Interview with Barry Scott Zellen, Deputy Editor, “Strategic Insights”, and Research Editor of the Arctic Security Project at the Center for Contemporary Conflict.
Q. In your book “Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic” (Lexington Books, 2008) you describe the long and, ultimately, fruitful quest by the native tribes of the Arctic to regain a modicum of sovereignty over their ancient lands. Can you give us a capsule history of this process?
BSZ: “Breaking the Ice” describes the movement for native land claims and indigenous rights in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, and the resulting transformation in domestic politics as the indigenous peoples of the North gained an increasingly prominent role in the governance of their homeland. Its main thesis is that land claims started out as a tool whose primary aim was assimilation, as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was designed primarily as a contemporary tool of economic modernization – to quickly bring Alaska Natives into the modern economy, and its corporate model was a dominant characteristic. ANCSA’s original model proved inadequate to meet the full needs and aspirations of northern Natives, who sought to preserve their traditions (including subsistence harvesting) as much if not more than to modernize their economies, and whose movement to settle land claims was driven as much by their aspiration for civil and Aboriginal rights as it was for economic modernization – with the tribal sovereignty movement emerging to challenge the new corporate culture created by land claims implementation, and which in Alaska placed Aboriginal title to traditional lands at risk of forfeiture if the land claim was not modified by 1991. When land claims crossed into Canada and came to the NWT in 1984 with the passage of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA), the model was significantly modified – so that land claims would, in addition to creating new corporations to manage Native lands, financial compensation, and investments, also help to promote Aboriginal culture and traditions, preserve the land and the wildlife, and help empower not just new corporate interests but also traditional cultural interests as well. Alaska Natives likewise sought to modify their original land claim, working to defuse what was sometimes called the “1991 time bomb” which would have seen Native land title come under risk. Additional efforts, often resulting in political tensions with non-Native interests, have been made to protect subsistence hunting in the years that have followed ANCSA’s enactment. With these efforts by Natives to transform the land claims model – and make it reflect not just the future as defined by modern governments but also their age-old traditions – land claims now help to balance both visions of the Arctic’s future. While not perfect, land claims have proven to be resilient and adaptive – providing northern Natives with an important stepping stone toward self-government, protecting much of their traditional land base, while at the same providing them with tools and managerial experience to make self-government more viable and successful.
Q. What distinguished the Arctic tribal revival from neotribal upsurges elsewhere (for instance, in the Balkans)? What innovative techniques of negotiation, mediation, and bargaining have they deployed to achieve their aims? To what do you attribute their ultimate success?
BSZ: Land claims in the Arctic were the first concrete step in the process of decolonizing the North by devolving decision-making authority from what many northerners have long perceived to be far away, colonial centers of administration and decision-making to local communities: by letting go, central authorities were in fact strengthening their hand, gaining greater political legitimacy through their new collaboration, co-management, and devolutionary policies. After more than 35 years, the process begun by land claims that started in Alaska in 1971 is still by no means complete. Indeed, throughout large portions of Canada, hundreds of specific and regional land claims agreements are either still in the process of being settled, or have yet to be started, having proceeded at a snail’s pace for over three decades, precipitating a political crisis in June 2007 when renewed fears of Native militancy began to spread. Ottawa has since redoubled its commitment to a just and lasting reconciliation between Native and non-Native, promising to empower its Indian Claims Commission (ICC), created in 1991, by creating a new, independent tribunal to more speedily resolve Native claims. Furthermore, nearly four decades after the U.S. Congress enacted ANCSA, many Native villages continue to reject the land claims model in favor of alternative approaches to Native empowerment, such as through tribal governance. However, most of the Arctic has embraced the land claims model as an important step forward-if also a necessary evil-in their effort to restore Aboriginal rights, political control, and elements of their tribal sovereignty. As a result, the many Inuit communities along the Arctic littoral have now settled their land claims, and have moved on to the challenges of restoring self-government to their homeland.
