25 June 2014

Tactical visions of a future Arctic nothing new

For many years, countries and companies have been painting dream images of future riches to attract investors to the Arctic.

‘In the early 20th century, the nationalist arguments were strong. Now there’s more reference to sustainable development,’ thinks Dag Avango, who has researched visions of the future in a historical perspective.

Interest in exploiting the Arctic was awakened as early as in the 17th century. Then, the inducement was whale oil. Latterly, companies and nations have increasingly often carried out in-depth rock investigations to search for deposits of almost mythical value.

‘The truth is that the dreams have seldom come true,’ comments Dag Avango, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology historian whose research explores how natural resources are exploited, but also how geopolitics and other interests are interwoven in the polar regions.

This research has been conducted within the framework of the Mistra Arctic Futures research programme. It shows that a few things have been consistent over the centuries. Anyone wishing to exploit the Arctic must make it seem probable that the region hides extraordinary riches, and this is why dream visions have been painted over the years. The nature of these images is, however, determined by the currents of opinion that existed in society at the time.

‘At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism was strong. The companies wishing to exploit the polar regions then chose to cite the benefits to their homelands. Today, when the climate is our main concern, “sustainable development” is a corresponding slogan. It may indeed be said that the more uncertain an investment is, the more attractive the future scenarios envisaged.’

Heat and cold equally good arguments

Today, the shrinking ice cover of the North Arctic often serves as an argument for exploitation. At the same rate as the ice retreats, it becomes possible to access natural resources that were previously hidden.

‘This is far from the whole truth. The ice isn’t, for example, a major problem in the Barents Sea,’ Avango thinks. ‘The thawing of ice is often used as an argument because it favours stakeholders with something to gain from future resource extraction. We used to have the opposite situation: the harsh Arctic climate tended to be used as a positive argument. For example, the permafrost was said to make mining easier.’

The aim of his research is to understand the visions of the future formulated by various stakeholders in the past — why they are as they are and why some of the visions have become reality while others have failed.

Today, there is no consensus among the inhabitants of the Arctic region on whether, or how, the region’s natural resources should be exploited. In Greenland, many people are in favour of increased exploitation. There is a generally widespread view that improved economic trends would help the country to make itself independent from Denmark. The motives are thus both economic and political.

‘We have the opposite situation in the north of Sweden, where the Sami often oppose new mines because they threaten the livelihood of reindeer husbandry. The viewpoint people adopt depends largely on the kind of future they wish for and the historical experience gained in different regions.’

Not just an area of conflict

The Arctic has long been referred to as an area of conflict where various countries have competed to grab as big a piece of the cake as they can for their own gain. This is an excessively one-sided description, Avango thinks.

‘There are several examples of the region also being a model in terms of international cooperation. One example is that in 2010 Norway and Russia, after 40 years of border disputes, managed to agree on where to set the border in the Barents Sea, which has improved the scope for new initiatives to extract oil and gas in the area.’

Currently, however, there are certain worrying signs that the good climate of cooperation in the Arctic is beginning to turn considerably frostier. One is that Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has stated that he sees the Arctic as a new area of conflict. Another sign is that Putin has given Russian companies operating in Arctic the right to establish private armies entitled to defend their own interests.

‘The Ukraine crisis has further added to tensions. It meant that Russian researchers were unable to attend International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS) VIII, on Arctic research, in Canada earlier this year because they were refused entry into the country. I don’t know the long-term significance of this, but it is definitely a worrying development.’

To date, Dag Avango’s research has focused mainly on the northern parts of the Arctic. Now the plan is that it should, to a higher degree, concern the Arctic portions of the Scandinavian mainland. The focus will be on natural resources in a broad perspective and how global trends are influencing development and exploitation of the region. Avango will also look into what type of control is required to bring about sustainable use of the Arctic natural environment.

Text: Per Westergård, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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