The Discourses Surrounding the Melting Sea-Ice in the Arctic

Image courtesy of Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary

Image courtesy of Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary

“The Arctic is a barometer for the health of the world. If you want to know how healthy the world is, come to the Arctic and feel its pulse.” (Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, quoted by Hood Museum of Art (2007))

The Arctic has recently come under much attention from the rest of the world as climate change has resulted in record-low ice covering this September, opening up debates between governments on who owns the Arctic Ocean, discussions surrounding the possibility of increasing shipping and oil exploration throughout this area, as well as the consequences this is going to have on the lives of the indigenous people who live along the coast and depend on the sea ice for transportation and hunting. The cold regions of the earth will be the areas most drastically hit by climate change, and the indigenous people such as the Inuit and Cree of the United States and Canada are already noticing radical changes within their environment. The melting sea-ice in the Arctic is, however, proving to be beneficial for some, especially industries who are interested in increasing shipping through the Arctic, as well as oil and gas companies who will be provided increased opportunities for exploration and natural resource extraction. These developments provide increasing concerns for the indigenous people of the north who are the most at risk in the event of oil spills and other possible contaminations as a result of these developments. This project will thus be addressing the discourses surrounding the melting sea-ice in the Arctic and attempting to identify the reasons behind the different ways of perceiving this change in the environment. In order to do this, one will be investigating the different perceptions of global warming, the differences between indigenous perceptions of the environment and western* perceptions of the environment, the importance of sea-ice and the colonial doctrines of Terra Nullius and Mare Nullius and their effects on indigenous rights today. This will all be discussed in relation to current events as highlighted by the media, hopefully providing a holistic perspective on the discussions surrounding this topic.

In the western perspective global warming remains a controversial topic; some would argue that it isn’t even happening. It is generally accepted however that we are witnessing changes in our climate, and the melting sea-ice in the Arctic is often used as evidence that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and will have serious results within our lifetimes. For those who accept climate change as a reality the melting sea-ice is a huge concern and considered to be a consequence of the western world’s excessive consumption of resources and wasteful attitudes. Baer, in “Toward a Critical Anthropology on the Impact of Global Warming on Health and Human Societies” (2008) argues that anthropologists need to recognize the impacts that global warming will have on the health of human societies. Moreover, he argues that global warming is “yet another manifestation of the contradictions of the capitalist world system” (Baer 2008: 1), emphasizing the need to create a new social and political system which would uphold social justice and environmental sustainability (Baer 2008: 6). Like many theorists, he places the responsibility for this “environmental problem” (Baer 2008: 3) on the capitalist market system of the western world. On one hand the melting ice is being viewed as a symptom of a natural disaster which will have terrible impacts on human health, but at the same time the western world is taking advantage of this situation by introducing new and more frequent shipping routes and oil drilling through the now-open Arctic Ocean in order to maximize profits. The irony and contradiction is that the oil which will be drilled from the Arctic Ocean floor will be burned and will simply lead to further global warming. Ultimately, western discourses surrounding global warming and the melting sea-ice tend to approach the situation in a way which intends to maximise economic profit, seeing the benefits of the natural resources with not much consideration for the original occupiers of the land and ice (see United Press International (2012), Humpert and Raspotnik (2012), Young (2012), Murphy (2012)).

In contrast to this, many indigenous people such as the Inuit argue that global warming is an unquestionable reality, evident in the drastic changes in the weather and the ice. An article by Struzik (2012) highlights the problems the Inuit are facing as a result of decreasing sea ice, which include: difficulties in hunting due to problems getting close to animals, change in species found in the region, influx of human outsiders to the region and changes in weather patterns. Such observations are being reported by many people and in various anthropological works (see Huntington 2002, Fox 2002, Stuckenberger 2007, Krupnik et al. 2010, Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada 2008, Laidler 2006). Laidler illustrates how the extensive and intricate Inuit knowledge of sea-ice has been vital for their survival for millennia, and now the changes which are brought with climate change hunting success and personal safety is at risk because many of the indicators that the Inuit use to interpret and predict weather and sea-ice conditions no longer coincide accurately with the existing reality. The timing of freeze-up and break-up is shifting, making travelling and hunting more unsafe and affecting marine animals which are vital to Inuit survival. Changes which have been witnessed by communities include:

“less multi-year ice, and it is located further from the community; first-year ice is thinner; there is less sea ice overall; break-up is occurring earlier, and more rapidly;  freeze-up is occurring later; winds are stronger, and windy days seem more frequent” (Laidler 2006: 416).