Generally speaking, the tribal experience in the Arctic mirrors the tribal experience around the world. One major differentiator, of course, is that the United States was fundamentally transformed by its own civil rights movement, which solidified the ideals that were militarily victorious during the U.S. Civil War. It took a long time, but by the end of the 1960s, minority rights of all sorts, even the relatively late-blooming field of Aboriginal rights, had worked their way into the psyche of decision-makers at all levels of government, providing a fairly welcoming environment for land claims negotiations and other processes of Native empowerment. Even in places like Alaska where strong state interests have been pitted against the Native community in a long battle over who controls the resource wealth extracted from the land, the situation between state and tribe is far more harmonious than between state and tribe in other parts of the world where ethnic violence and civil warfare have erupted in response to the same centrifugal forces.
In the Arctic, as in many parts of the world that were once colonized, colonial impulses long dictated the pace of the North’s political development. What the North offered the South, in terms of economic opportunity as well as military security, drove the northward expansion of government, which in turn contributed to a growing indigenous, pan-Arctic movement for greater autonomy that ultimately redrew the map of northern Canada and Alaska, as these new institutions of local and regional self-governance proliferated, first gaining regulatory powers and later, governmental authority (most dramatically illustrated by the birth of the Nunavut territory in 1999, an Inuit-governed territory.) The roots of this drama thus date back to the expansion of commerce by Europe’s great powers into the northernmost reaches of North America: Russia expanded its empire from Siberia to Russian America, extending juridical sovereignty over Alaska in the 19th century; Britain, through the Hudson’s Bay Company, penetrated the interior northern territory known as Rupert’s Land even earlier, transforming the political economy of the indigenous northland from pure subsistence to commercial hunting and trapping.
Across the Arctic and sub-Arctic, there has been a long legacy of government-from-afar, and generations of northerners have felt a deep and troubling concern with the ongoing neglect by distant government administrators. The interests and needs of Northern Native peoples had, in fact, been neglected since the time of first contact, and in the early years of colonization of the North, those colonial governments had a tendency to overlook the rights of First Peoples, using disproportionate levels of military force, as the Russians and Americans both did in early Alaskan history. With time, however, the concept of Aboriginal rights evolved-and gradually transformed the political relationship between governments and the people of the North, as colonialism gave way to democratic impulses and greater political participation by Native peoples in the governing of the North. While the forces of modernism and traditionalism would continue to clash in the years ahead, these conflicts would be managed by the structures of co-management, corporate development, and self-government created by the region’s comprehensive land claims settlements.
What Natives have achieved in northern Canada, through peaceful negotiation, with their negotiation partner many times more powerful by any military or economic measure, is remarkable. Especially when compared to the chaos and violence that have resulted from other tribal aspirations along the Cold War’s other peripheral regions where unassimilated, un-integrated tribal and sub-national movements emerged to challenge the old state boundaries. The age of land claims has transmuted this very same tribal force into something else altogether in the North: a peaceful force to spawn the emergence of new structures of Aboriginal self-government. Caught between their tribal past and the demands of a modern future, they’ve crafted a synthesis between these two competing, dialectical forces. I believe the outcome of this clash between tribe and state, a blending of contemporary economic, political and constitutional institutions to preserve age-old traditions, defines the very essence of neotribalism — neither a surrender to the forces of assimilation, colonialism, or even imperial occupation; nor a rejection of the modern state outright. Instead, the Natives North, walking in two worlds, have found ways to blend elements of both, forging a unique and one might hope enduring synthesis.
Q. The Arctic Peoples had the largely benign government of Canada as their interlocutor. Even so, initially, they had to resort to force and even kill. What makes you think that their methods would be applicable to the junta of Myanmar, to China’s Communist Party, or to the Russian Kremlin?
BSZ: The junta in Burma and the Chinese Communist Party aren’t so very different in their mindset from the military governments that governed Alaska early in its history. My sense is that in time, with generational change, we will witness domestic political transformations in both countries, with some elements of democratization. Looking at Chinese press coverage of the recent earthquake in Sichuan, I was struck by how that government felt the need to embrace, at least for the moment, a free press, and to let that free press cover the tragedy, and the government’s response, with unexpected liberty. It reminded me of how after Chernobyl, the reformist Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev realized the scale of the disaster and the corrosive effect of unfiltered gossip demanded a similar loosening of press restrictions, and as we now know, there was no turning it off.
