Arctic development: reassessing the conservationist approach

The bestselling Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård recently created publicity when he criticised the Norwegian government’s plans for Arctic drilling.

The Nordic countries – including Greenland which remains under Danish control – are popularly assumed to be good custodians of the Arctic. However, Oslo’s sanctioning of Arctic drilling shows this to be a rather selective view.

The Arctic has long been a source of income for European states. On Svalbard, the huge Norwegian island high inside the Arctic, multinational concessions to mine coal were commonplace well before contemporary environmental concerns put the region on the map. Coal is still mined on Svalbard, just as minerals are exported around the world from both Arctic Norway and Sweden. Greenland recently removed legal impediments to uranium mining, and this most peripheral place could soon be a new frontier.

The forum for Knausgård’s intervention says a lot about how people view the issue of Arctic development. Perhaps the most powerful image of the melting polar regions is that of the isolated polar bear; like seal hunting, it is an emotive icon which people can relate to. However, the darker edge of this conservationist approach is the reduction of people within the polar region to wildlife themselves. Much of the journalistic coverage of the Arctic relates to traditional ways of life, minority ethnic groups, and the issue of local people and nature in conflict with industrial capitalism. It is in many way a perfect frame for the pages of The Guardian. However, one of the regular problems with writing about the High North, Scandinavia and the polar region is that editors and news services are often disinterested in the various complexities at play.

The Arctic is about to become extremely relevant to all of our lives, in a number of different ways.  The Antarctic is subject to the Antarctic Treaty, and although there is a debate about how sustainable this arrangement is, it nonetheless guarantees that the fragile southern continent remains undeveloped through internationalisation. In the Arctic, the problem is the exact opposite, with the countries bordering the ice cap both competing with one another and functioning as a cartel to keep others out. For both the US and Denmark, control of Alaska and Greenland respectively have given them a huge advantage in the changing North. It has allowed oil lobbyists – and in the case of Greenland uranium miners – to approach individual governments and push for legislation to be changed. Norway’s decision to allow Arctic drilling followed close on the heels of President Barack Obama’s endorsement of the practice off Alaska.

This raises some profound questions.  Should those who live in the Arctic be denied their modernity for the sake of European metropolitan morality? Is it right to deny them the various economic benefits that development will bring? These questions are typically absent from discussions in which Arctic development is being criticized.

For many people in Northern Europe, the fuel and consumer goods we buy within the next decade will have come either from or through the Arctic.  Geographically separated, our everyday lives are all still intimately connected to the polar region. At present, Scottish input to the Arctic and the North Atlantic which Scotland shares with Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands is limited.  This in part reflects a lack of interest from the UK Foreign Office. Most of the UK research on Arctic futures relates to implications for trade markets and the balance of power between Russia, the US, Europe and China.  However, sitting as it does between the European continent and the Arctic, North Atlantic and America, Scotland finds itself the gateway to a place of phenomenal change. Safeguarding the Arctic region but simultaneously adapting to its climatic and human transformation will be a huge challenge, and it is one where Scotland could well play an important role.

Dominic Hinde is an Edinburgh-based academic, journalist and writer focusing on the Nordic countries and Northern Europe.

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