These variations are perceived as indicators of much larger-scale changes that will continue to affect Inuit life, and the increasing unpredictability of these conditions could have negative effects on Inuit relationships with animals as well as their own identity.  Lene Kielsen Holm supports these claims of severe changes as she comments that residents of the Disko Bay area have observed that the weather has become more unpredictable and that there has been a shift in the seasons (Holm 2010: 150).  This is further supported by Ann Fienup-Riordan and Alice Rearden who point out the challenges arising due to increasing unpredictability of the weather: “The weather, like they say, has become a liar. When it is supposed to be calm, big winds come. When it seems like it will not get calm, it does” (Fienup-Riordan and Rearden 2010: 317). It is evident that changes in the sea ice and weather due to climate change negatively affect access to sea mammals, hunting, the relationships indigenous people have with the animals, and ultimately their culture.

It could be argued that the disparities within the interpretations of the Arctic landscape comes down to the different knowledge traditions held by western and indigenous peoples. Human knowledge and experience can be interpreted in a number of different ways: as positivistic, ethical, descriptive and/or expressive. Some cultures place more emphasis on one mode of knowledge and less on others. Western post-enlightenment understandings tend to place more emphasis on positivistic knowledge and ‘the rules of science’. As a result there exists a separation between humans and nature, as Ingold explains:

“the concept of nature, insofar as it denotes an external world of matter and substance “waiting to be given meaningful shape and content by the mind of man” (Sahlins 1976: 210), is part of that very intentional world within which is situated the project of Western science as the ‘objective’ study of natural phenomena (Shweder 1990: 24)” (Ingold 2000: 41).

This is what Bruno Latour would call the “Great Divide” (Cruikshank 2005: 11). As a consequence, western perspectives are mainly based on an extraction of humans from the world, and this greatly influences the way that changes in the environment are perceived and dealt with.

In contrast to this, indigenous people tend to have a more inclusive perception of the environment, one from which humans cannot be separated. As Bird-David explains: hunter-gatherers “do not inscribe into the nature of things a division between the natural agencies and themselves, as we [Westerners] do with our ‘nature:culture’ dichotomy. They view their world as an integrated entity” (Bird-David quoted in Ingold 2000: 47). As a result, many indigenous people such as the Inuit maintain very important relationships with land and animal persons, which are vital for their way of life. They acknowledge that human persons are different to other persons; however they live in an inter-connected system which does not allow one to control the other. From this emerges the notion of a sentient ecology:

“It is knowledge not of a formal, authorised kind, transmissible in contexts outside those of its practical application. On the contrary, it is based in feeling, consisting in the skills, sensitivities and orientations that have developed through long experience of conducting one’s life in a particular environment” (Ingold 2000: 25)

Ingold (2000: 19) argues that the best way of understanding this is through the ‘ecology of life’, where relationships are thought of as part of a whole rather than something that is distinctive, separate and compartmentalised. This holistic and inclusive perception of the environment means that cultural integrity is directly connected to the land, and the Inuit “do not distinguish between the ground upon which our communities are built and the sea ice upon which we travel, hunt, and build igloos as temporary camps” (Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada 2008: 2). As a result, the melting-sea ice and the resulting political storm will have great effects on the Inuit and their environment.