I think China will experience something similar; there are too many channels of communications, whether through wireless telecom, the wired Internet, foreign radio, TV and web broadcasts, underground press and unofficial blogs, even the simple but powerful new reality of camera-phones transmitting images without any real possibility of real-time censorship, as Beijing learned only a few months earlier during the spontaneous pan-Tibetan uprisings that proliferated like a flash-mob. Burma, being much further behind in economic and infrastructure development, may remain immune from these forces for a longer period. Its initial reaction to its own recent disaster was quite contrary to Beijing’s response; but after a week or two, it’s started to lift some of its earlier restrictions on international aid. And last summer during the monks’ rebellion, the Burmese government simply unplugged the Internet to prevent imagery of the uprising and its crackdown from reaching the world.
As for Russia, the Kremlin does seem to miss the old Soviet days of an iron fist and no real civil society to restrain the heavy hand of the state. But with so much of its natural resources in the Russian Arctic, requiring some degree of Native support to ensure the security of pipelines and other isolated infrastructure associated with getting resources like natural gas to market, I suspect we’ll also see something of a softening in terms of Moscow’s approach to indigenous minorities. Moscow, like Beijing, might in the end realize the business benefits of positive PR, which can help to really seed the market for future cooperation. If Russia, like China, wants to sell its natural resources and/or manufactured products to the democratic world, playing nice with its own minorities might go far to boost business. This economic pragmatism, which could well take root in both China and Russia, may in the end lead to a political thaw, even if it stops short of true democracy. Within this evolving environment of accommodation, tribal minorities might find much more room for both asserting, and fulfilling, their aspirations.
Or, perhaps a limit will be reached, as we saw last summer in Burma when the unarmed monks bravely rose up only to be quickly smacked down by the state. It might well be the governments, long used to oppressing their ethnic minorities, might be reluctant to mellow. But my instinct tells me that history is on the side of a gradual thawing that will result in Aboriginal rights becoming the rule and not the exception, and the experience of Alaska and Canadian Natives will be mirrored even in countries that today seem much less hospitable to minority rights.
Interestingly, I read in the April 24 edition of the “Barents Observer” an article that reported Gazprom had “got the necessary consent from regional indigenous peoples for the development of the huge Bovanenkovskoe field in the Yamal Peninsula,” and that the chief of the Gazprom Dobycha Nadym subsidiary had claimed “the intrusion of the oil industry in a zone managed by indigenous peoples is conducted in a highly careful and civilized manner” and that “all decisions regarding the laying of pipelines and infrastructure in the area are made only after consultations with representatives of the regional indigenous peoples.” While quite likely an overstatement, it does suggest some movement in this direction is already happening. With oil at $130 per barrel, there is enough profit to share with local stakeholders, so at least the opportunity exists for fair compensation and remediation of cultural and environmental impacts. I think in China there is a similar pushback by locals, whether members of China’s many indigenous minority groups or even the Han majority, as more and more people lose their fear of the party or of the state, and demand justice, fairness and inclusion.
So in sum, while there are dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that are hostile to minority rights, the fact that the USSR could collapse or the brutal Apartheid regime could allow itself to be digested by a democratic revolution only fifteen or twenty years ago suggests the night is young, and that anything is possible!
Q. In the wake of the Cold War, do you believe the Nation-State is on the wane? What caused what: did resurgent tribal tensions and claims destabilize the State or did the gradual diminishment in the role of the State give rise to tribal and ethnic friction?
BSZ: I don’t think the nation-state is on the wane, but I do think the nation-state has had to adapt to the post Cold War era, and move beyond ideology, and back to the core building blocks of the state. In some multi-ethnic societies, this proved especially challenging, as we saw in the Balkans where minority groups that controlled demographically cohesive territories demanded outright sovereignty, resulting in state collapse. With tribalism resurgent, the nation-state must reach out and find a way to accommodate the interests of small and often outnumbered minorities, lest it face all sorts of internal resistance to its authority. Tribes may not have the power to escape state domination but they do have plenty of wiggle room to define greater autonomy. Some, like the Kosovars, found willing allies in the international community to make formal sovereignty possible, but most tribal minorities are on their own, without an international benefactor to come to their rescue. So it is up to them to learn what the limits are, what methods work, and how far the state can be pushed in terms of granting autonomy. The Natives of the Arctic have shown tremendous insight in identifying the limits of autonomy, hence the very different structures and outcomes as seen in Alaska, as compared to the Northwest Territories, as compared to Nunavut. As time went by, more and more became possible that had been hitherto denied as the concept of Aboriginal rights evolved and the state grew more comfortable with devolving authority.
