Permanent participants brainstorm during ICASS VIII session. © Alona Yefimenko, IASSA, 2014.
Permanent participants brainstorm during ICASS VIII session. © Alona Yefimenko, IASSA, 2014.

In the logging town-turned service center of Prince George, British Columbia, close to 500 people descended upon the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) last week for the Eighth International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS VIII), a conference organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association every three years. Unlike most of the other Arctic conferences I’ve been to, like Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø and Arctic Circle in Reykjavik, which assemble policymakers, businesspeople, and academics, ICASS VIII was more of an academic affair. Heads of states, policymakers, and oil and gas representatives were largely absent. In their place were researchers, activists, students, government representatives, and a few businesspeople from 26 countries, including a large number of indigenous people and Russian nationals. In fact, the largest delegation (10 people) came from the North-Eastern Federal University in Sakha, with which UNBC has a longstanding connection. The Russian contingent would have been even larger had it not been for the 20 individuals denied visas by the Canadian government – a sad sign that political tensions between the two countries are negatively impacting free intellectual exchange. The geographic diversity is quite impressive considering there were under 500 attendees; Arctic Circle had 1,200 attendees from 40 countries. Arctic Frontiers, about which I mapped the demographics and geography of attendees, had a similar geographic range as ICASS VIII but hundreds of more attendees.

The choice of the four keynote speakers, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Joe Linklater, Dr. Sverker Sörlin, a Swedish public intellectual and professor of environmental history, Greenlandic educator and journalist Henriette Rasmussen, and Dr. Alexander Pelyasov, a prominent Russian economic geographer and polar development expert, illustrates the conference’s receptiveness towards indigenous peoples and academics.

The view from UNBC over Prince George, BC. © Mia Bennett
The view from UNBC over Prince George, BC. © Mia Bennett

But money talks, so even more telling than the keynote speakers are the sponsors. ICASS VIII’s biggest sponsor seems to have been the U.S. National Science Foundation, with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian government second followed by a number of other Arctic research institutes and think tanks, including the Korea Maritime Institute. No shipping or oil companies are found amongst the list of sponsors. Arctic Frontiers, in contrast, lists multinational oil corporation ConocoPhillips as its second sponsor. Several mostly Norwegian research institutes also provided support, but so did businesses, such as SpareBank and risk management agency DNV. Arctic Circle, hosted in Reykjavik’s snazzy Harpa conference center rather than a university, like the other two conferences, seems to have had the most money behind it. Google, Cosco, Samskip, and the International Council on Mining and Metals were just some of the top supporters, which explains the prominence of slick and exciting plenaries dedicated to commercial activities in the region. (I have to admit that Eimskip’s presentation at Arctic Circle was still one of the most visually impressive I’ve seen.)

That said, little can explain the hypocrisy of the never-ending seafood buffets at all of these Arctic conferences, big budgets or not. There were towers of shrimp, mussels, smoked trout, and candied salmon in Prince George, three types of whale in Tromsø, and ridiculous amounts of smoked salmon in Reykjavik. I appreciate the need to impress attendees and show support for the local fishing economy, but surely the organizers must see the irony of serving such astounding (atrocious?) amounts of seafood at conferences where sustainability is an inevitable buzzword.

Deconstructing the Arctic

But back to the heart of the matter of ICASS VIII – a conference that I feel was the most genuine of any I have attended with regard to talking about and thinking about the Arctic. Presenters attempted to deconstruct what terms like “corporate social responsibility” (a catchphrase at Arctic Circle), “sustainability,” and “resilience” meant, although more could have been done, as always. In one of the most striking moments of the conference, a member of the audience asked plenary speaker Pavel Sulyandziga, a Russian indigenous rights activist and former vice president of RAIPON, “How is resilience related to rootedness and place?” It took several minutes for the translator to translate and describe the term in Russian, since there is apparently no one specific word to express the English concept – revealing how ideas cannot travel seamlessly across language,  let alone place. Going in the other direction, from indigenous to non-indigenous cultures, at a panel on Gwich’in caribou anatomy and cultural ecology, elder Kenneth Frank provided the audience with insight into Gwich’in vocabulary and naming conventions. The word for animal fat, for instance, is also used for a certain type of clouds due to the visual similarity of the two white, stringy things. He also talked about how many people are named after different parts of the caribou: a long-distance runner might be named after a caribou leg, while someone else might have been named for the yellow fat around the intestine (for reasons that remain unclear to me!). 

