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Why should we care about the arctic?

May 8, 2018

Why Should We Care About the Arctic?

In response to a question posed by WPI fellow Erica Dingman, Kevin McGwin, Annika E. Nilsson, and Klaus Dodds weigh in on a fundamental debate—why we should care about the Arctic.


ERICA DINGMAN: The pace of climate change in the Arctic has drawn broad public attention to the region. However, many other issues remain far outside the public purview. Beyond climate change, why should the general public care about the Arctic?

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KEVIN MCGWIN: Why should people care about the Arctic? The shortest way I can answer is this: Rainforest Crunch. For those not familiar with American premium ice-cream flavors of the 1990s, the makers of Rainforest Crunch pledged to use only nuts purchased from indigenous farmers in Brazil. The idea was that, with the company creating a market for Brazil nuts, farmers in the Amazon would have an alternative to cutting down the trees to make room for cropland or pasture.

Rainforest Crunch and its “save the Amazon” message was a commercial hit, but the producers’ good intentions never panned out. The co-operative they set up couldn’t produce enough nuts and they turned to a conventional, highly destructive, farm to make up the difference. Eventually, the company stopped making references to helping Brazilians. Consumers who bought Rainforest Crunch didn’t seem to mind: At the time of its retirement, in 1996, it was among the company’s 10 best-selling flavors.

Today, conservation groups have popularized a “save the Arctic” mantra. From a southern perspective, their efforts are vital for protecting the Arctic environment and the species that live there from pressures that arise outside the region. But, like Rainforest Crunch, they run roughshod over the interests of Arctic communities, often unnecessarily.

Like any other group, Northerners grapple with their own social, cultural, and economic issues. By and large, these problems are as unimportant to people outside the region as the local and regional issues facing people outside the Arctic are to Northerners, but Northern communities—small, remote, and lacking physical and electronic connections to the outside world—often go overlooked by national authorities. Keeping an eye on the region makes us aware that “saving the Arctic” should, first and foremost, be a matter of addressing the needs of the people who live there.

Kevin McGwin is a journalist writing for Arctic Today and an occasional contributor to the Greenlandic weekly Sermitsiaq. He is the former editor of The Arctic Journal and has been writing about Greenland and the Arctic since 2006.

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ANNIKA E. NILSSON: Cold conditions make the Arctic a sink for persistent pollutants. Toxic organic chemicals and heavy metals have been found in people and animals, though they live far from any obvious sources of these substances. This discovery played a crucial role in creating policies to limit the use and emission of these substances, to the benefit of people and environments across the globe. The Arctic is an indicator and early warning system for chemical pollution. This is comparable to the Arctic’s role in alerting us to global climate change, where the region’s cold climate and unique characteristics of snow and ice make the region especially sensitive to environmental shifts.

While scientists and policymakers recognize the region’s role as an environmental sink, attention to the Arctic as a source has mainly focused on the economic potential of its raw materials. But the extraction of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, metals, fertilizers, and gemstones inevitably has impacts on local communities and environments, sometimes including pollution and destroyed land. While we can hope that alternatives to fossil fuels will support future energy needs, the global demand for other non-renewable resources is unlikely to diminish. We are thus faced with a tough question: Can the extraction of non-renewable resources be carried out in ways that allow future generations to flourish? At stake is not only the well-being of the people and the environment in the vicinity of extraction sites but also progress toward sustainable development elsewhere in the world. Solving this enigma—making the extraction of non-renewable resources sustainable—is critical beyond the Arctic: There are communities and countries across the world where extraction takes place and where people rely on income from these activities. Extractive industries have been a major driver of social and environmental change in the Arctic, and now, some people are no longer willing to accept their negative consequences. Their stance is an indicator of concerns about sustainability shared by communities across the world—and it is time to listen.

Annika E. Nilsson is Senior Research Fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute and Affiliated Faculty in Environmental Politics at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. Her work focuses on the politics of Arctic change. One of the projects she is engaged in is Resource Extraction and Sustainable Arctic Communities.

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KLAUS DODDS: The scale of climate change in the Arctic has been granted a particular gravitational pull in discussions about regional and global transformation. Revelations about retreating sea ice, melting permafrost, warming polar waters, species invasion, and trans-boundary pollutants have all contributed to a sense of an “injured” Arctic undergoing extraordinary and violent change, with profound implications for the region’s people and ecologies.

I use this analogy of injury deliberately, but with caution. As a starting point, any discussion about “caring” for the Arctic needs to be sensitive to the complex histories and geographies of possession, settlement, exclusion, and violence. When we speak of “the Arctic,” are we talking about a region shaped by colonial encounters, or a place (or set of places) sculpted by millennia of indigenous occupation, human-animal interaction, and earthly forces? Any reference to “the Arctic”—singular—leads me to ask what exactly is at stake when we mobilize a particular framing of place and space.

Two examples might help here. First, a slew of recent articles and maps depict a “new Arctic” where retreating sea ice offers up the possibility of a more accessible ocean. So physical change appears to go hand in hand with further commercial and military activity. Second, Canada has undertaken a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Land Claims Agreements, intervening in its historical relationship with northern indigenous peoples in order to pursue a future more attuned to respect and social justice. Geophysical change and colonial legacies continue to conjure up past, present, and future Arctic(s), where the scale and impact of “injury” and “care” get renegotiated each time.

If the Arctic is an injured place, then this characterization might usefully draw attention to other forces at play. Ranging from the enduring legacies of settler colonialism, racism, and dispossession to ecological disruption caused by resource extraction, infrastructural development, and militarization, it is often difficult to imagine and empathize with structures of violence and exclusion when so much media reporting focuses on stranded polar bears and disappearing ice. To do so requires imaginative work and a commitment to listen respectfully to other voices and experiences, particularly those of indigenous and northern residents, artists, youth leaders, social and political campaigners, and political leaders.

In her short documentary Echoes (2010), the Danish-Greenlandic filmmaker Ivalo Frank skillfully shows how Greenland might be understood, focusing on an Inuit woman and a Danish man reminiscing about the U.S. military presence on the island. Their experiences are very different because of their personal relationships with American personnel—here gender, ethnicity, occupation, and citizenship matter. The title, Echoes, captures nicely how words and events reflect off their sources, and how the way we make sense of things is often subject to delay and discombobulation.

How we incorporate “the Arctic” into our purview is never an innocent exercise. Echoes serves as a timely warning that there is no singular Arctic and that climate change is just one of many forces making and remaking community and ecology.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London. His latest books are Ice (Reaktion/University of Chicago Press 2018) and a co-authored book with Mark Nuttall called The Arctic: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press 2019). 

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[Photo courtesy of Chouch]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.