The land claims journey, and the transformation of the land claims model from being a tool of assimilation, wielded by state against peripheral and interior tribes, into a tool of empowerment wielded by the tribe against those very forces of assimilation induced by the continued penetration of the modern state into its frontier region, reveals a fundamentally dialectical interaction (inherently interactive and iterative, but obscuring cause and effect), but this suggests the potential for a synthesis to the long conflict between state and tribe since the modern era of nation-states began. Earlier in history, as the state expanded, it digested tribal entities; those that refused to modernize were subsequently crushed by the state’s expanded power. When the modern state crossed the Atlantic to the New World, finding hundreds of tribal groups at an earlier level of industrial development, it overwhelmed those tribes militarily, eventually conquering the Americas. But within the new constitutional structures that emerged in post-revolutionary America, surviving tribes were able to preserve their identity and apply tools of the modern state to preserve their own survival. In so doing, I believe they made the state stronger, by enriching its constitutional DNA. Something similar, I believe, will inevitably happen all around the world.
Q. The environmental movement has been heavily involved (under the mantle of “sustainable development”) in the protracted battle of the Peoples of the Arctic. Is sustainable development an oxymoron? Is the environmental movement being overly politicized? Do you see other ethnic groups leveraging or even abusing environmental principles to further their narrow political and economic agendas?
BSZ: I don’t think sustainable development is oxymoronic, though it is clearly an aspirational concept that is expensive, and quite difficult, to achieve. Development can be sustained so long as resources remain accessible, and so long decision-making and regulatory structures and supportive values exist to ensure that development does not happen at a pace or in a manner that obliterates the local, cultural, and tribal values of the indigenous peoples whose homelands contain the resources sought by the resource development entities. If you look at how exploration and development of natural resources has evolved in the last century, you can see remarkable progress, so much so that the environment and the local indigenous peoples are no longer merely bulldozed out of the way, but included in the process, with environmental assessments, cultural impact studies, and participation agreements routinely implemented.
Sure, some activities like oil drilling and mining, will always leave long-term scars on the land, and present significant risks of environmental contamination. But at least now when this happens, there are efforts at remediation and compensation, which is of itself a big win for the Native peoples who not too long ago were neither consulted not compensated. That being said, any development activity does impact the land and the people, and these impacts mean that the old, pristine, world is forever gone. The new world is more complicated, messier, but it also offers many other tangible fruits: such as educational, medical, and transportation improvements that help increase life span and improve the quality of life. Not all change is bad, just as not all development activities are unsustainable.
As for the politicization of the environmental movement, and its polarization, this is something that does concern me. Many of those committed to political action recognize the need to mobilize a coalition of likeminded actors, whether states, corporations, and/or individuals to act united against the threat perceived. Case in point: climate change. When it comes to the movement to stop climate change or to slow its onset, the need for mobilization does seem to color their analysis: to warn the sky is falling is more effective, the activists of climate change believe intuitively, than a more balanced and nuanced assessment of risk, with all its inherent ambiguities. In short, the subtleties of nature, the inherent complexities, are often ignored by those committed to political action, which requires at least the illusion of certainty.
Q. Is the Arctic Thaw for real – or is it a figment of the febrile and not too scientific imagination of environmental advocates?
BSZ: Yes, it is real! Something truly transformative is indeed happening up along our last frontier! The long frozen, seemingly impenetrable polar sea is starting to thaw, unexpectedly fast, opening up larger and larger portions of the Arctic Ocean to seasonally ice-free conditions for longer and longer periods of time. So quickly is the ice melting that the prospect of a navigable, ice-free Arctic Ocean is no longer the stuff of fanciful imagination, and has been the topic of two NOAA National Ice Center-sponsored conferences, the April 2001 Naval Operations in an Ice Free Arctic Symposium, and the July 2007 Impact of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations Symposium. Within our lifetimes, and possibly in less than a single generation, we may witness the opening up of Arctic sea lanes that are fully navigable year-round: the strategic, economic and diplomatic consequences will be enormous. According to scientists from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by 2060 if current warming trends continue. NSIDC research last summer found that the Arctic was “experiencing an unprecedented sixth consecutive year with much less sea ice than normal,” and that the extent of Arctic sea ice for 2007 “set a new record minimum that [was] substantially below the 2005 record.” This summer looks to be on track for a near-record melt, though probably not as extreme as last summer’s.