Other concepts in the Arctic often taken for granted, like roads, oceans, and ships, were roundly debated and deconstructed over the course of the five-day conference. Environmental historian Dag Avango spoke of natural resources as social constructions – something that might have gone over the heads of Statoil and Shell representatives had they been in attendance. One session called “How Do We See the Sea? Changing Arctic Seascape and Multiple Meanings of Water” interrogated the oceanic spaces of the circumpolar north, considering them as more than just a space for new shipping possibilities and commercial development. Alan Grove, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia studying the “ancitipatory geographies of the Northwest Passage,” argued that the attention on the Canadian shipping passage as an international route overshadows the destinational shipping activity taking place within the Canadian Arctic on a North-South axis. This demonstrates how even the idea of “Arctic shipping” privileges shortcuts between Europe, Asia, and North America rather than connections within the Arctic, which is seen as a periphery to the world’s core markets. 

During her presentation on the Alaska-Canada Highway, renowned UBC anthropologist Julie Cruikshank noted how concepts like land, heritage, and resources are actually “contested terms.” “People are talking about different things,” she said, “but are using the same words.” Furthermore, ideas like sovereignty and traditional territories are European concepts that poorly fit First Nations and indigenous peoples. The land claims agreements signed in Canada in the 1990s, however, reify boundaries that never existed before – thus putting First Nations in conflict with one another where they may not have been before.

One of the most striking features of ICASS VIII was the sheer diversity of panels. One session on the “Histories of Resilience in Human-Animal Relations in the Circumpolar North” had an entire panel dedicated to dogs in the Arctic, looking at their meanings to the people living with them in places like Kamchatka and Tyva. The conference also had numerous panels on topics that might be more expected, like Arctic security and extractive industries. Yet even during many of these panels, the tone was often more critical of developmental interests than might be expected at other Arctic forums. During her presentation on tolerance of uranium mining in Greenland, Lill Rastad Bjørst of Aalborg University quoted Damien Krebs, a Greenland Minerals & Energy representative. Bjørst had heard him say during a community hearing in Greenland, “The benefits we will have mean a tremendous thing for the local community, and that is the sustainability we offer.” In the eyes of the corporation, sustainability means the promise of modernization and social services. Environmental connotations have been silently removed from the word in this usage.

From an Arctic Binary to an Arctic Continuum

Peder Roberts, a post-doctoral researcher at KTH, spoke about how we are moving away from an Arctic/non-Arctic binary towards an Arctic continuum. Essentially, what this implies is that whereas previously there was a clear split between the eight countries with territory north of the Arctic Circle (the “Arctic states”) and those without, now, countries without such northern bits of territory are increasingly building polar identities for themselves. Countries like South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, and China, all of which had significant presences at this conference, are arguably higher up on the Arctic continuum than India or Mexico. The geographic diversity of attendees at ICASS VIII spoke to this flexibility of the Arctic as a region, for people hailed from both north and south of 60°N, the Arctic Circle, and any other arbitrary line one could use to bound the region. As someone noted to me during a coffee break, starting the Arctic at the 60th parallel makes sense to a Canadian, but not to a Swede, for this is just right around the decidedly non-Arctic city of Stockholm. ICASS VIII had presentations on Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, and Tyva Republic in southern Siberia (all around the same latitudes as France), along with the more typically “Arctic” zones of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Russia, Greenland, and Alaska, to name a few. 

In a similar vein, Pei Zhang, Deputy Director of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, expressed “As we all know, China, Japan, and Korea are all near-Arctic countries…That means these countries have geographic proximity to the Arctic. [They’re] non-Arctic countries, but no ordinary non-Arctic countries.” During his keynote speech, Alexander Pelyasov – perhaps referring to people like Zhang – expressed, “I can see the energy of these young Chinese professors inclined to work with Arctic issues, and I really believe this is the force we have to admit, we have to count.”

Illustrating the rising prominence of Asia within Arctic affairs, a topic to which a whole session was dedicated, Egill Thor Nielsson of the China Polar Research Institute spoke of the forthcoming second China-Nordic Arctic Cooperation Symposium while also noting that earlier this year, Eimskip (the Icelandic shipping company) and COSCO (the Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics company), signed an agreement with a special focus on the North Atlantic. But China has yet to come up with a unified strategy. As Justin (Jong-Deog) Kim of the Korea Maritime Institute pointed out, Korea is the only Asian country so far that has developed a document as comprehensive as its Arctic Policy Master Plan. Surprisingly, Singapore, Japan, and India were underrepresented at the conference, even though Singapore in particular made a strong showing at the Arctic Circle, which I wrote about last October.

Linyan Huang speaking about Chinese shipping interests. © Mia Bennett.
Linyan Huang speaking about Chinese shipping interests. © Mia Bennett.

