The Arctic in world environmental history.

Author:Greenberg, Jonathan D.
Position:Country overview - Interview


This Article situates the Arctic in global environmental history across the long duration of time.

For millions of years, the Arctic has been the world's most important "barometer of global change and amplifier of global warming." (1) For twenty thousand years, the Arctic has been the homeland of modern human settlement, and it has played a central role in the interplay between global climate change and human migration throughout Eurasia and the Americas. Since the late fifteenth century, Arctic aboriginal peoples, lands, and seas have been thoroughly integrated into the international history of European trade, capitalism, and colonization; the territorial expansion of modern nation states; and the transnational strategic history since the outset of the Cold War, including the continued basing of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines throughout the Arctic region.

Appreciation of this international history can provide lessons for contemporary policymakers to help mitigate grave risks to human life and biodiversity in the Arctic and subArctic. For example, this Article calls for negotiations between the U.S., NATO, and the Russian Federation on the basis of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev's 1987 proposal to transform the Arctic into "a zone of peace" and, specifically, to establish "a nuclear free-zone in northern Europe." (2)

In conclusion, this Article identifies how deeply embedded global systems of political economy and international relations continue to shape recent developments in the Arctic at this time of exacerbated climate change and resulting ecological crisis.

Appreciation of the Arctic's environmental history can help decision-makers to more knowledgeably and effectively support indigenous self-determination, resource conservation, and environmental stewardship throughout the circumpolar bioregion.

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION A. Nunavut and Ultima Thule B. Political Ecology and the Longue Duree II. DEEP TIME ECHOES A. 70 Million Years Ago B. 55 Million Years Ago C. From Pleistocene to Holocene (our own era) III. MOTHERLAND AND BRIDGE A. Original Siberian Settlers B. Across to Berengia and Beyond IV. ABORIGINAL PEOPLES AND NATIONS A. Sovereignty and Territoriality B. Sustainable Resource Use 1. Reindeer/Caribou Peoples 2. Sea Mammal Peoples V. TERRA NULLIUS A. Consult Any Atlas B. The Global Fur Trade C. The International Whaling Industry VI. SETTLER COLONIALISM A. Mineral Development B. Indigenous Cultural Eradication and Resilience C. Demographic Data VII. ULTIMA THULE A. The 1941 Greenland Treaty B. The Last Kings of Thule C. Nuclear Trajectories D. A Private Sea E. A Nuclear-Free Arctic? VIII. ARCTIC HISTORY ACROSS THE LONGUE DUREE A. To the Mid-Twentieth Century B. The Past Sixty Years One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things.

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. (3)


    Now we know that the ice caps are melting, effectively changing the polar environment forever. Asked to close our eyes and imagine the Arctic as it appeared in years past, polar bears may come to our minds. Yet now we imagine a single bear wobbling upon a patch of broken-off sea-ice, a searing image cycled through the internet into the world's consciousness as a metaphor for the Arctic's fate in our new and rapidly warming millennium. We worry about the extinction of polar species and the fate of vulnerable coastal populations (in the Ganges delta of Bangladesh, for example), whose lands and lives would be destroyed if Greenland ice sheets melt into the Arctic Sea. Indeed we are right to worry and take whatever collective action we can as families, societies, organizations, and governments. We know about huge megaprojects of oil, gas, and mineral extraction and production throughout the far North. We are simultaneously aware that huge economic opportunities, even for indigenous peoples, come fraught with grave risks. But we may not have the background to place current life-changing developments in historical context. We may not understand that our recent problems and challenges have deep origins and structural roots. Without this understanding, we are hobbled in our efforts to manage them effectively.

    1. Nunavut and Ultima Thule

      The Arctic is a place on the earth at the globe's circumpolar north. Yet the Arctic also represents an idea, a place in the human mind. For centuries, the North Pole and its surrounding ice, land, and sea has evoked a kaleidoscope of images and stories: heroic expeditions either defying or embracing an icy death; Eskimo generosity extending, so it is said, to the warm comfort of a gracious host's wife on a dark, below-zero night; or today's terrified polar bear, cast adrift into the sea.

