: why can’t they just subsidize nice things instead of bad things?
During the 1970s, liberal George McGovern asked somebody at one of the military contractors, “Since all you care about is making money, could we just subsidize your corporation to make school buses instead of bombers? Would you do that?”
The military contractor said, “Sure!” and then they both burst out laughing because they knew that Congress would never allow that in the budget.
Dahr J.: At this point the US military is in the final stage of empire. When we look through history, empires use numerous ways to maintain control and power. There’s the economy, there’s propaganda, there are appeals to people’s morality, etc. The final stage – and the weakest and the shortest – is using military might, pushing the military frontiers out as far as possible and putting all their resources into maintaining and growing the military. Then they collapse relatively shortly thereafter. That’s exactly what the US is doing.
Today, while we do this interview, we have news of them setting up yet another new US base in Iraq and sending more troops over there. Domestic military exercises are pushing new bounds of what’s ever been done before, looking at expanding up into the Arctic, and preparing for war gaming against Russia and China in the future.
Over 50% of all US taxpayer money is going directly to the Pentagon in one way or another. I think that underscores what you just said, Derrick, about the preposterous idea that something could be done differently. I don’t think anyone in the government could really take seriously any attempts to significantly defund the military. At this stage of the game everyone understands the military is the final weapon the US government is using geopolitically at this point. I think anyone who challenges that and thinks they’re going to change how the government and economy function at this stage of the game is not living in reality.
D.J.: Apart from the environmental degradation, do we know the numbers on how much this military exercise is going to cost?
Dahr J.: No. The military is very careful not to release total figures of these types of exercises. You always have to try to puzzle figures out from hints. For example, the Navy is trying to push through electromagnetic warfare training out on the Olympic Peninsula, planning on starting early next year. They want to use these jet aircraft called Growlers, maybe because they’re the loudest aircraft ever built. Extremely loud – ear-splittingly loud.
To fly one of those costs over $12,000 an hour. That’s just one jet. That’s not a war ship. It’s difficult to get the numbers, but I think it’s safe to say that a two-week joint military exercise involving a dozen ships, however many aircraft are going to be on those ships, all the personnel, all the weapons that are going to be used, all the fuel burned, will very easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
D.J.: What can people do if they are in Alaska or elsewhere, to prevent this from happening again?
Dahr J.: People need to recognize this is happening not just in and around Alaska, but all over. There’s a massive domestic military expansion happening everywhere. People need to become aware of this and make others aware of it. They need to get this information out there. And then they need to start raising hell. They need to start fighting it.
We’re starting to see people standing up, and we’re starting to see them work together.
This whole struggle dovetails with what’s happening in the battles against the pipelines and against fracking that we’re seeing down in Texas now, and across the Midwest, where really interesting alliances are being formed between some pretty right-wing political groups as well as some pretty hard-core left-leaning groups of environmentalists and other activists.
Just like those movements draw these alliances, people who are opposed to this military expansion—and that should be all of us—need to work together to stop this. People need to get involved. The sooner the better.