Environmentalism

Environmentalism—concern about the state of the environment and the impacts of human activities—has been an influential theme in Arctic affairs, both affecting, and in turn influenced by, economic activities, the status and organization of indigenous peoples, and relations between circumpolar nations. Broader ideological concerns, such as the diversity of views of the Arctic—as resource frontier, wilderness, or homeland—have also been significant.

Arctic environmental concerns were evident soon after World War II, provoked by the impacts of projects such as the Alaska Highway, and military and industrial activity generally. Environmental concerns multiplied in the 1950s with respect to resource developments, roads and railways, forest cutting and fires, dams, and indigenous and nonindigenous hunting of wildlife such as caribou and polar bears. But in the immediate postwar era, these concerns were overwhelmed by the priority placed on industrialization and resource development, particularly in the Soviet Union, where transformation of Siberia was considered central to national development. Across the circumpolar region the ambition was not to protect the environment, but to transform it, unlocking the Arctic's potential as a resource frontier, and converting, through technology, this perceived barren wilderness.

However, by the early 1960s, new values in western society had begun to encourage new concerns regarding the Arctic environment. Radioactive fallout, absorbed by lichen, transferred to caribou or reindeer, and thence to indigenous peoples, was of particular concern in Sweden, Norway, Alaska, and Canada. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to pesticides and other contaminants in the Arctic, and their potential impacts on peregrine falcons and other species. Resource developments also generated concerns: the Alaska pipeline, a proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline in Canada, and dams in Canada and Scandinavia. Since then, military activities have raised concerns, including dumping of radioactive waste, and construction and subsequent abandonment of Distant Early Warning sites. Today, much concern focuses on the impact of distant industries and agriculture, as manifested through the transport of toxic contaminants, as well as climate change (expected to affect disproportionately polar regions), and depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer. Contaminants in northern ecosystems and wildlife are of special interest, because many indigenous peoples still rely on country food, leading to concerns regarding health risks. Such concerns exemplify the view of the Arctic as a critical element of global environmental systems.

Scientists were among the most influential early proponents of Arctic environmentalism. Ecologists argued on both theoretical (that lower species diversity implies more fragile ecosystems) and empirical (e.g., the erosion caused when tundra is disturbed) grounds that the Arctic was uniquely fragile: a delicately balanced ecosystem requiring protection. Their perspective on the Arctic environment often epitomized how they commonly experienced the region: from above, as in an aircraft, remote from Arctic communities, both natural and human. However, with increasing scientific knowledge, the changing nature of Arctic politics, and the influence of indigenous peoples (see below), sweeping arguments about environmental fragility, as well as this airborne "view from above," became less significant, displaced by environmental ideas and values tied to specific sites and issues. Today, scientists also emphasize the Arctic as critically important to, and influenced by, global environmental processes.

Because of the important role played by scientists, Arctic environmentalism was, at least initially, a more elite phenomenon than was environmentalism generally in western society. Rather than emerging from the experiences and changing values of the public, it reflected the concerns of relatively few scientists, especially ecologists, who spread awareness of the Arctic environment to a public with little or no direct experience of the region.

Particularly in the 1970s, environmentalism incorporated other concerns and values, including critiques of capitalism and industry, the colonial relationship between northern regions and the south, and, in Canada, economic nationalism and protection of Arctic sovereignty. For many environmentalists as well, the Arctic environment constituted a wilderness, larger and more pristine than similar regions further south, but basically analogous, and requiring zealous protection from the impacts of industrialization.

Several organizations promote environmental values in Arctic affairs, including the International Arctic Science Committee, the US Arctic Network, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, the Kontaktutvalget for Nordomradene (KNO), and the North Alaska Environmental Center. Organizations based outside the region also maintain an Arctic presence: the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club. Among the issues they address are the impact of resource development and industrialization, protection of natural areas, global pollution problems affecting the Arctic, and the impact of tourists. Beyond focusing attention on specific problems, environmentalists have also questioned dominant ideas regarding Arctic development, including the assumption that the impacts of technology can be predicted and managed. Instead, they have argued that development would be inevitably accompanied by catastrophes, such as massive oil spills, thereby implying the need for a precautionary approach. Environmental values have encouraged circumpolar cooperation in a variety of fora. Indeed, during the Cold War the environment was considered one of the few areas in which circumpolar cooperation was pos sible. This was reflected, for example, in the first international conference on the polar bear in 1965, which led to a 1973 treaty laying the basis for cooperation in protecting this potentially endangered species.

Since the 1970s, indigenous peoples have become significant actors in Arctic environmentalism. This has occurred for several reasons: their demographic and political importance within the circumpolar region, controversies involving the impacts of resource developments on their communities and their economic activities (e.g., hydroelectric projects and the Saami people in northern Norway, and proposed petroleum exploration and development in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), as well as movements toward greater political self-determination, and a stronger role in circumpolar affairs.

While Arctic indigenous peoples are diverse politically, economically, socially, and culturally, certain common features of their relation to their environment, and to environmentalism, can be noted. Their environmental concerns stem from the close relationship between their communities and their physical and biological environment; as a result, they have broadened environmentalism beyond its focus on preservation of a pristine wilderness. Instead, they advocate viewing the Arctic as a homeland. This has had several implications for environmentalism: greater attention to sustainable use of renewable resources such as caribou, seals, and whales, and to economic development generally; affirmation of the significance of indigenous knowledge as an alternative to conventional scientific knowledge; and attention to cultural dimensions of the natural environment, including the spiritual meaning attached to both animals and to specific features of the landscape. Politically, they have insisted on a larger role for communities and regions in managing resources, greater transparency in the decision-making process, and more consultation by industry and government before development decisions are made. These attitudes have been influential in a variety of settings, including land claims negotiations, which led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, and to a series of land claims regions in Canada. In circumpolar affairs, indigenous perspectives have been aired within the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and the Arctic Council, each of which have recognized indigenous peoples' distinctive relationship with, and knowledge of, the environment. Various indigenous organizations, including the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Saami Council, and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, have assumed leadership in promoting these views.