Sea-ice forms a vital aspect of Inuit life, and its disappearance will have huge consequences. An article by Humpert and Raspotnik (2012) introduces the Arctic as a region which is transforming from “an inaccessible frozen desert into a seasonally navigable ocean”, as ice is perceived by western discourse as an obstacle for mobility and trade. Similarly, Cruikshank (2005) describes very similar attitudes held by European explorers who first visited the St. Elias Mountain range. Just as the ice is seen as a barrier to shipping in the Arctic today, European navigators in the late 1700s saw mountains as “impediments to inland travel” (Cruickshank 2005: 25). In contrast to this, mountains were not perceived as hindrances, but rather provided “both navigational orientation and guides to weather” to Tlingit and Athapaskan travellers (Cruikshank 2005: 25). Contrasting to western perspectives, the sea-ice has always been important to the Inuit who are traditionally nomadic, as is demonstrated by the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada’s report (2008): “life in the Arctic is dependent on movement, and that sea ice is integral to this movement” (Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada 2008: 3). The Inuit are understandably concerned about the increasing interests in the natural resources and military presence in the arctic (see articles by Struzik, (2012), Murphy (2012) United Press International (2012)), and thus the report concludes that:

“Any activity in the Arctic, whether it is resource extraction, tourism, or military-related, must be undertaken according to the Inuit definition of sustainability – it must support the continuation of the Inuit way of life for thousands of years to come.” (Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada 2008: 26).

Unfortunately this is not the way in which the now-open sea is being understood by western media, who claim the area to be a frontier and open to development.

As the Arctic’s sea ice melts, boundaries will change and this has resulted in what could be described as a frenzied rush to claim control over parts of the Arctic. It is becoming increasingly important to show presence in this region, illustrated by the event a couple of months ago in which a container with a blessing from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was dropped to the North Pole sea floor with the intention of asserting Russia’s claim to the Arctic (see Young (2012)). However, in this rush it seems too easy to forget that this region is already used and vital to Inuit culture, as illustrated by the Inuit Circumpolar Council- Canada’s report “The Sea Ice is Our Highway: An Inuit Perspective on Transportation in the Arctic” (2008). In this report, the Inuit organization clearly points out that “Newcomers are reminded that Inuit have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and intend to live there for thousands more” (Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada: iii). Furthermore, the Arctic Ocean has been portrayed as a new frontier in western discourses, empty and open for exploitation now that the ice has disappeared. This is evident in the language used in the media (see the article by the University of Washington (2012) and Humpert and Raspotnik (2012)). Claiming that the Arctic Ocean is a new frontier is denying the presence of the Inuit people who have hunted and used that area since time immemorial, and harkens back to colonial doctrines such as the doctrine of Terra Nullius. Such colonial doctrines were used to prove that the land was unoccupied, thus justifying the appropriation of indigenous lands by colonial powers. Likewise, Mare Nullius refers to the policy often employed by western and/or colonial powers in which the sea was regarded as ‘empty’, and thus free to be incorporated as part of their territory and under their sovereignty. This was most often done despite the fact that indigenous people had used the resources of the seas since time immemorial as well, and marine resources and life was, and still is, an important component of their culture. An Inuk from Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut put it this way: “Even when you go to a place you thought was empty, there is always something that tells you that people were there,” (Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada 2008: 14).

Scott and Mulrennan argue that sea claims still lag behind in the legal progress made by indigenous land claims in Canada, and this is primarily due to “the European culture disposition to draw boundaries where land meets sea” (Scott and Mulrennan 2002: 681). The authors illustrate how indigenous cultures frequently conjoin land and sea as “continuous, integrated ‘-scapes’, in conceptions of tenure, in resource management, and as bearers of social identity” (Scott and Mulrennan 2002: 683). One could argue that this is particularly true in the case of the Inuit, as illustrated by a previous quote which shows that Inuit do not separate ice from land. However, according to western perspectives new boundaries are created when the ice melts annually; thus it is easy to understand how such differences in perceptions of the environment can cause huge disagreements between indigenous groups and western governments. The fact that Inuit owned lands exclude marine areas (Scott and Mulrennan: 699) means that they do not have proper legal backing to defend the resources which they depend on. This can have serious consequences when questions such as increasing shipping or oil exploration in Arctic areas arise.

