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What We Mean When We Talk About the Global Arctic

The term “global Arctic” is bandied about by a number of people and organizations, but what does it really mean? It’s time to stop and think a little harder about the impact those words have on us – and the sort of response it might provoke from Arctic stakeholders.

Written by Klaus Dodds Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Recently, I have noticed that the term “global Arctic” has gained traction among academics, business leaders and non-governmental organizations. The Northern Research Forum uses “global Arctic” to promote the geographical and academic scope of their work programs. It has also been deployed by environmental groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature to mobilize their supporters and scale up their work in the Arctic region. I don’t know when the two words were first put next to one another in a sentence, but it might make for an interesting parlor game.

The term “global Arctic” deserves more critical attention, however. How is the term to be understood? What kind of intellectual labor does it perform and what are the consequences of its usage?

For starters, it draws attention to where the global and the Arctic overlap with one another, an area of interest equivalent to the intersection of a Venn diagram. But it also highlights how the Arctic and the global are co-constituted by one another. In other words, emphasizing that the boundaries we draw around regions in relation to the globe are not independent of one another. We could also use a term like “global Arctic” to consider how the two categories rub up against one another and produce unequal and even harmful consequences for those who live and work in Arctic communities – industrial contaminants came to the Arctic, not the other way around.

The manner in which the Arctic is imagined, mapped and classified is not, historically speaking, an innocent affair. As historians of empire and indigenous peoples and communities appreciate, the way in which the Arctic was colonized, exploited and settled depended upon such interventions. Terms such as the “Canadian Arctic”, the “American Arctic” and the “Russian Arctic” remain powerful constructions highlighting the colonization and nationalization of land, ice and snow and its human and non-human inhabitants. The Arctic as a contact zone, imaginative and embodied, remains ongoing and contested as indigenous peoples continue to campaign over land claims, and demand greater autonomy, consultation and social justice. I think, in short, there is a danger that terms like “global Arctic” gloss over these struggles for recognition within the Arctic region.

If we see “global Arctic” as a mobile term then we must investigate what work the term does, where it finds purchase and what responses it provokes, as various stakeholders deploy it. The Arctic Council, the primary inter-governmental forum working in the Arctic region and beyond, is often described as a trailblazing model of global governance by those who champion its work. The term “global Arctic” then becomes indicative of the Arctic as a net exporter – informing wider global communities and opinion-formers rather than a regional importer of “extra-regional” or “global” ideas and practices.

“Global Arctic” is deployed in other ways – to endorse particular relationships, networks and flows or to condemn and express regret at global complicities, connections and entanglements. To some, the annual Arctic Circle event hosted in Iceland might be understood as welcoming an array of stakeholders and interested parties from inside and outside of the Arctic region, eager to promote, discuss and implement political, commercial and cultural agendas. Conversely, when indigenous peoples speak critically of a European Union seal export ban, we might reasonably assume that the intermingling of the global and the Arctic was unwanted.

The relationship between the global and the Arctic is also something that attracts policing and vigilance. Arctic states have been eager, as global interest in the region has grown, to ensure that those who are said to represent the global such as China, Korea and Japan, are respectful of their sovereignty and sovereign rights over the land, sea, ice and air. The 2008 Ilulissat Declaration was a deliberate attempt to ensure a consensual approach among the Arctic Ocean coastal states eager to present to the wider global community a common approach to the management of the Arctic Ocean. The management of the observer question within the confines of the Arctic Council would be a good example of how the Arctic states and the Permanent Participants have contributed to this policing; ensuring that observers perform and engage in particular ways. An observer manual to the Arctic Council was adopted at the Kiruna Ministerial in 2013, and is due for further updating again in 2016 ensuring that observers continue to play a supportive (and respectful) role to the Arctic states and Permanent Participants.

But the “global Arctic” can work on a different register as well – it might be disciplinary of some but enabling of others. Indigenous communities have also used the global in the form of things such as the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to “globalize” the Arctic. In this case, the entanglement of the Arctic and the global is a deliberate one; designed to highlight their rights and the responsibilities of nation-states to treat their indigenous peoples with respect, dignity and attentiveness to outstanding land claims and natural resource arrangements. It is also important to recognize that indigenous peoples are also global actors in their own right, with cultural, economic and political portfolios. You only have to look at the interests of native corporations in Alaska to get a strong sense of global interactions. The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, for example, has over 9,000 shareholders and includes interests from as far afield as New Zealand.

The take-away point about a term such as “global Arctic” is to be mindful of what geographer Doreen Massey called the lurking presence of “power-geometry”. The “global Arctic” is a beguiling sort of term. It sounds reasonable, even timely. But like ice, it can quickly undergo state-change and be reconfigured, reimagined and restored in ways that benefit some people, places, practices, interests and ideas more than others. Power geometries are always malleable and not fixed in stone, ice or rock.

Let’s not assume we all agree on what the term “global Arctic” means and how it might be experienced and encountered in the Arctic and beyond. If we are serious about recognizing the intersection of “the global” and “the Arctic” let’s talk about that proverbial Venn diagram even if it might make some of us a bit squeamish – colonialism, race, gender, capital, resources, markets and life chances and choices.

Top image: A 2009 photo of a dump in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada, filled with trash produced by the U.S. military when it operated a radar station nearby. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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