Climate change, the Arctic and the colonial imagination

Climate change, the Arctic and the colonial imagination

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This is the first in a two-part feature examining the impact of climate change on the Arctic. Next week, Part II will look at the harmful impacts of climate change in the Arctic and how corporations are looking to move in, taking advantage of the retreating ice to pursue extractive industrial projects. 

There is a certain North American arrogance that our ‘first world’ privilege will buffer us from the effects of climate change, that ‘other’ countries such as Bangladesh or small island nations such as the Marshall Islands will take the brunt of such climate change consequences such as a warming planet or rising sea levels.

In this way, we have ‘othered’ the experience of climate change. Here in Toronto, we joke about our new mild winters and lament that children no longer get to skip class because of snow days.

Outside of North America, it is Indigenous, non-white and non-Western other that will burn or drown, to the point that effected nations are seeking to use the law to get the attention of the developing world.

Small island nations plead for world’s attention

On February 3, 2012, at the United Nations, small island states such as Grenada and Palau joined together to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice regarding the potential damages resulting from climate change.

Stuart Beck, Palau’s Permanent Representative to UN, in response to concerns from members about the differing awareness levels regarding climate change and the discrepancies in concern between developing and developed nations, described the effects already seen in Palau. He went on to question the response from the United States if flooding was occurring in Manhattan instead.

President Johnson Toribiong of Palau warned other UN member states, “Within a generation, rising seas threaten to swallow entire countries along with their unique histories, languages and cultures”.

Leaders from countries impacted by climate change went on to warn that the changes in the Pacific would accelerate the “cascading effect” of climate change all over the world. But who is listening?

Unless North American science has created a huge protective bubble it can place over its part of the world, ‘othering’ the effects of climate change is not only harmful but also has humanitarian and legal ramifications. Columbia Law School has compiled a list of cases by country concerning the impacts of climate change.

It was only in December 2010, at the Cancún climate talks, where diplomats from 43 Caribbean, African and Pacific island nations pleaded to the world, warning they face “the end of history” unless action is taken to stop rising sea levels. Again, the population of these nations are Indigenous, non-white, non-western and from the developing world.

“Some of our countries, like Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands, are going to drown [if the talks are not more ambitious]. They face the end of history. They are in a desperate situation,” said Antonio Lima, ambassador to the UN for the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa during the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference.

“All of us face disaster. We don’t want to be the forgotten, the sacrificed countries of the 21st Century,” Lima said.

Not only is the world facing the disappearance of land, but also facing the disappearance of unique Indigenous cultures.

In a November 9, 2010, blog post on the Guardian, Pelenise Alofa of Kiribati wrote, “My message for the delegates at the Tarawa climate change conference (TCCC) is that they must give us hope. They must give i-Kiribati – my countrymen and women – the hope that we can continue to live on our islands. They are negotiating on an issue that is a matter of life and death. When I say death, our people will not die, but our culture and way of life will die and that scares me.”

When Canadians consider the impact of climate change on their own nation, we think the effects of global warming will mostly affect the northern part of our country, which is home to many isolated First Nation communities.

As with the Global South, the same concept of ‘othering’ takes place, as the North is too often perceived as a wasteland where nothing grows and nobody lives. With respect to the Arctic, the refrain is that the land “up there” is barren and uninhabitable, that there is no one important or influential enough to care about anyway, so who cares if global warming impacts them as long it doesn’t affect the micro climates around Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto?

The Arctic as tabula rasa for states and corporations

The Arctic remains a realm of the exotic ‘other,’ with a predominantly Indigenous population. Breaking this conceptualization open, it is both through ignorance or colonization that people believe that the Arctic in uninhabited and thus any concern regarding the effects of climate change on any persons is null and void.

