The Passing of the Willow Project is Another Federal Failure


The Willow Project in Alaska endangers the future of our environment. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Once again the United States government has failed to respond to national outrage over an environmental decision which will impact generations to come. President Joe Biden approved of the Willow Project on Monday, March 13, to the shock and disappointment of many climate activists and young people. Willow is expected to be the largest proposed oil drilling project on federal lands in US history. The 30-year project is expected to produce 180 thousand barrels of oil a day in Alaska’s North Slope, roughly 600 miles from Anchorage. The blow was especially bitter because Biden had promised during his campaign, “no more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period.” Such hypocrisy is nothing new — presidents and politicians have always made empty promises to earn the vote, but the betrayal is no less disappointing. 

Climate protests have been happening for decades at this point. My mother was protesting pollution from heavy industries in the late 1970s when people started to notice that winters were getting more mild, and fewer and fewer birds were being seen in upstate New York. She was not a part of the first climate activists by any stretch of the imagination, but she experienced the same crushing disappointment that thousands experienced on March 13 when a promise for a cleaner future was broken. Local and federal governments didn’t listen then, and it appears that they still aren’t listening now. 

Climate protests have moved into the technological era, where most outrage is being taken to the media rather than the streets. Climate marches are still happening, but now people can connect across the globe to share their fears and anger over how little is being done to reverse or even slow climate change. The #StopWillow tag has gained significant momentum on social media, with videos of young people educating on what the project means and lamenting their choice of president are gaining millions of views and likes. Since the project has been approved, the momentum of the campaign has taken a major blow. Many have become so disillusioned that the desire to resist seems all but lost since no amount of online protest appeared to have any meaningful impact. 

But why this project? Why now? Well, Willow isn’t the first oil drilling project to receive massive backlash and it probably won’t be the last. What’s different now is that Gen Z is old enough to realize that no matter who they vote for, they’re going to be disappointed. The most viewed TikToks under #StopWillow feature lamentful guitar backgrounds, nauseating facts about the 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that will be released into the environment and imagery of what is left of the already seriously compromised Arctic wildlife. Other videos include young people yelling about how this decision is a serious underestimation of Gen Z’s rage and refusal to sit back and accept injustices which will most impact young people. 

These videos are at once inspiring and gut-wrenching. Anyone who has had any involvement with protests over the years knows that an internet campaign is only good in the short term. I can remember the 99% marches from when I was eight years old during the economic crash of 2008,  the Women’s March the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the climate march of 2018 and the Black Lives Matter marches of 2020. Protesting is an honest cornerstone of American political culture, but so is ignoring those protests and forgetting about the injustice the second it becomes inconvenient to keep up with or the second it doesn’t feel “cool” to keep caring about. 

The problem with climate change protest momentum in the first place is the refusal to acknowledge it and refusal to call out the real culprits. The U.S. education system has been teaching children to recycle and take personal responsibility for decades, making young children feel guilty for using plastic straws instead of holding politicians and major corporations (one and the same with the way U.S. lobbying policy functions) responsible for funding projects which have destroyed rainforests and exploited vital natural resources. It is only in the last few years, with the increased interconnection of people and access to infinite information online, that people have begun to realize the scheme of holding individuals, rather than corporations, responsible. We have spent decades blaming countries with high birth rates (meaning countries who have not been given the same opportunities to become service industries) for “overpopulation” and destruction of their own environments when it is Western corporations that have directly benefited from dumping dangerous chemicals into the Ganges and using exploitative human labor to make products for the global West. The Willow Project is just another example of how powerless normal people are to shape decisions which will impact them. But the online outrage is also beginning to expose the ways in which people are starting to realize it’s not their fault and, in fact, there are people in power who can do something to prevent further climate destruction yet choose not to. 

Making a TikTok crying about Biden’s decision or a blacked-out Instagram post to protest racial injustice is, unfortunately, about as impactful as switching to paper straws. These actions are not without meaning; they express solidarity and an effort to improve the conditions of the world — and are often a great way to educate people. But they do not change the structural issues of a society hellbent on giving corporations more power than God to do whatever they want to environments around the globe. The most important thing a person can do is call their local politician. Yell, scream and fight whenever possible and don’t stop until someone with power actually listens. Until actual policy changes begin, until Gen Z is in Congress, the UN and CEOs of major corporations (so long as we keep our environmentalist fervor) then nothing will get better, and we need to temper our expectations of ourselves and each other without losing sight of what we want to see changed. 

The Willow Project will be a 30-year endeavor, and maybe in 30 years, we will have enough clean energy that it will be such an economic loss that they abandon the project altogether. But we should be angry and disappointed, and we should be directing that anger into how we vote and who we become, and maybe a TikTok video or two wouldn’t hurt in the meantime. 

Alexandra Rapp, FCRH ’24, is a history and international studies major from Hershey, Pa.