      Of all of these polar tropes, two images reside at the heart of Arctic history. Each of these conceptions evokes the passions and certainties of bedrock beliefs held, respectively, by indigenous and foreign actors. The first image envisions the Arctic as nunavut: the Inuit word for "our land." (4) In the second image, the Arctic is Ultima Thule: the awesome, icebound, resource-abundant northernmost boundary of classical and early modern European imagination and ambition, and the last frontier of civilization's global, national, and commercial development. (5) I would argue that the fateful tension between these competing visions--played out in struggles to control resources in northern lands and seas since the first European--aboriginal contact--is the primary engine driving the long, dramatic narrative arc of the region's modern history, chapter by chapter, across the circumpolar north. (6)

      The image of nunavut evokes deep feelings of identification with the particular homeland and natural ecosystem to which each northern aboriginal people belongs and on which each depends for its sustenance and survival. Canadians know this term well because it was taken by Inuit of northwest Canada as the name of the Nunavut Territory. Established in 1999 as Canada's first official geographic and political unit with a primarily indigenous population, Nunavut is administered as a Canadian territory under aboriginal self-government. (7) In this Article, I use the term nunavut with a small "n" to connote traditional conceptions of aboriginal self-determination more generally across hundreds of indigenous nations throughout the circumpolar north.

      In contrast, Ultima Thule evokes ancient and modern European images of "a distant northern place, geographically undefined, and shrouded in esoteric mystery." (8) The term "Thule" is most often traced to the Greek explorer Pytheas, who imagined and tried to find a fabled archipelago north of Scandinavia. (9) Early and medieval European poets extolled the stark, compelling beauty of Ultima Thule--the most hyperborean realm of all: "[t]he end of the world; the last extremity." (10) It was a place of overwhelming mystery and yet, at the same time, limitless treasure and utility. In Georgics, Virgil prophesizes its future mastery: tibi serviat Ultima Thule (the farthest Thule shall serve you). (11) Throughout the subsequent centuries, in the spirit of Virgil, European scientists, adventurers, mercantilists, and mercenaries dreamed of navigating polar seas, exploring Northern geographies, reaching the North Pole itself, and conquering Arctic territories for their king or state. Ultima Thule never lost its power to evoke humanity's ultimate northernmost frontier; to inspire enormously difficult, challenging, and costly endeavors to reach and conquer it; and to propel among the most heroic feats of exploration, endurance, and engineering in global human history.

      Implicitly or explicitly, each image also embodies fiercely-held conceptions of justice, law, property, and governance. In Arctic lands imagined as nunavut, aboriginal inhabitants have always held legal jurisdiction, land rights and title, and political control--each naturally derived from principles of national sovereignty and territoriality based on indigenous self-determination within understood if not demarcated boundaries. But in Arctic lands imagined as Ultima Thule, the rights of foreign occupants derived from legitimate claims of national sovereignty based on the proper application of the customary international law principle of terra nullius (discovery and occupation of land unclaimed by any other nation-state sovereign).

      During the five or six hundred year period following the initial contact between Europeans and indigenous northern peoples, these opposing Arctic images and claims have been irreconcilable. In no case did indigenous sovereignty claims prevail--at least not until the adoption of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the corresponding Nunavut Act by the Canadian Parliament in 1993, and related current developments discussed in this Article's conclusion. (12)

    2. Political Ecology and the Longue Duree

      This Article honors Ernest Gruening, Governor of the Alaskan Territory (1939-1953), who delivered a forward-thinking talk at the September 1951 Alaska Science Convention subsequently published as "The Political Ecology of Alaska" in the December 1951 Scientific Review. (13) "An explanation of my title is scarcely necessary," he states. (14) "I propose to discuss the relation of the human organisms that have constituted and still constitute Alaska's population to their institutions, both public and private, and to their physical surroundings." (15) For Gruening, political ecology is "political history, economic history, social history, all closely interwoven." (16) Examining this history helps us remember that "Eskimos and Indians were here first and presumably they will always be here." (17) In this context, respect for the Arctic's indigenous peoples is a fundamental value, if not the highest priority, of regional governance. (18) Long before the emergence of a global...

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