The Arctic is Hot!

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Simone Abram.

It’s not a joke – the Arctic seems to be everywhere at the moment, and it’s mainly because it is getting warmer. None of us really agree what the Arctic is or where – or whether – it has limits, few of us go there, and only a small number of states border the Arctic seas. That doesn’t seem to stop commentators using images of the Arctic to serve their particular interests, often with little regard or even acknowledgement of those who actually live in the Arctic regions. Nor does it dissuade states around the world from developing Arctic policies or seeing the Arctic as a potential resource for their own development goals. These are the themes that inform a recently-established international European project on Arctic Encounters that sets out to confront the idea of a post-colonial Arctic, through the comparison between Arctic imageries and lives in the region. 

Fresh from three days of workshops and discussions about what it might mean to talk about a ‘postcolonial Arctic’ (#postarctic), I want to draw out some of the themes and memes that characterise debate about Arctic regions, and the European High North in particular. I do this from a couple of perspectives that feed in from my own particular interests and find fruition in the Arctic question: tourism and energy. Those provide a fortuitous combination, since the two main sources of Arctic anxieties revolve around tourism imaginaries and what are sometimes called oil imaginaries but actually extend into a range of extractive industries (e.g. oilscapes ).

Global environmental activists have been increasingly effective in protesting against fossil and nuclear fuel extraction, and current action, such as Greenpeace’s campaign to defend Bear Island, have been effective in drawing global media attention to the issues. The alternatives to fossil and nuclear fuels include renewable resources such as wind, wave, solar and hydro, of which hydro is currently the established technology that is most easily scaled for mass provision. So bearing in mind that hydro-electric power is the cleanest, most responsive and by far the most renewable source of electricity generation available to us, and considering the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, it would seem perverse to find people protesting against hydro-electric power production, as much as against wind farms, another renewable source that provokes vociferous protest at various sites (particularly in the UK).

In the Arctic context, it’s worth remembering that the most important Sami uprising in the Norwegian North was prompted by the construction of a mammoth hydro-electric dam that flooded hundreds of kilometres of crucially important herding grounds, land that embodied shared histories, kinships and ancient sacred sites. The Alta uprising is echoed in protests around the world that are ongoing today. Current crises include a proposal to dam the Omo river in Ethiopia that will rob the Mursi of their lands, a disputed mega-dam in Myanmar  (see BBC reports), indigenous protests against a dam in the Amazon basin, and protests against a hydro project in British Columbia.

Of course the apparent conflict between carbon reduction and indigenous rights is merely the visible evidence of a much more fundamental global problem that can be crudely characterised (or perhaps caricatured) as a conflict between the technological-focus and capital-driven engines of modernity and the desire to live at the human scale in tune with nature. But rather than each position being the problem here, it is the idea of opposition that is so entrenched at governmental and corporate levels that can make the problem seem intractable. We are faced with a classic set of cognitive dissonances (or ‘denials’) that we are struggling to escape: we all know that carbon emissions must drop dramatically if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, yet most people still want to drive their cars or fly around to international conferences (guilty as charged!). We know that only a fraction of the carbon that is currently traded on global markets can be used, yet trillions of dollars of share capital is invested in the potential of these resources – and many of us have pensions invested in these very funds. Current action on ‘divestment‘ is starting to respond to this particular issue, with notable initiatives from universities including Stanford and Oxford.

How is this all connected to the Arctic? Firstly, as sea ice melts and navigable shipping routes begin to open up, new fields of oil and gas are being explored for extraction and states and corporations are manoeuvring to claim ownership and rights to extract resources in what has been called (and disputed) a ‘scramble for the Arctic’ (Sale and Potapov 2010). But secondly, tensions are heightened because the Arctic has provided imagery that sustains the idea of a ‘pristine wilderness’, borrowing and reinforcing imagery from now mythologised Antarctic expeditions and scientific hyperbole about polar nature. In this, the colonial tropes of unconquered land figure deeply, and serve to reproduce the notion of an Arctic region ‘untouched by man’. For indigenous inhabitants, this is not only annoying; it has deeply disturbing consequences, which are being increasingly vociferously documented.

For anthropologists, the ‘indigenous question’ is not the only one we should write about. It should, however, be always in our minds in our research on the workings of extractive industries, the means that states use to create the space for policies and legislation about rights or ownership, the imagery and discourses that tourism companies use to attract clients and customers, or the question of how tourism activities are or should be regulated and by whom.

Subsequent blogs over the next couple of weeks will draw out some of these themes, and I hope you’ll enjoy the journey and contribute with comments and responses along the way.


Simone is a discipline-crossing anthropologist, having worked in planning, geography and anthropology departments. She is currently Reader in Cultural Tourism at Leeds Met University, and Reader in Energy Studies at Durham University, Department of Anthropology, where she is Director of the MSc in Energy and Society.