The impacts of global warming and the resulting Arctic thaw will be profound. Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and defense correspondent for “The Nation,” once explained to me that “global warming will affect resource competition and conflict profoundly” in the coming years, and while “global warming’s effects cannot be predicted with certainty, it is likely to produce diminished rainfall in many parts of the world, leading to a rise in desertification in these areas and a decline in their ability to sustain agriculture” — which may in turn “force people to fight over remaining sources of water and arable land, or to migrate in large numbers to other areas, where their presence may be resented by the existing inhabitants.” Klare said that “global warming is also expected to produce a significant rise global sea levels, and this will result in the inundation of low-lying coastal areas around the world,” resulting in “the widespread loss of agricultural lands, forcing many millions of people to migrate to higher areas, possible encountering resistance in the process.” He cautioned that “because many poor countries will be unable to cope with the catastrophic effects of global warming, state collapse is a likely result along with an accompanying epidemic of warlordism, ethnic violence, and civil disorder.”
There are climate change skeptics and deniers out there; but I’ve seen evidence of the thaw, from melting permafrost and boiling methane fields, to the emergence of new hybrid polar/brown bears as a new genetic mixing takes place with more and more of the proud white bears migrating south, onto land, where they not only compete with the grizzlies but are now breeding with them. We’re witnessing the birth of a new sub-species, and though this could mean the end for the polar bear as a distinct subspecies, it is evidence of how profound the changes taking place are.
Q. What are the geostrategic implications of the Arctic Thaw? Are we likely to witness a Second Cold War premised on a neo-colonialist pursuit of mineral deposits in the Arctic? If so, who would be the likely contestants? Is the situation likely to escalate to open warfare?
BSZ: As with all things, there are Arctic pessimists and optimists. I find myself torn between the logic of both schools of thought. In my gut, while the changes happening are profound, I think they may turn out to be positive in the North, fostering a concert of mutual interests that can be sustained through an open, navigable, polar sea, with resources a plenty for all stakeholders. And since the Arctic basin is a sea and not a continent, we won’t see as many of the territorial divisions that resulted, much to the world’s regret, in the modern Middle East, with artificial states bisecting nomadic, tribal and national groups, leaving a legacy of friction, conflict and war. What remains to be carved up is offshore. We will probably see a militarization of the Arctic region, and a significant increase in naval activity. But this will likely be more defensive than offensive, protecting sea lanes and ports.
In the Arctic region itself, the melting ice will open up an entire ocean that has been ice-covered for millennia, bringing an end to what we can think of as the final chapter of the last ice age. As the polar ice melts, we’ll witness the gradual emergence a brand new world, unlocking what just a few years ago would have been unimaginable economic opportunities, as the long-closed Arctic waterways open up to rising volumes of commercial shipping and naval traffic, and as the thinning (and later disappearing) ice makes it more cost-effective, and technologically viable, to explore the region’s undersea natural resource potential, and to fully develop those new discoveries. This new world is not unlike that discovered by early explorers when they journeyed across the Atlantic, from the Old World to the New, in search of undiscovered countries and riches. We, too, are on a journey of discovery to a new and unknown world-a world full of riches unknown, but not unimagined! But it’s the imagination of these riches that led a new diplomatic crisis, which began last August 2, not long after Russia dispatched the flagship of its Antarctic research fleet, the Akademik Fyodorov, and the nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya to the North Pole, where Artur Chilingarov, Deputy Speaker in Russia’s Lower House and a well-known polar hero from Soviet times, and fellow parliamentarian Vladimir Gruzdev, descended 4,200 metres to the sea floor in a Mir mini-sub, where they left a titanium Russian flag and boldly laid claim to the North Pole on behalf of mother Russia. While the stated objective of their undersea polar mission was to advance Russia’s claim to a vast extension of its continental shelf extending from Russia’s northern shores to the North Pole along the Lomonosov Ridge, the expedition was largely a public relations stunt designed to bring Russia’s claim to the attention of the world. A more properly scientific mission exploring the undersea contours of the Lomonosov Ridge and retrieving geological samples to help Russia back its claim with scientific evidence took place in May 2007.
