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No Such Thing as “Sustainable” Arctic Management

Sunset on Arctic Sea Ice, near Svalbard, 2009
Sunset on Arctic Sea Ice, near Svalbard, 2009
Sunset on Arctic Sea Ice, Fram Strait, September 2009.© Dave Walsh

Here’s an idea. To hell with “sustainably managing” the Arctic Ocean. Instead, how about we just stay out of it and leave it the fuck alone to look after itself, as it was doing before we humans came along and starting burning coal and oil and putting CO2 in the air and seawater?

Yesterday, as I sat towards the back of a two-thirds empty lecture theatre in one of Brussels’ stately buildings, I read on Twitter that the EU Parliament had passed a resolution in favour of protecting the Arctic environment, calling for the creation of a high seas sanctuary around the North Pole.

Clause 38 of the resolution states that the European Parliament:

“Supports the initiative by five Arctic coastal states to agree on interim precautionary measures to prevent any future fisheries in the Arctic high seas without the prior establishment of appropriate regulatory mechanisms, and supports the development of a network of Arctic conservation areas and, in particular, the protection of the international sea area around the North Pole outside the economic zones of the coastal states”

The rest of the document contains some pretty firm language on human rights, sea level rise and climate change – amongst other issues and expresses “strong concern regarding the rush for oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic”. Unfortunately, the sentence concludes “without adequate standards being enforced”. So, even the EU, while trying to be the good guy, accepts that there will be drilling.

As Neil Hamilton writes, over on the Greenpeace website:

There is one dark cloud. The document asks for a ‘precautionary approach’ to energy exploitation in the Arctic, but from where we’re sitting that should mean only one thing: no drilling at all. If you’re serious about protecting this fragile, vulnerable ecosystem then it’s madness to allow oil platforms and giant drilling ships anywhere near it. To paraphrase Beyonce, if you like it then you shouldn’t put a rig on it.

That said, the resolution is better than a hell of a lot of other watery documents floating around the Arctic. I recommend scrolling half way down and reading the numbered points – the language is not too opaque. The EU’s statement of intent echoes recent official policy adopted by Finland, but may go against the grain for countries like Denmark, Norway, the US, Canada and Russia, who seem prickly and adamant about (the billions of) us farther south should having any kind of say in the future of the region. It’s altogether possible that they will disregard and plough on, regardless. But we can hope.

Meanwhile, in my lecture hall, I was listening to familiar things being said by familiar voices. I was at “Arctic 2050: Towards ecosystem-based management in a changing Arctic Ocean” organised by the European Marine Board. With all due respect to the EMB for hosting what was obviously a well put-together event, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been here before. I can see how it all comes about happens – someone says “we should have an Arctic event”. There’s great ideas about how to do it, and then some kind of gravitational pull, or institutional insecurity means that no one too radical, or too surprising takes the podium. Things are kept safe, so as not to scare off certain speakers. Perhaps what’s needed is a seriously disruptive event on the Arctic, that goes way beyond TED talks or anything of the sort, where speakers have to really perform, defend their claims and their assumptions. But I’m sure you could also write a book on those who would be conspicuous by their absence, after turning down an invitation.

For the sake of my sanity, I don’t traipse around to every polar conference. At the moment I work mostly on Antarctic issues. But I have provided communications services to the International Polar Foundation, during its annual Arctic Futures Symposium, including live tweeting it. Last summer, I took part in a video seminar as part of the Arctic Summer College with two members of the Arctic 2050 panel discussion, Robert Blaauw and the IUCN’s Martha McConnell. I have some idea of the landscape – even those speaking at such events joke about how you can go to Arctic conference every week if you wanted to.

Speakers travel halfway around the world to speak at these events, so it’s disappointing to see that many of them often drone through a text-heavy presentations explaining what they’re organization or company does – when, dammit, we can read that for ourselves on their website. There’s rarely anything inspirational or evangelical, half-way convincing or approaching a good story. C’mon Shell, quit telling me about how nice you are to whales. Tell me why you need to exist, tell me why we need to take insane risks in inhospitable seas. Because the consumer wants it? Show me your soul. I didn’t come along to see how bad you are at Powerpoint.

