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Whose Arctic Is It? The Ethics of Arctic Campaigning

Whose Arctic Is It? The Ethics of Arctic Campaigning

October 28, 2015

By Heather Exner-Pirot

When Shell announced last month they would cancel their Chukchi Sea operations “for the foreseeable future,” many southern environmentalists were jubilant. As Greenpeace U.K. executive director John Sauven said, “Big oil has sustained an unmitigated defeat. They had a budget of billions, we had a movement of millions. For three years we faced them down, and the people won.”

It is well worth asking which “people” Sauven has in mind, or more to the point, if Greenpeace’s seven million #SavetheArctic petitioners and ‘kayaktivists’ should be the arbiters of what is acceptable development in the Arctic. The term ‘colonial’ is often overused or misused in indigenous politics, and is one which I generally refrain from using. But in the case of Shell, the environmental movement, and the Arctic, I have had a hard time finding a more fitting one.

The Imaginary Arctic

Climate change is now happening everywhere, exacerbating droughts, causing unseasonable storms, and affecting the natural cycles of flora and fauna. Yet it is the Arctic that has come to symbolize global warming especially, with the dramatic declines in sea ice and permafrost acting as concrete examples of the changes this planet is experiencing. The narrative around climate change has come to define the Arctic, even serving as the backdrop for President Obama’s most forceful speech on the subject, at the GLACIER conference held in August in Alaska.

As a result, most people south of the 60th parallel have developed very strong and narrow (mis)perceptions of what the Arctic is, with mental associations usually revolving around icebergs, polar bears, and not much else. The Arctic is often referred to in the popular media and environmental campaigns as if it is a single, homogenous place. Most people who campaign to protect the Arctic do not know, or have not bothered to find out, that it is home to about 4 million people across the eight Arctic states. Many may have some conception that the Arctic is populated by Inuit; while the Inuit do call the Arctic their home, they number only about 155,000 inhabitants. The vast majority of Arctic residents (approximately 90 percent) are non-indigenous, and among the 400,000 or so indigenous residents, there are many different nations, language groups, and cultures, including the Gwich’in, Dene, Aleut, Sami, Evenks, and Nenets.

These popular perceptions of the Arctic have had real consequences on policy. It is too easy to imagine the Arctic as a last, pristine, unspoiled wilderness that must be saved; a global commons that we have a shared responsibility to protect. This grossly disregards the agency that Arctic residents should and do exercise over their own territories. Southern environmentalist movements tend to ignore Northerners’ roles in managing land use; or dismiss them, especially indigenous peoples, as not having the capacity or the power to exercise authority over their land. This is a hopelessly outdated view.

Open for Business 

Of course, the Arctic is not a totally pristine environment insulated from all human activity, but has been a homeland subject to human use for millennia. Commercial forestry, fishing, mining, and oil and gas exploration has been occurring for a century or longer in most corners of the region. Indeed the Arctic’s gross regional product (GRP), or the monetary measurement of the region’s goods and services produced, was U.S. $442.8 billion in 2010, equivalent to the GDP of Malaysia or Colombia.

Arctic indigenous communities have become much more active in the market economy since the 1970s, though the traditional sector is still significant. In Alaska, for example, the 1971 Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) legislated the transfer of 44 million acres of land, or about 10 percent of Alaska, and monetary payments totaling $962.5 million.  This was transferred to 12 regional and 200 village corporations established under ANCSA, with any living person with at least one-quarter Alaskan blood eligible to be a shareholder in either or both a regional and village corporation. A 13th regional corporation was also established for non-resident Alaskan Natives.

While far from a perfect system, Alaska Native Corporations are a remarkable business success story, occupying four of the five spots of the top Alaska businesses and generating U.S. $11.08 billion in revenues in 2014. Some 69 percent of the 25,951 jobs provided by the ‘Top49’ Alaskan businesses, as identified by Alaska Business Monthly, were provided by ANCSA businesses this year. Much of their revenue has been from the non-renewable sector, and the decision of Shell to cancel their Chukchi operations has been a blow to many.

“The news from Shell is deeply disappointing,” stated Rex A. Rock Sr., CEO of the Alaska Slope Regional Corporation, Alaska’s biggest company, and native-owned. “On the North Slope, we are looking for solutions on how we continue to sustain our local economies to support our communities. Absent any responsible resource development onshore and offshore, we are facing a fiscal crisis beyond measure. The federal regulatory environment has proven to be a burden for any development… with this type of uncertainty, we will continue to see good opportunities slip away because no one wants to do business in Alaska.”

This is a very real, if unintended, consequence of Shell’s Arctic pull-out. New norms are growing around economic development in the Arctic, with the region being characterized as off-limits to responsible investors. Whether or not Greenpeace and its ilk have more nuanced views as an organization about the kinds of development they deem acceptable in the region matters little. Arctic development has become a litmus test for politicians’ and corporations’ commitment to protect the environment and mitigate climate change. This standard is arbitrary, hypocritical, and unfair.

Climate change battleground?

No informed observer can argue that climate change isn’t having real and damaging consequences in the Arctic. But it is often painted as being the source of global climate changes, rather than the victim.  “The Arctic affects us all” goes the slogan, when in fact the opposite is true: the Arctic has been affected by us all. And we are now asking those living in the North to bear the brunt of mitigating climate change even as they bear the brunt of adapting to it.

Does the world need to reduce its dependence and consumption of carbon dioxide emitting hydrocarbons? No doubt. But it is untenable to start identifying entire regions – especially regions where you don’t live – to make the first and deepest sacrifices to their economic livelihood.

The concept of sustainable development is one that is embraced in the Arctic, and regulatory burdens often far exceed those in more southerly locales. The core of the concept is to find balance between environmental protection and economic development. Yet for many southern environmentalists, sustainable development in the Arctic means no development. This is simply unacceptable. Romantic and outdated impressions of the Arctic and its people from activists who have never been there need to evolve. People live and work in the Arctic. For four decades indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and elsewhere have fought for the devolution of governing powers from southern political centres. Only economic self-sufficiency will translate de jure authority into de facto self-determination. Those of us who do not live there must not impinge on this right.



Heather Exner-Pirot is Managing Editor at the Arctic Yearbook, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan, and a blogger for Radio Canada’s ‘Eye on the Arctic’ website. Her interests are in northern and indigenous health, education and economic development, regional governance, and Arctic Council politics.

[Photo courtesy of Smudge 9000]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.