One could also suspect that the increase in scientific curiosity over the area (see article by the University of Washington (2012)) might have something to do with the issue of sovereignty over the region. Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’, the control of the relationship between people and things so as to increase the power of the state (Society and Nature class notes 13/02/12), has been used by Bruce Braun to show that nature becomes an element of the process of appropriating land. In “Producing Vertical Territory: Geology and Governmentality in Late Victorian Canada” (2000) he argues that there is a clear connection between knowledge and power, and that the only way of strengthening sovereignty over an area is to scientifically know what is out there. Thus, scientific research in the Arctic could arguably have political motives as the sovereignty of the area is still contested, and historically the best way to assert such sovereignty has been to prove one’s presence and knowledge of the region.

One of the arguments that can be found in western discourses surrounding this topic is that with an increase in industry and development in the Arctic, the Inuit will somehow ‘become more modern’. In a recent article it was even claimed that the Inuit are no longer a hunter-gatherer culture: “In less than a decade in the 1950s and 1960s, they went from being a hunting and gathering culture to a modern one” (Struzik 2012). I find this claim flawed because as we have seen, hunting and gathering are vital elements of Inuit culture: “To keep our culture, we got to keep our land and have it free from being developed, so we’d kind of like to protect the land where we trap and hunt all our lives.” (Sam Raddi, Inuvik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, quoted by Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada 2008: 10) Moreover, calling hunter-gatherers somehow ‘un-modern’ echoes back to evolutionary categorization of indigenous people. At the same time, claims that the Inuit are ‘becoming modern’ are often used against them as well. This can be best illustrated by their adoption of certain technologies, such as motorboats and rifles, in their whaling and other harvesting practices. The adoption of such technology has been used by westerners, especially animal rights activists, to argue that they are somehow losing their culture (the implication being that due to this loss of culture, whaling should no longer be practiced) (See Coté 2010 and Wenzel 1991).  From this arises the problem of the chronotope- the romanticism of an out-dated lifestyle. Indigenous people are commonly expected to keep hunting in the ‘traditional way’- using spears, canoes, etc, because their culture is considered to be situated in the past. As a result, we can see how such seemingly small comments in the media can have great implications on the way Inuit people are portrayed and understood in western discourses today.

In conclusion, it is apparent that the discourses surrounding the melting sea-ice in the Arctic encompass many issues and problems. Most obviously, global warming is the main topic, and the inconsistencies within the interpretations of landscapes could arguably come down to the different knowledge traditions held by western and indigenous peoples. Different perceptions of the environment are thus at the root of disagreements. While western approaches to the melting sea-ice tend to look for ways in order to exploit the changes, such as introducing new shipping routes, increasing oil and gas exploration in the area, or claiming new territory, indigenous approaches tend to point out the importance of protecting the environment from further developments which will only exacerbate the problem. Within these discussions, the language used in the media often portray the Inuit in a certain way, mostly as either ‘non-modern’ or as a people who are losing their culture. These portrayals stem all the way back to colonial representations of indigenous people, creating stereotypes which are immensely difficult to eradicate. All in all, it is clear that such a change in the Arctic will have deep implications not only for the way of life of indigenous people but it will also have wide ranging political and environmental implications for the rest of the world.

*Note from the editor: I realise that using a word such as ‘Western’ can lead to problematic dichotomies and essentialism, and I do recognize that there is a lot of variation within both Western and indigenous traditions and thought. A discussion on this problem could produce an entire essay, thus I will be using the term ‘Western’  to mean “the belief in the absolute worth of disciplined, rational inquiry” which underpins our activity,  in thinking and writing (Ingold: 6).


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One response to “The Discourses Surrounding the Melting Sea-Ice in the Arctic

  1. Pingback: The Arctic needs better protection in the face of an imminent resource rush |·

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