Prior to their descent into the chilly depths, Chilingarov announced, “The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf,” and asserted. “The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence.” Upon resurfacing to an international diplomatic uproar, he proclaimed: “I don’t give a damn what all these foreign politicians there are saying about this. If someone doesn’t like this, let them go down themselves,” and to “then try to put something there.” He further stated that “Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian.” Russia’s claim was quickly rejected by Canada, whose High Arctic archipelago abuts the North Pole, where its own territorial ambitions come face to face with Russia’s recent polar assertiveness. As then Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, who was later reassigned to run the Defense Ministry, told the press, “You can’t going around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere,” adding, “This isn’t the 14th or 15th century!” Yet at the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hastily embarked upon a three-day Arctic visit during which he announced Canada’s decision to develop a $100 million deepwater port facility at Nanisivik, near the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage, boosting Canada’s ability to project naval power into not just the waters of the fabled passage, but into the High Arctic as well. Harper also announced the formation of an Arctic training facility for its armed forces at Resolute Bay. He had announced a month before his government’s intentions to spend over $7 billion to build and maintain six to eight Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. As Harper explained: “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it.” The Russians evidently share this use it or lose it philosophy; in addition to its recent expeditions in Arctic waters, its air force soon commenced strategic bomber exercises over the North Pole, where it practiced firing cruise missiles, navigating the polar region, and aerial refueling.
While Ottawa and Moscow were engaged in a muscular display of diplomacy reminiscent of the Cold War, hope was not lost for a more multilateral approach. According to the Law of the Sea Convention, in addition to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), signatories may also claim as additional territory any extensions to their continental shelves that they can scientifically substantiate. Russia, Denmark and Canada all hope the Lomonosov structure extends outward from their continental shelf; all treaty signatories have ten years from their signing to make their claim. Russia first claimed the ridge in 2001 but the International Seabed Authority requested scientific proof. Denmark is currently conducting research to make its case, as is Canada. Because Canada did not sign the Law of the Sea Convention until 2003, it has until 2013 to make its case, while Russia signed in 1997, so must submit its evidence this year. Denmark signed in 2001 so has until 2011. The United States, owing to its recent taste for unilateralism, has yet to sign the treaty-so for the moment is on the sidelines in the race for Arctic claims, though its newest icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, soon after the Russian polar theatrics, steamed North into the Beaufort Sea to map the U.S. continental shelf as part of its Arctic West Summer (AWS) 2007 expedition, and is again in northern waters conducting further undersea research for AWS 2008.
Despite this brewing regional rivalry, my view is that when the Arctic ice melts, the polar sea will reunite the Atlantic and the Pacific, and this will be huge enough a win for all: shipping lanes will traverse the pole, shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe, reducing the cost of transportation and consumption of fuel. This will mean bypassing many of the troublesome chokepoints that leave many countries vulnerable to terrorism and piracy. As well, the undersea resources of the Arctic are among the last, virgin natural resource deposits left on Earth, some experts think one third of the world’s hydrocarbons might lie offshore in the Arctic region. If so, that means the potential of a steady oil supply without having to worry about the political chaos of the Middle East, and gives us great reason to come to a full and lasting peace with Russia, who owns the other half of the Arctic but will obviously want to export these resources to such oil-hungry markets as China, Japan, Europe, and possibly even North America. Business has a way of turning political opponents into close friends.
Q. What would be the role of indigenous Arctic tribes and Peoples in such a future race for mineral wealth and geopolitical prowess?