Returning to the idea of deconstructing assumptions in the Arctic, it’s important to note that all so-called non-Arctic countries, including the Asian ones, are composed of numerous actors who have differing views in the Arctic – just like any Arctic state. What a Norwegian Greenpeace member wants in the Arctic differs from what Statoil wants. Linyan Huang of the University of Laval concluded that Chinese interest in Arctic shipping is largely driven by government and academia rather than industry – a finding that contrasts strongly with COSCO’s presentation at Arctic Circle in October 2013. Huang’s separation of Chinese government, academia, and business is an important contribution to forging a more nuanced understanding of Chinese activities in the Arctic. Understanding the multiplicity of views within each country helps do away with ideas such as the “Russian Bear” or the aggressive Chinese “Snow Dragon.” Try as Putin might, Russia is not a monolithic actor in the Arctic. Neither is China. Maintaining awareness of the complexity of stakeholders in each country may lead to better realizations of the potential for linkages across the Arctic continuum.

Intra-Arctic Knowledge Exchange

Another positive of ICASS VIII was its ability to serve as a forum for intra-Arctic knowledge exchange. A plenary session on a youth outreach program in small communities in Newfoundland called “Aullak, sangilivallianginnatuk” (“Going Off, Growing Strong”) prompted an audience member from Alaska to encourage efforts to distribute materials about the program’s success to other communities throughout the Arctic.  At the panel on dogs, one woman who grew up in Clyde River, a community of 800 people on Baffin Island, Nunavut told presenter Dr. Robert Losey from the University of Alberta, who studies the life histories of dogs through archaeology, about her experience working as a dog musher and taking care of her animals’ teeth. A talk on urbanization compared architectural styles and housing markets in Nuuk, Reykjavik, and Murmansk. This comparison led the moderator to discuss how an architectural firm from Tromsø designed, through collaborative consultation with Greenlanders, new housing units in Nuuk – a case of North-North knowledge sharing in action. Although the Arctic is a diverse region, the transfer of knowledge from one part of the circumpolar north to another often better fits the local context than solutions transplanted more southern locations.

Still, it might be seemingly hard sometimes for knowledge to cross the variegated spaces of the Arctic. Plenary speaker Pelyasov sketched out the five different “imagined futures” he perceives in the Arctic:

  • Russia: Urban agglomeration effect, resources and space
  • Scandinavia: Infrastructure and innovations
  • Greenland: Feeling of “my land”
  • U.S.A.: State-owned (namely Alaska) rent-accumulating institutions
  • Canada: Local entrepreneurship and community economic development

The different tracks within each of these zones mean that Russia can’t always learn from, say, the U.S. or Scandinavia, as neither has undergone a similar scale of industrial development in their northern regions. But as I mentioned earlier, I think that while knowing what a country’s general Arctic narrative is certainly important, it’s also necessary to further break down these narratives. Then, for instance, we might see how aluminum smelter project developers in Russia could learn how a similar project in Iceland turned out. Even though the scale and intensity of development might not be the same, there are still endless opportunities for knowledge exchange between areas in the Arctic – visa problems notwithstanding.

Human(ities) in the Arctic

Sverker Sörlin expressed in his plenary speech, “When we work in the Arctic, we don’t just address local problems. We address problems that are dire for the whole world.” The Arctic has become a laboratory for the planet in areas ranging from governance to fishing regimes to shipping regulations. This is especially the case because the polar regions are often seen as being on the front lines of climate change. How we solve problems in the Arctic sets an example for problem-solving further south. Bringing it back to the North, however, Sörlin, in an eloquent speech that transcended geographical scales from the global to the local, questioned: 

“What about the people in Qaanaaq? Is it the right pathway to open extraction in the Arctic for southern capitals when feedbacks will just affect the Arctic? No one in their right mind would say yes, but it’s happening. The equation is perfectly hopeless. If sharing doesn’t happen, nothing will happen.”

The Arctic paradox is the idea that while increased resource development and shipping could bring increased opportunities to Northerners, it could also accelerate the very forces of climate change partly responsible for stimulating these activities in the first place. In Sörlin’s words, however, the Arctic paradox is close to becoming an Arctic tragedy. The Shakespearean framing of the problem meshes nicely with Sörlin’s call to integrate the humanities more into Arctic social science. Arctic Frontiers’ theme in 2014 may have been “Humans in the Arctic,” yet the Swedish professor instead encouraged “Humanities in the Arctic.” Many people promote the merging of geography, economics, political science, and even physical science into an interdisciplinary study of the Arctic, so the reminder of the importance of fields like literature and philosophy was refreshing. It exemplified the more reflective, less development-happy nature of ICASS VIII – a conference that was, in short, breath of fresh, pine-scented, sub-Arctic air.

Building on Sörlin’s suggestion, I leave you with a link to a cautionary tale by American author and Klondike gold miner Jack London entitled “To Build a Fire,” (1908) about a man off on his own in minus fifty weather in the Yukon. In an Arctic that is endlessly quantified and monetized by scientists and businessmen alike – 1 meter of sea level rise, 2 degrees of a temperature increase, $100 dollars per barrel – the fate of London’s protagonist reminds us that there’s more to the elements than numbers.

tbafFifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.” (Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” 1908).


Reflections on the Eighth International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.