The Arctic has been no stranger to foreigners for quite some time. Although Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson opened the 2014 Arctic Circle conference by declaring, “The northern regions, which for centuries were isolated and unknown to the rest of the world, now become a global theatre, reflecting the importance of the Arctic for every continent and country in the world,” the top of the planet has been a stage for the nomads, the whalers, the fur trappers, the explorers, the colonists, the missionaries, and the scientists of the world to pursue their hopes and dreams and battles since time immemorial.
What is new, however, is the scale and extent of the new Global Arctic. The gathering of 1,400 delegates from 34 countries to talk about the future of the region on this little North Atlantic island epitomizes this development. Yet all of the countries with official delegations – the UK, France, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few – are, quite frankly, rich countries with advanced science and research and development sectors. India was admitted as an Arctic Council Observer along with four other Asian states, but it was the only one to not send an official delegation. The delegations that traveled to Reykjavik were those that could afford to, even though issues like ice melt and sea level rise will affect some of the poorest nations, like Bangladesh and Tuvalu, the worst.
This gathering of essentially suits, politicians, academics, and a handful of indigenous peoples making pronouncements in between bites of smoked salmon (or sips of fermented ewe’s milk, if one attended the Sakha Republic/Northern Forum reception) could therefore come off as disingenuous. So when Okalik Eegeesiak, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), asked the indigenous people in the audience to stand up so that the rest “could know who to talk to,” the sentiment was appreciated and she had a valid point. As she movingly asked, who are “we” in the south to hold a conference on their territory, coming up with ideas as to how “they” should govern themselves, which animals they can and cannot hunt, and what type of research they should prioritize?
Yet the tricky thing is that who is we and who are they – in other words, who is indigenous and who is not – is actually quite complex. Norse settlers, for instance, sailed from Iceland and Norway to southwest Greenland at the end of the 10th century, likely arriving there before the Thule Inuit moved down from present-day northern Greenland and Canada. The Norse and Thule Inuit eventually encountered one another, sometimes resulting in babies and sometimes in bloodshed, as Jane Smiley describes in her evocative historical novel The Greenlanders.
The Norse colonies died out, but one has to wonder, if they survived, would Norse Greenlanders be considered indigenous? A map of indigenous peoples in the Arctic shown during a presentation at Arctic Circle did not include Icelanders as indigenous people, even though the island was settled at the end of the 9th century – before the Thule Inuit made it to southern Greenland. By contrast, the Yakuts living in the Republic of Sakha are considered an indigenous people, even though they migrated from the steppes of Central Asia in the 13th century, centuries after the Settlement in Iceland. How long does a group of people need to reside in one place before they are considered indigenous? Does it have to do partly with whether a particular people has been oppressed, or does it also have to do with the continuation of age-old practices? If so, why is reindeer herding largely considered to be an indigenous activity, but Icelandic shepherding is not?
On the one hand, these questions are worth asking because for centuries, invading peoples have in many instances stolen land and committed heinous crimes against people we today describe as indigenous. On the other hand, these questions paper over the fact that, as a fellow conference-goer reminded over lunch, “We are all human.” It was in 1987 that the World Commission on Environment and Development released the report that launched the term “sustainable development” into the stratosphere, a term that was in no small shortage at Arctic Circle. The important phrase that seems to have been forgotten, however, is the title of the report: “Our Common Future.”
The Global Backyard
ICC Chair Eegeesiak also asked: “If you want to save the Arctic, look in your own backyard.” She touched a nerve, for a great deal of so-called Arctic development projects, from mining to oil extraction, are being done in order to extract resources for the development of cities in more southern regions so that they can continue their unsustainable, carbon-intensive activities. The iron being mined on Baffinland and the oil being extracted from Prirolazomnoye aren’t going to power northern communities, even though these projects may provide northerners with much-needed jobs and revenue. Those Arctic resources are instead going to consumers in the Rotterdams, Moscows, and Beijings of the world.
But just as the Arctic is a more deeply global region than ever before, so are our own backyards in the South. The fertilizer you use to grow your petunias may contain iron from a Canadian mine. Even if you’re using organic compost, there’s quite possibly some bits of Arctic food products in there. There are also very likely tropical products, if you ate bananas, vanilla, tree nuts, or any of the other thousands of items that come out of the earth’s lower latitudes. And scientists have discovered microplastics from items like water bottles (which were given out in massive quantities at Arctic Circle) in Arctic sea ice. They likely ended up in the sea ice via oceanic and atmospheric pathways. A few steps up the food chain later, and they can contaminate the salmon that migrate to the mighty rivers in the Arctic. This pink prize fish is a chief source of nutrients for people like the Yup’ik in Alaska.
Lines of latitude and longitude are converging in the Arctic and the backyards of the south. Consequently, it’s going to take global rather than tribal thinking to untangle the mess we’re in. A statement made by the Icelandic Prime Minister while discussing the Arctic Paradox, a phrase used to describe how humans are capitalizing on the climate change-induced opening of the Arctic by eagerly extracting and burning previously frozen fossil fuels, encapsulated that mess. Without a touch of irony, he uttered: “Contributing to climate change by utilizing non-renewable resources does not necessarily have to be a contradiction in terms.” He is not alone in this thinking, as his statement reflects a universal human tendency to rationalize behaviors that would otherwise cause uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. The contradiction – the Arctic paradox – is one that all of us need to work on sorting out, and not just rhetorically.