‘Nature’, the Economy, and Changing Research Initiatives

Post war governments utilized the Arctic as nuclear laboratory, but a contrary ecological consciousness emerged amidst efforts of ‘big science’ to control nature. While the Soviets relocated Nenets to conduct tests on Novaya Zemlya, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) tested bombs on Amchitka Island, Alaska. This then inspired the organization of Greenpeace. The AEC’s peacetime efforts had included plans to excavate a harbor on the northwest coast of Alaska. Dubbed ‘Project Chariot’, the plan exemplified science as spectacle, a demonstration of the ability of nuclear technologies to overcome limits posed by arctic environments. Yet the local Inuit community rallied national opposition against Project Chariot, and so too did a few academics. One of the dissidents was geographer Don Foote, employed by the AEC to complete an ethnography of Inuit communities. When he learned that the AEC altered his reports to make the experiment seem favorable, he became an activist researcher, informing Inuit leaders and the media about the project’s dangers. The episode exemplifies two concurrent and sometimes contradictory changes in the practice of arctic sciences: first, research methods became more inclusive of aboriginal people’s own interests and environmental knowledges; but, second, research agendas began to imagine yet another arctic – a ‘wilderness’ that overlooked its human history.

The wilderness paradigm also became a new focus for arctic development: nature as a tourist commodity. Arctic tourism is hardly a new phenomenon. By the 1870s, it had become profitable to run steamship tours to one of continental Europe’s northern extremities, the North Cape – which a quarter million people were visiting annually by the 1990s. The first packaged tour from Norway to Svalbard, an isolated island group north of 771 latitude, ran in 1871, and the decade also saw regular steamship tours to Glacier Bay in Alaska. Changes in transportation technologies have since had profound effects. The 1929 railroad to ‘polar bear capital’ Churchill, Manitoba; the Al Can Highway, completed in 1943; aviation technologies and military airfield construction; all allowed a commercial tourist industry to offer more affordable access to small settlements. Geographers have responded to these changes in a number of ways. In the textbook and journal literature before the 1980s, they framed arctic tourism research within a rubric of modernization: the need for economic development and the promises and challenges that the growing tourism sector posed. As cultural tour and later eco tour packages to remote settlements increased, and as the discipline’s analytic paradigms focused more on cultural politics, geographers were producing a substantial community focused literature about arctic tourism by the 1990s.

The US Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, considered humans to be destructive of natural environments, and activists and scholars argued that such spaces should remain ‘untouched’ by humans. Naturalist Barry Lopez, along with humanist geographers like Yi Fu Tuan, may have inadvertently strengthened perceptions of the Arctic as a ‘wilderness’ wrapped in a silence where ‘‘no events ever happen,’’ even while situating these borrowed quotes in an explicitly perceptual geography. Moreover, in the 1970s Tuan would also draw frequently from ethnographies that rehearsed the trope of the vanishing Indian, with only minimal reminders that Inuit people were contemporary agents of knowledge.

Yet indigenous activism did have some impact. Although propelled by a desire to build the Trans Alaska oil pipeline, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act became law in 1971, soon followed by the environmentally conscious Alaska National Interest Land Claims Act in 1980. However, since their political autonomy was tempered by colonial legacies and multiscalar social movements, such claims would not be easy for indigenous peoples to settle to their liking. For example, tribes worked with environmental lobbies to prevent ‘overdevelopment’ in wilderness areas. They thus protected subsistence resources against Project Chariot and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Yet the definition of wilderness is not compatible with indigenous subsistence lifestyles. An emerging environmentalist consciousness also contributed to the collapse of the modern fur trade economy. Perhaps the greatest economic devastation came when Greenland’s economy collapsed in the face of a Greenpeace protest over the killing of young seals.

This is not to claim that there has been no cause for alliances between environmentalists and indigenous groups around the Arctic. In the early 1990s, the legacy of ‘big science’ was widely exposed in Northern media: the ecological perils of sunken Russian submarines; deliberate radiation experiments associated with Project Chariot; and the Air Force’s radio iodine experiments on uninformed subjects in arctic Alaska. This history contributed to growing interests in critical theory in arctic social sciences, and common methodologies among geographers shifted to studies of the construction and contestation of these landscapes as pristine wildernesses, as sites of a traditional culture, as well as a canvas for a nationalist myth of the North. Such studies are clearly informed by a new cultural geography, but more recent work may be moving the conceptual center of the literature toward post structural geographies of subject formation and science studies around the Arctic.

With these theoretical tools, researchers from multiple disciplines began to question the origination of scientific agendas and develop agendas that were more inclusive of aboriginal interests. Because of the strong applied tradition amongst Arctic geographers, many have maintained access to North American arctic communities with increasing tribal power in the research process. Others, having developed a literature of vulnerability through study of natural hazards, began to articulate theories of environmental change, describing how arctic communities bear the brunt of climate change. Related work contributes to the new literature on socioecological systems, articulating ways that people contribute to ecological processes. Instead of seeing aboriginal knowledge as anecdotal and unscientific, this research assumes that their knowledges are commensurable and potentially compelling. Rather than objects of research, indigenous people are becoming ‘partners’ in arctic research. Yet George Wenzel has argued that ‘‘traditional ecological knowledge’’ (or TEK) cannot encompass the diversity of local knowledges, and while the signs are hopeful, invocations of TEK still seem to occur more in grant writing than in actual research practices.

Another major response to the environmental and social legacies of ‘big science’ was to create new governmental institutions that grant aboriginal peoples more political power. In 1978 Greenland achieved Home Rule Government, and in 1999 Canada recognized the Inuit territory of Nunavut. Other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) represent aboriginal groups that extend across national borders: the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Saami Council, and the Russian Arctic Indigenous Peoples of the North (or RAIPON). While these new political bodies suggest a fracturing of the Arctic’s regional identity, the legacies of environmentalism and science continue to assemble the Arctic as a coherent region – especially with the growing recognitions of human induced climate change and its measured affect upon arctic landscapes. The Arctic Council, formed in 1996, aims to provide ‘environmental security’ by creating an organization that facilitates cooperation between the ‘Arctic nations’ as well as indigenous member organizations. And with its emphasis on geophysical scientific research, the fourth International Polar Year (or IPY) in 2007–08 is again indicative of the degree to which the Arctic is defined by its physical parameters rather than in diverse sociocultural terms. In the twenty first century after the many developments described above, social scientists still faced a small struggle to get ‘people’ included as a thematic component in the IPY’s interdisciplinary research agenda.

Although diverse, the Arctic is still an object of knowledge. A rich body of work now traces how the Arctic was envisioned in formative ways and, increasingly, how ‘the Arctic’ came to be constituted as a coherent regional entity. When the terms through which the Arctic has been imagined (as wasteland, resource, wilderness, etc.) are brought into question, the fact that each term is not wholly accurate is not the only issue. It is also problematic that the Arctic is simultaneously rendered up – through many processes of regionalization – as a singular object of analysis, which can then be considered comparable to another object. It is partly through such processes that many things ‘Arctic’ become paired with Antarctica like penguins and polar bears.