BOOK REVIEW The recently released book ‘Contesting the Arctic’ “provides us with a concise, inviting and crisply written analysis of the key narratives that inspire basically all decision-making in the Arctic”
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None of the world’s regions are as dependent on our perceptions as the Arctic. No current geographic or political terminology holds it all: the division of the Arctic Ocean is still on-going, and climate change is creating a new, restless dynamic not yet managed by any existing international regime or generally accepted set of norms.
The stakes are high: oil, gas, minerals, climate, power and control – and the future is still open to negotiation, not only among the Arctic states, but also between the Arctic states and China, Japan, the EU and the rest of the world. Arctic governments are negotiating with indigenous peoples in Greenland, northern Canada, northern Scandinavia, Alaska and the Russian Arctic and everything has to be balanced with the interests of multinational corporations, local business communities and a global public deeply concerned with the Arctic environment and climate change.
How fortunate, therefore, that we now have at hand a concise, inviting and crisply written analysis of the key narratives that inspire basically all decision-making in the Arctic. Contesting the Arctic stands out as original and ground-breaking in the steady flow of new material on the Arctic. An optimistic yet timely warning that the Arctic demands constant vigilance and clever policies if peace and sustained prosperity is what we really want for the region.
Contesting the Arctic goes beyond the narrow policymaking, environmentalist slogans and the indigenous movements to a unique analysis of the six deeper narratives currently forcing developments in the region.
The book’s three authors, all leading scholars in the field, first take up the idea of the Arctic as a ‘Terra Nullius’, a no-man’s land ready for the taking by anyone with the tools and the talent. This narrative was prominently displayed in 2007, when a Russian mini-sub planted the country’s flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, but as the authors document it is also a narrative that still influences Canadian and American policymakers.
The authors describe how the Arctic coastal states reacted to the Russian flag-planting by gathering in Ilulissat, Greenland, at the initiative of Denmark, in order to state, paradoxically, that nothing had happended. Officially, the flag planting was irrelevant, it had no legal bearing on anything. The five coastal states, including Russia, all confirmed in Ilulissat that they would adhere to UN procedures when negotiation the remaining maritime boundaries in the Arctic Ocean. The submarine incident became historic only through its ability to create a narrative of its own – and through the evoking of fear of other people’s narratives.
Despite the coastal states pledges to follow UN guidelines, the concept of the Arctic as Terra Nullius remains influential. The authors found official maps in Canada and Russia illustrating how the two countries still have designs on the division of the floor of the Arctic Ocean that are incompatible with UN guidelines. Sources in the US also confirmed that Washington is carefully drawing its maps so that they reflect American views of the border situation.
Another key narrative, ‘Frozen Oceans’, allow ice to substantiate territorial, hunting and transport rights, even though there is no proper basis in international law for such an approach. A third narrative, ‘Indigenous Statehood’, covers Greenland’s path towards independence and how Greenland is increasingly at odds with the vision of a trans-national Inuit community. Greenlanders, instead, are pursuing the creation of an independent nation and rapidly abandoning their self-perception as an ethnic minority and their partaking in the indigenous pan-Arctic community of shared values and history.
The authors exercise only a partial spectrum of nuances from current Greenlandic debates as they translate the debates in Greenland as if the island’s majority wish to cut all the myriad of bonds with Denmark sooner rather than later – this is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, for non-Danish or Greenlandic speakers, the authors offer a rare insight into the complex matter of Greenland’s course for the future.
In the chapter named ‘Resource Frontier’ the authors dissect the narrative of the Arctic as a treasure trove of underground wealth beyond the control of states and national borders. They point at China, Japan, the EU and international firms as actors inspired by this narrative: all scrambling to get a toehold in the region, even if most resources are firmly embedded within recognised national borders and maritime economic zones. The media are most active in perpetuating this narrative of an Arctic gold rush through their pendant for a perceived race for resources rather than the high level of Arctic co-operation.
The co-operative trend in the Arctic becomes a persistent theme in the book: The authors are optimistic that co-operation will prevail in the Arctic. Through research over four years, more than 200 interviews and extensive travels the authors find that none of the primary stakeholders in the Arctic pursue their preferred narrative in its raw version. Instead, the rapid pace of Arctic development seems driven by actors who may be powerful and obsessed by their own individual interest, but who are also joined in common pursuit of compromise so that peace, trade and development in the Arctic may flourish. It is not entirely clear to what extent the present discord over Ukraine has permeated all sections of the book, but the over-all conclusion seem convincing: The Arctic is still a region where nobody really has any interest other than to preserve the peace.
A chapter on ‘Transcendent Nationhood’ deals with the narrative of an indigenous and primarily Inuit community spanning the Arctic, from Alaska in the west to Siberia in the East. Indigenous groups are recognised as permanent Arctic Council participants, but they fear dilution of their influence as China, Japan, India and other states are allowed as observers.
Also, Greenland’s drift towards nationhood is weakening the notion of a transnational indigenous community in the Arctic; the Self-Rule government in Nuuk, for instance, has slashed funding for the Inuit Circumpolar Council. In the greater scheme of things Arctic governments regularly affirm their intention to develop the Arctic for the benefit of the four million people who live there, while in fact much policy-making aims to move resources south, where most voters and stakeholders in the Arctic states live.
The last, and perhaps strongest narrative, ‘Nature Reserve’, encompasses the concept of the Arctic as a piece of vulnerable environment where industrial development, mining and the pursuit of oil and gas ought to be banned. This narrative is influential in the environmental movement, and among the general public and the media. It broadly reduces the region’s four million residents to noble hunter-gatherers pursuing threatened animals only in the most traditional manner.
As the authors are careful to stress, neither Greenpeace, the WWF, nor any other environmental group buys into this narrative in its purest sense, but it still influences their thinking. It should come as no surprise, then, that these large and powerful NGOs have often found it hard to find true friends in the Arctic. People living in the Arctic share the concern for the region’s environment – they live off it – but they fear regulation that will block their access to the resources they depend on for their livelihood, be it oil, minerals, seals or whales.
The authors include in their main text reference to the 2005 masterpiece The Last Imaginary Place, by Robert McGhee, a Canadian archaeologist who gave us an everlasting anatomy of Southern visions of the Arctic through time. In Contesting the Arctic we now have a constructive and timely follow-up.
Contesting the Arctic – Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North. By Philip E Steinberg, Jeremy Tasch and Hannes Gerhardt: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 209 pages; £56
The author is a Danish journalist who has written extensively about Arctic issues, including The Greenland Dilemma.