BSZ: The potential economic benefits from resource development and transpolar shipping will bring much hope to the indigenous people of the North in terms of jobs, training, education, medical services, and other essentials. And this might help reduce the tragic situation in the Arctic villages in terms of epidemic suicide levels and widespread social problems that are perpetuated by the poverty, lack of opportunity, and harshness of the climate. With climate change, there is at least some hope of real, lasting change and new opportunity. It will be disruptive, and challenge many traditions, but there is reason to be optimistic. With the real political gains of land claims and the various self-government processes, Natives are positioned to reap huge rewards from the coming wave of development. They own most of the coastal land, have significant regulatory powers and various co-management regimes that will ensure numerous benefits, from training and employment, including indigenous hiring and tendering preferences, to royalties, compensation, and remediation guarantees. The Inuit will find themselves in a central role not unlike that now enjoyed by the Saudi royal family.
Q. What can the United States and Canada do to forestall such ominous developments?
BSZ: As many experts have suggested, the impacts of global warming and the resulting Arctic thaw will indeed be profound. But there is a tendency to exaggerate the negative, while dismissing the positive dimensions of these impacts. Climate change pessimists worry about increased resource competition, coastal flooding, infrastructure damage from melting permafrost, changes in wildlife migration patterns, and stresses on some species-especially polar bears-as well as on the indigenous cultures of the region. So fearful of this calamity have we become that former Vice President Al Gore won a coveted Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to delay its onset, as if global warming was itself an act of war against mother earth.
But it may not turn out so bad. The melting ice will open up an entire ocean that has been ice-covered for millennia, bringing an end to what we can think of as the final chapter of the last ice age. We’ll witness the emergence a brand new world, unlocking what just a few years ago would have been unimaginable economic opportunities, as the long-closed Arctic waterways experience rising volumes of commercial and naval traffic, and as the disappearing ice makes it more cost-effective, and technologically viable, to explore the region’s vast undersea natural resource potential. This will in turn stimulate the economic development of Arctic ports and communities, and secure sea lanes across the top will enable shipping of strategic commodities without the risks associated with our current sea lanes and their vulnerable chokepoints, reducing the risk of war and conflict. So while pessimists fear the changes that are under way, a more optimistic, and ultimately more prudent, approach would be to prepare to make the most of these new, emerging opportunities. Just as scholar Francis Fukuyama described the end of the Cold War as the “End of History” as we knew it and the start of a new and uncertain era, we once again find ourselves standing at the threshold of new era that promises not just uncertainty, but also much hope and opportunity for the people of the North. Because of this under-appreciated upside potential, I believe that Canada and the United States should not in fact do anything to forestall global warming but instead prepare to leverage these potential opportunities as they emerge.
Q. Is the issue of Climate Change being trivialized and leveraged by politicians, tribes, and states in the Arctic? If so, can you tell us how?
BSZ: I’m not sure the problem is one of trivializing the issue. I think the real problem is all the pessimism, and the negative hype, which prevents a more balanced debate from taking place. Indeed, many indigenous leaders in the North have joined with former U.S. Vice President, 2007 Academy Award winner, and 2008 Nobel Peace prize winner Al Gore and his allies to try to stop the clock. Yet while many respected theorists, climate scientists, policy-makers, diplomats, statesmen, and world leaders have concluded like Gore that the earth is spinning out of control toward certain doom, and that action is required at a planetary level to prevent the coming tragedy caused by climate change, my view is that the future is as yet unwritten, and though evidence of climate change has tipped from possible to probable (the deep, bone-chilling Arctic winter of 2008 notwithstanding), the debate on winners and losers is still one worth having, and that rumors of our imminent demise, as a species, as a planet, may in fact be greatly exaggerated.
Many of those committed to political action recognize the need to mobilize a global coalition of states, corporations, and individuals to act united against the threat of climate change, and this need for mobilization colors their analysis: to warn the sky is falling is more effective, the activists of climate change believe intuitively, than a more balanced and nuanced assessment of risk, with all its inherent ambiguities. As pioneering quantum theorist Heisenberg observed, at the fundamental level of perception, the act of observation influences the outcome of events since the lonely photon that measures any atom’s position or momentum also changes these coordinates in time and space. Thus we can never know, with certainty, since the act of observation changes reality. Uncertainty transcends the impact of observation itself; deeper down, in the bowels of quantum reality, we are confronted with a greater mosaic of duality and contradiction. Just as Einstein showed energy and mass were different expressions of the same thing, and that one could be converted to the other and vice versa, Heisenberg is famous for introducing us to the wave-particle duality, which tells us that atoms can act like particles, and waves, with their distinct behavioral differences, and that probability itself is part and parcel of the fabric of the universe at the subatomic level. Up higher, in the Newtonian world that we more readily understand, we have clarity and certainty and predictability, but down deep in the inner folds of the universe’s underlying fabric, we only have uncertainty, ambiguity, and duality, an omnipresence of chaos, albeit with meta-patterns that hint at an underlying order.
