Oil Be Damned: Part four
Breaking Through: Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic

(Editors) Wilfred Greaves & P. Whitney Lackenbauer
Published by University of Toronto Press, 2021

Review by Tim Barton

Eight years ago, Donald Trump tweeted that the Canadians should never have been granted independence. Five years ago, he signed an Executive Order for, as the BBC put it, “every part of the US to loosen their rules on fossil fuels so that more could be mined, drilled for and used in America.” Two years ago, he offered to buy Greenland from the Danes. The Danes and Canadians control coastal sea access to the Arctic Ocean (and squabble intermittently over Hans Island, in the Kennedy Channel off Ellesmere Island). It is estimated that possibly over 10% of untapped global oil reserves are under Arctic ice, and 30% of natural gas reserves.

‘Under Arctic ice’ is, of course, becoming increasing less the case. Sea channels have opened up in the last two decades, in summer, across the north Canadian, Alaskan and Russian coasts, creating new shipping routes and easier access to resources. An all-year-round ‘north east’ and ‘north west’ passage may be with us very soon, creating much shorter routes from the North American east coast and from Europe into China. This may be good for countries in the mid-East and will reduce our dependence on Suez, and perhaps lead to lower emissions of pollutants from container ships too – how ironic.

Agreements on how to treat the Arctic have, in general, been abided by and benignly reached. The inhospitable environment made that easy. It would be naïve to think that the changing conditions in the Arctic will not be swapping one set of weather-related issues for another, unpredictable, set, including the potential for re-freezing, which would also cool the northern European coasts considerably as the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Oscillation and other key ocean currents weaken. Nevertheless, the changing conditions are already shifting and pressuring old alliances, and allowing moves toward more resource extraction in previously inaccessible areas.

This book is a series of essays, some of which begin to address these problems (and others). The subjects include historic agreements, involving Finland, Russia, Canada, USA, Demark and Norway. They also look into the traditional rights on those historically nomadic peoples native to the Arctic, e.g. Inuit, Lapp, and Siberian tribesmen, who share many cultural and often genetic traits. Much is made of respect for these people’s rights. In an essay titled One Arctic? Northern Security in Canada and Norway, the degrading environment is discussed and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment quoted – “to hunt, catch, and share these foods is the essence of Inuit culture.” Naturally, energy security and food security get a lot of analysis, and Greaves, in his concluding essay, talks of Sovereign Futures in an Insecure Arctic.

There is a lot of historically illuminating information, although historical perspectives can sometimes blur significant differences in contexts between past and present. The authors tend to think diplomatic negotiations can keep the region stable indefinitely, and that ‘increasing respect’ to traditional ways of tribal peoples who tend to not recognise ‘borders’ in their hunting grounds is making positive changes. Ask First Nation spokespeople if they see this as any more than a mirage or ask the thousands of ‘disappeared’ native girls in Canada – if you ever find one alive.

As to diplomacy trumping confrontation, it is possible, given the relative weakness of the nation state in relation to corporate global neoliberalism, that a shooting match may be averted. As with the wind turbine industry, firms opening up Arctic resources will be ‘multinational’ in their structure, with Chinese and Vietnamese labour, German money, and a few parts manufacturers farmed out to lesser nations, such as the UK. But I would definitely not be complacent about this, especially given the belligerence of the US, Biden notwithstanding. On the upside, however, there could be a potentially rosy future for northern economies from Iceland, the Faroes, Shetland, the Hebrides, Orkney, Cromarty, Halogaland, Svalbard, an arc of shipyards and ports from Murmansk, through Tiksi, to the Bering Straits, Prudhoe Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, Nanisivik and Greenland… It’s a new and wild frontier, hold onto your hats.

Read other reviews in this series here

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