Commodifying nature: The price of ice

Northern Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013.
January sunset in Northern Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013.

A graduate student recently interviewed me for his dissertation on Russia, the Arctic, oil and gas. During the interview, he asked me what I believed was the single most important Arctic resource. The answer could have been oil, gas, minerals, fisheries, or any other number of commodities. I responded that oil and gas are probably the most valuable in dollar amounts based on their current prices and the sheer amount that exists in the Arctic. However, their price could drop significantly if there is a revolution in energy production, such as the whisperings going around about drilling for methane hydrates not just in the Arctic’s permafrost, but even in the seafloor in countries almost entirely lacking in conventional oil and gas of their own, like Japan.

But I also responded that what really struck me about the question, and about many discussions on the Arctic, is the desire to commodify the region’s every resource. The Arctic is talked about in terms of barrels of oil, British thermal units of natural gas, and tons of iron ore. The ice cap is measured, poked, and prodded with endless arrays of instruments, from old-school rulers to state-of-the-art satellites. (The Germans over at the Alfred Wegener Institute, unsurprisingly, have a website cataloging all the various ways of studying sea ice.)

It’s unsurprising that we talk about oil and gas in such a quantifiable manner. What’s more surprising is that the trend to monetize everything, particularly on resource frontiers like the Arctic, is spilling over into nature itself. For instance ,the United Nations’ program, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), “is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.”

REDD+, an expansion of the program, goes further and attempts to incentivize people to conserve and sustainably manage forests. The value of forests’ carbon storage is done “by implementing Measuring and Monitoring Systems compliant with the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s] Measuring, Reporting and Verification concept.” Just reading that sentence strips away the ineffable, seductive mystique of forests. I’d argue the sentence is even more dismaying than President Ronald Reagan’s infamous statement about the creation of California’s Redwood National Park: “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?” At least a tree was still a tree then, and not a dollar sign or merely a carbon sink.

The UN website continues to say that REDD+ is about “making the private sector part of the solution by providing the kinds of market signals, mechanisms and incentives to encourage investments that manage and conserve the world’s nature-based resources rather than mining them. So it is about making money and conserving the planet too and if REDD can be structured right, the money will be made not just by carbon traders, but also by developing countries and communities for providing the forest-based carbon storage service.”

“Carbon traders” must be one of the strangest new occupations to arise in the 21st century. Little by little, they are replacing indigenous peoples and local farmers as stewards of the world’s forests, which have come to be viewed as carbon sinks. The phrase “carbon trader” sounds like it could not be more detached from what it is to pad barefoot on the soft underbelly of a forest or to hear a tree tumble through the undergrowth as the lumberjacks do their work. Even though carbon traders’ supposed aim is conservation, the real aim is making money.

Uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. (c) Gleison Miranda, FUNAI/Survival
The forest stewards of yesterday. Uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. (c) Gleison Miranda, FUNAI/Survival

The Arctic has no forests, so one might think it could escape the clutch of commodification. But permafrost, which the Arctic has in great supply, stores some 850 billion tons of carbon. It’s therefore conceivable that carbon traders could one day make their way north.

So far, permafrost has not been perceived as a commodity in the way that forests are. A tree can become a chair, a roof, or a piece of paper, while permafrost can’t do much more than sit in the ground.

Now, though, with the hype surrounding methane hydrates, even permafrost could have a value based on its carbon storage. A country or community could be paid not to develop the methane hydrates locked into the ice based on its carbon value. Commodifying not just hydrocarbons and minerals, but even the surrounding environment, whether forests, ice, or even whales, however, risks further alienating humanity from nature. Quantifiable capital replaces unquantifiable natural integrity. Welcome to the dollar store of planet earth, where even ice has a price.

After a successful trial extraction of methane hydrates on the North Slope of Alaska last year, the U.S. Department of Energy funded 14 new research projects across the country to look into the resource. Methane hydrates are a potentially huge source of energy – more than twice the world’s known fossil fuels. Releasing more methane into the atmosphere by extracting the resource could be a disaster for the climate, but a potential boon for coastal countries like Japan, which has lots of methane hydrates locked into its seafloor. If the only way to prevent deforestation and development of resources like methane hydrates is by attaching a price to invisible (but important) carbon, then humanity has lost the power of imagination and the ability to see the value in something for its own sake.

To answer the question initially posed by the interviewer, I think the most important Arctic resource is its magical, unique landscape. It has captivated – and provided for, each in a different way – indigenous peoples, explorers both foolish and wise, and modern television audiences for centuries. Even if all the ice were to melt, at least we can take some solace in the fact that the northern lights will still be there.

The Northern Lights in A, Lofoten Islands, Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013
The Northern Lights in A, Lofoten Islands, Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013

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