Political action has always been a Newtonian phenomenon, with the individual atomic unit being us, people, and our various aggregations into groups, be they corporations, social groups, or states. But scientific knowledge, with its complex granularity, from the macro to the micro, from the cosmic to the quantum, has been forced to recognize harder truths, such as those unearthed by the imaginative leaps of Einstein and Heisenberg, among others. And these harder truths are, at the quantum level, riddled with ambiguity. And when scaled up to global systems, those ambiguities do not disappear, but cast a long shadow. Climate change is thus a realm of scientific thought that currently aspires for a certainty compatible with political mobilization for action, but which in fact is fertile ground for the riddles of chaos theory, and the dualistic ambiguities of quantum uncertainty.
And so the activists tell us, the sky is falling, as Gore told us as he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. (His words were more concise, more humble, and more appropriate when he accepted his Oscar in Hollywood earlier in 2007.) But what if they are wrong? What if their position has become reified because they believe the stakes are so high, that inaction itself is tantamount to complicity in planetary genocide? What if they have taken a page from the anti-nuclear movement, arguing that there are, cannot be, will not be winners in nuclear war, so we must bottle up our atomic genie, and step away from the nuclear chasm before we fall in and self-destruct? During the Cold War, the anti-nuclear activists had their faith that we would all be losers in nuclear war, that the only solution was stepping back, and seeking nuclear abolition. But theirs was not the only point of view: closer to the strategic nerve-centers of the nuclear states were a diverse ecosystem of nuclear thinkers, strategists, and planners whose jobs involved figuring out how to do what the anti-nuclearists said was impossible: winning a nuclear war. Men like Herman Kahn dared to “think about the unthinkable,” coming up with various proposals and ideas to mitigate the risks and dangers of nuclear war, from more thoughtful civil defense, to more detailed war plans in the case deterrence failed. The Cold War ended suddenly before there was an apocalyptic show-down, so we’ll never know who was right or wrong. But with regard to climate change, we must confront this self-same duality, this annoying ambiguity, this reluctant riddle that remains unanswered: are there both winners and losers in climate change? Might there in fact be more winners than the activists, already committed to their position that we are all losers in this drama, will acknowledge?
The story not told by the climate change pessimists is the other half of the evolution story, not the extinction of species that did not make the cut, but the creation of those that did, as new genetic factors becomes strengths and not weaknesses. Life itself is a process of renewal and decay, extinction and species birth, and to cry out that extinction is itself a tragedy dishonors the species to come, whose birth itself was forestalled by efforts to prevent the natural process from continuing. Mourn we may but not at the price of stopping life itself from evolving, for it is the story of evolution that we must continue to tell, indeed to act out, as players on its stage. As the predominant creature, ruling over most of the earth’s surface, we naturally want evolution to stand still, our time to last forever. But this is not necessarily nature’s way. Nor is it nature’s way to pick sides, and fight to keep one species alive at the expense of another’s arrival on this earth. We all have our time, its beginning and its end. We can fight to keep the polar bear white, but is this not a crime against the emerging hybrid polar/brown bear? We can fight to keep the caribou alive, but what of the deer, should they be denied their time in the North? The dinosaurs had their day, and so did we; would we stop the age of the dinosaurs from ending if we had the power to do so? And should we try to stop the clock, and hold back this process of global warming which might in fact bring an end to the ice age itself, and free the polar regions from its continued, icy tyranny of climatic extremism?
These are the issues we need to debate, and explore, and consider, without passing judgment. And while Gore has his Nobel Prize for Peace for the war that he has declared against man’s recklessness and climate-aggression, this does not mean that Gore’s perspective is the only valid one, nor the correct one. From the Arctic perspective, Gore’s logic would mean a perpetuation of an ice age that the rest of the world was all too happy to see end.