Dan O’Neill’s excellent book, The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement, tells the story of Project Chariot in the late 1950s -- straddling territorial Alaska's admission to statehood in the United States in 1959.
It’s hard to comprehend the lunacy of it today, but Project Chariot was a serious proposal by the Atomic Energy Commission to “geographically engineer” a deep-water harbor on the northwest coast of Alaska by detonating a series of thermonuclear explosions.
That’s right: hydrogen bombs. What could possibly go wrong?
Three major themes emerge from the book.
First: There is an inexorable structural bias that almost always causes local interests to be seduced by the promise of short-term financial benefits such as employment or tax revenues. That is why many local politicians, businesses and communities initially embraced Project Chariot, just as they do more contemporary examples like the Keystone XL Pipeline or oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s arctic. I have written about this structural bias before, especially in Lessons from Salmon.
Second: Development interests, often in the form of government, almost always provide reassurance that there is little or nothing to fear from risky activities, whether in the form of nuclear radiation from Project Chariot blasts, human impacts on climate change, oil exploration in the arctic ocean, or large-scale mining activities in the headwaters of salmon streams. This is highly reminiscent of similarly dismissive claims about, for example, the dangers of cigarette smoking, which were consistently dismissed and disputed by the tobacco industry over a period of many decades.
Third: The most effective organizers operate at a grass-roots level. Project Chariot garnered the attention of local activists like Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter, famous pioneers of ecotourism in Denali National Park. Before long, they had helped organize the Alaska Conservation Society, which launched successful campaigns not only to defeat Project Chariot from proceeding but also to establish what is now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. All politics is local, and so is the most effective environmental activism.
These themes still resonate today across a broad spectrum of threats to the environment, ranging from climate change to fracking to offshore oil exploration.