Arctic environmentalism is thus a diverse body of ideas, promulgated by many voices: indigenous peoples, scientists, and southern environmentalists. It carries the potential for conflict, not only between it and advocates of industrialization, but between the proponents of environmentalism itself. One conflict has been between southern environmentalists and northern indigenous peoples: between the view of the Arctic as an unspoiled, empty, fragile wilderness, the heritage of the entire world, to be preserved untouched; and the view of this landscape as a homeland, occupied for hundreds of years, vulnerable to the impacts of industrialization (such as contaminants), but also serving as the material basis for the economic, social, and cultural well-being of Arctic communities. Southern environmentalists and indigenous people have also held different views of nonrenewable resource development: often choosing not to oppose it, indigenous people have instead asserted a role in its regulation, seeing it as the potential basis for a stable northern economy. They have also disagreed on the roles and status of science: while environmentalists advocate reliance on state-based wildlife management and conservation regimes, grounded in science, indigenous peoples have criticized science-based conservation, asserting instead the need to grant more authority to indigenous organizations and more credibility to indigenous knowledge. This disagreement has been sharpened by differences in views regarding the status of wildlife populations, including caribou and beluga whales.

Parallel to this conflict between wilderness and homeland are divergent attitudes toward Arctic wildlife. Environmentalists' concerns regarding hunting and trapping have shifted: in the 1950s, concern focused on the profligate commercial slaughter of seals; concern subsequently shifted to the indigenous hunt, and especially the need to conserve stocks and ensure humane methods of killing. By the 1970s, however, the focus had shifted again to an animal rights ethic that questioned the morality of any hunting. Some environmentalists also claimed that since indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit of northern Canada or Saami reindeer herders, use modern tools such as rifles, snow machines, and the like, their hunting practices can no longer be considered "traditional," and therefore worthy of preservation. Consumer campaigns, particularly in Europe, as well as trade barriers such as the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, have endangered, sometimes unwittingly, the economic and cultural well-being of indigenous peoples. Overall, such conflicts reflect how environmentalism has tended to perpetuate a form of colonial relationship, imposing values and attitudes forged within the dominant western society onto the Arctic landscape and communities, including ecologists' ideas about the fragility of ecosystems, ideas about wilderness as land empty and untouched, and approaches to wildlife con servation that privilege the role of the state over that of communities.

However, such conflicts have declined in recent years, as environmental organizations and indigenous peoples have defined common interests, relating, for example, to the sustainable management of reindeer herds in Russia, and the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and the Yukon. The planning and management of national parks—protecting natural ecosystems while allowing traditional indigenous practices to continue—have become another arena of cooperation. Since the 1970s, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee has evolved from a voice for southern-based environmental concerns into an advocate for indigenous environmental values.

Arctic environmentalism is similar in some ways to environmentalism elsewhere, as it represents, to some extent, the local expression of wider concerns. Thus, some Arctic environmental concerns parallel southern concerns: a preoccupation with the impacts of industrial or military activity (particularly contaminants), wilderness protection, and climate change. However, Arctic environmentalism also has distinctive elements, relating to the special circumstances of the Arctic, such as the continuing reliance of many indigenous communities on country food (hence the concern regarding contaminants and their potential health risks), the vulnerability of the Arctic to an enhanced greenhouse effect, and lower species diversity. More generally, the contradictory nature of the Arctic— remote from the industrialized world, but sensitive to its impacts—has added its own dynamic to environ-mentalism in the region. Beyond certain charismatic fauna such as seals, whales, and polar bears, and dramatic events such as the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, the Arctic has not captured the imagination of most environmentalists in western society. As a result, Arctic environmentalism has become, to a large extent, disengaged from broader currents of environ-mentalism. But the most distinctive feature of Arctic environmentalism has been its transformation by indigenous peoples, influencing decisions and management practices in a range of contexts: from resource management within land claims regions to circumpolar organizations.

Stephen Bocking

See also Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy; Conservation; Political Issues in Resource Management; Wilderness

Further Reading

Coates, Peter A., The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy:

Technology, Conservation, and the Frontier, University of

Alaska Press, 1993

Martin, Vance G. & Nicholas Tyler (editors), Arctic Wilderness: The 5th World Wilderness Congress, Golden, Colorado: North American Press, 1995 Nuttall, Mark, Protecting the Arctic: Indigenous Peoples and

Cultural Survival, Amsterdam: Harwood, 1998 Nuttall, Mark & Terry V. Callaghan (editors), The Arctic:

Environment, People, Policy, Amsterdam: Harwood, 2000 Page, Robert, Northern Development: The Canadian Dilemma,

Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986 Smith, Eric Alden & Joan McCarter (editors), Contested Arctic: Indigenous Peoples, Industrial States, and the Circumpolar Environment, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997 Wenzel, George, Animal Rights, Human Rights: Ecology, Economy and Ideology in the Canadian Arctic, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991 Young, Oran R. & Gail Osherenko (editors), Polar Politics: Creating International Environmental Regimes, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993

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