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Listening for the Arctic Future

HIGH NORTH NEWS: When economic booms go unrealized, do these ghost projects still matter? Elana Wilson Rowe, a senior research leader at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, considers the question

Written by Elana Wilson Rowe Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Exploration takes place at Shtokman field development project in 2013. The field is situated in the central part of the continental shelf within the Russian sector of the Barents Sea.Gazprom

It isn’t often that I connect David Bowie and the Kola Peninsula in my mind. However, in the retrospectives of Bowie’s work following his death in January, I was struck by one quotation emblazoned on the RCA poster advertising his 1977 album “Heroes”. Bowie said: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”

His injunction about listening carefully for the future reminded me of my fieldwork in Murmansk in 2013. The aim of the visit was to follow up with policymakers, representatives of organizations and “everyday” people about what the shelved Shtokman gas project meant to them, in retrospect.

The Shtokman gas field, located in the Barents Sea some 600 km (375 miles) north of the Kola Peninsula, is one of the world’s largest natural gas fields. Its development had been discussed in earnest since the mid-1990s. Anticipation on both sides of the Norwegian/Russian border reached fever pitch around and after 2005. At the time the Arctic was seen as being on the cusp of an oil and gas bonanza. However, exploration of the Shtokman field never got under way and the project was officially shelved in 2012. The “shale revolution” in the U.S. drove gas prices down to untenable lows in the target American markets for Shtokman gas.

So, what do such concretely anticipated futures do for a society when they do not actually come about? Do “abandoned futures” still matter? My research in northwest Russia suggests they do, and perhaps for much longer than we might at first think. As one Murmansk resident and businessman put it: “The oil and gas sector … is somehow virtual in our region. Nonetheless, Shtokman managed to influence our quality of life for the better and for the worse at the same time.”

Interviewees taking part in this research, which was part of a larger project funded by the Norwegian Research Council’s NORRUSS program, cited as negatives the inflated prices of apartments, overly optimistic personal spending and borrowing, perceptions of increased out-migration/disillusionment among young people after the shelving of the Shtokman project, and educational choices influenced by the unrealized prospect of a regional oil and gas boom. Many also had positive memories of petroleum companies’ advance engagement in the region, such as support for business alliances and nongovernmental organizations, youth engagement and musical and cultural events.

The mixed bag of lasting impacts that Murmansk residents shared during these interviews is not unique to the Kola Peninsula or the Shtokman project. For example, we saw Shell cease its exploratory activities off the Alaskan coast in late summer 2015. This came as such a surprise that many presenters at the September 2015 Alaska Oil and Gas Conference had to apologize for their presentations being, quite suddenly, “out of date.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with anticipating the future. In fact, one could argue that this is the fundamental task of modern governance and business development. The last century has seen a rise of institutions (consultancies, think-tanks) and methods (scenarios, Delphi, forecasting) tasked with considering various futures and mapping the routes to them that seem most desirable. Expectations or ideas about the future then morph into concrete actions that make the predicted outcome more likely. For example, a state’s ideas about the future influence key decisions on infrastructure, research and innovation budgeting, educational programs, military spending and so on.

I do wonder if something about the Arctic inspires particularly grand, singular and detailed visions. The idea that the Arctic – as a region – will have its own unique future, distinct from global or national ones, likely relates to long scholarly and literary traditions of Arctic exceptionalism. Heightened focus on envisaging futures probably also stems from the immense uncertainty and magnitude of physical transformation predicted in the region due to global climate change.

Furthermore, as Arctic communities and resources have become incorporated into global capitalist markets, the focus has mostly been on large-scale, high-investment development of internationally valued Arctic resources. This kind of “single-point” economic development perhaps encourages simple, bold versions of the future. In other words, for the Arctic, we tend to debate whether it will be “oil and gas bonanza” or “post-petroleum.” Rarely do we foresee an economic future as complex and multifaceted as those anticipated for southern coastal towns and cities.

The Arctic landscape is increasingly strewn with unbuilt “ghost projects” or “abandoned futures.” A key task for companies and policymakers promoting these visions of the future is to communicate the fundamental uncertainties involved in realizing them, to discuss why anticipation is not the same as prediction or certainty.

This is important because residents of the Arctic are continuously drawing upon many sources of information and making their own choices about where to live, what kind of education to pursue, what level of optimism to include in a local business plan. I think David Bowie would remind us that tomorrow – like today – will be complicated and will belong to those who listen to all the lyrics, not just the catchy refrain.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

This story was originally published in High North News and is reproduced here with permission.

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