Globally, the vast Arctic is inhabited by a diverse variety of people and nations. These proud Indigenous nations include the:

Alutiiq/Unangan (North America);
Central Alaskan Yup’ik (Alaska);
Chukchi (Siberia, Russia);
Cupik (Alaska);
Cree (Northern Canada);
Enets (Western Siberia, Russia);
Evenks (China, Mongolia, Russia);
Eyak (Alaska, Northern Canada);
Haida (Alaska, Northern Canada);
Inuit (Greenland, Northern Canada, Alaska);
Inupiat (Alaska’s Arctic and North Slope boroughs and the Bering Straits);
Kalaallit (Greenland);
Khanty (Yugra, Siberia, Russia);
Koryaks (Russian Far East);
Mansi (Yugra, Siberia, Russia);
Nenets (Russia);
Nganasan (Taymyr Peninsula, Siberia, Russia);
Northern Samoyed (Siberia, Russia);
Saami (Northern and Central Norway, Sweden, Finland and Kola peninsula in the Northwest of Russia);
Siberian Yupik (Siberia, Russia);
Tlingit (Alaska, Northern Canada);
Tsimshian (Alaska, Northern Canada)
Ugric (Yugra, Siberia, Russia);
Veps (Republic of Karelia, Northwest of Russia);
Yukaghirs (East Siberia, Russia);
Yupik (Alaska and the Russian Far East)

To suggest that the North, whether currently or historically, is an uncivilised land is to pre-supposes the land and its people to be beyond the realm of the humanity and thus its resources open to unrelenting exploitation.

Reducing the land’s natural value by declaring it barren and reducing a people’s value through dehumanization places both in a vulnerable position to exploitation.

To colonizers, writing off barren land fails to understand an complex ecosystem and denies not only the rights of Mother Earth but also the rich mineral content sleeping under the perma-frost. Writing off nations of people as uncivilized makes them easier to either eradicate or press into low-paying, manual labour.

First they explore, then they conquer and then they colonize.

In fact, the frozen North and South poles are considered the last unexplored wilderness of the planet worthy of being conquered; the, “last truly unexplored places in the world” as described in Canada: The Valley Of The Headless Men. The implication is a certain type of untamed ‘savagery’ of uninhabitable territory and ‘uncivilized people.’

The Saami, indigenous to the Arctic, were described by Procopius, upon first contact with the Romans, like this:

“Of the barbarians who inhabit Thule [Ancient name for Scandinavia by the Goths] there is a single tribe called the Skrithiphinoi [the Saami], who live a bestial life. They do not wear clothes of cloth, or shoes, or drink wine or use the products of the earth for sustenance. They do not practice agriculture, nor do their womenfolk work in the home; instead the men and the women together engage solely in hunting…Nor do [the women] even look after newborn babies in the same way as other people do, for the babies of the Skrithiphinoi are not nourished with their mother’s milk, nor do they fasten on to the mother’s breast, but they are fed only the marrow of the animals that are trapped. As soon as the wife has given birth, she swaddles her foetus in a hide and, hanging it on some tree and putting some marrow into its mouth, she usually returns to the hunt. For the men and women do everything else together, and this practice, too, is a common one. Such then is the way of life of these barbarians.”

At Carl Hagenbeck’s Hamburg “Tierpark” (Animal Park), during the fall of 1911, a group of Labrador Inuit appeared as part of his ‘exhibition of savages.’

Kenn Nakata Steffensen explores the issue in a blog post, Eskimo Avenue: Pejorative Arctic ethnonyms as the final frontier of racism? He writes: “At the recent Media for All Conference in London I came across a stall marketing a new division of the subtitling company Broadcast Text International. The rather unfortunate name they have chosen is Eskimo Avenue. It could not have been named Paki Street or Nigger Lane, but it seems that Eskimo Avenue does not raise many eyebrows in our day and age.”

Steffensen argues: “The Arctic tends to be constituted in policy and academic discourse as nature rather than culture. Its human inhabitants and their cultures are systematically erased, as can be seen and heard at policy and academic conferences about the region. It is conceived of as a tabula rasa for states and corporations ruled and managed by Asians, Europeans or their diasporic descendants to act on and in to further their own national, corporate or putatively universal (in the case of climate change) political and economic interests.”

Removing our concern for the Arctic and its people, and by considering the land only in terms of myth rather than concrete reality, allows state colonizers and corporations the ability to dismiss the Arctic as of little value, brushing off the effects of climate change while simultaneously opening the area up to resource exploitation.

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