And then there’s that desperate clutching to the word “sustainable”.

Yesterday, during a panel discussion moderated by the BBC Science Editor David Shukman, on “Can industry and science work together to achieve sustainable management of the Arctic Ocean?”, one speaker, I think it was Kurt Vandenberghe, European Commission DG Research and Innovation, said it was not a matter of “can”, but more a question of “how”. He seems like a reasonable guy, but he said this while seated beside Robert Blaauw of Royal Dutch Shell. The discussion wandered into relatively useful banter on how to ensure that science is not led by industry. But I felt like I’d arrived in the middle of a discussion, the first half of which had never occurred.

How did we get this far so quick? Has no one asked whether “industry and science should work together in an attempt to sustainably manage of the Arctic Ocean?”

No one was asking whether or not “the Arctic Ocean should be sustainably managed”. No one was asking why it might need to be sustainably managed in the first place.

What I’m getting at is this. Any of these conferences I attend, it seems to be a forgone conclusion, a destiny written in stone, that we will go to the Arctic, and we will exploit it, and that we will try to not mess it up too badly (that appears to be what is meant by “sustainable”). I hear no political or industrial voices questioning whether we need to go to the Arctic and “sustainably develop” it, or do I hear voices (outside the NGO world) suggesting that it might not be a good idea at all. What I do hear, in an era of global understanding of an incredibly messed up planet, is a default assumption that if we have not used a piece of territory, then there’s something morally wrong with us, and something unfulfilled about that particular corner of nature.

Are we all obsessed with following, to the letter, some multi-denominational version of Genesis 1:28?

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Jesus Christ on a Narwhal, just because someone stuck something in a book, doesn’t mean we have do it, alright? And note, Genesis said “fill the Earth”. It doesn’t say empty it, drain, pump it dry, baby.

Here’s an idea. To hell with “sustainably managing” the Arctic Ocean. Instead, how about we just stay out of it and leave it the fuck alone to look after itself, as it was doing before we humans came along and starting burning coal and oil and putting CO2 in the air and seawater?

The “Sustainable” Arctic
The phrase “sustainable Arctic” triggers alarm bells; “sustainable” can be, and is misused as a “weasel word” – injected into apparently well-meaning sentences to pacify potential detractors and pay lip service to environmental concerns. But more often than not, the word is not imbued with any real meaning, and is present to smooth concerns, a one word prayer in the hope that everything will be alright. The word “sustainable” seems to contribute to cognitive dissonance, where we can do what the hell we like, but we won’t do much damage, because, well, no one wants to be the bad guy.

A sustainable Arctic becomes a dream place where one where agile oligarchs can dance and pirouette with underwater unicorns, while oil and gas wells ejaculate liquid cash into infinity.

Speaking of underwater unicorns:

In any case, the definition of “sustainable”, and the relative degree of sustainability that can ever be achieved anywhere that humankind seeks to interfere is up for debate.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not questioning the the importance of ecological sustainability, I’m questioning how we choose to subjectively interpret it, I’m challenging the ease with which we throw the term around, as if the words were enough, and the actions necessary for sustainable practice just an afterthought. There appears to be dire confusion between ecological and economic sustainability. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re hardly the same thing either. And what may appear to be economically sustainably for say, 20 or 30 years, because be environmentally unsustainable for decades, or centuries afterwards.

For government and industry, a “sustainable Arctic” likely refers a scenario where resource extraction, driven by free market economics, can reign without screwing up the environment too much. As in not too much that they can still sleep at night, face their children, avoid pissing off the greenies, keep the shareholders happy and get favourable media, not necessarily in that order.

For those on on the more purist side of conservationism and environment, a “sustainable Arctic” is an Arctic without any significant human interference whatsoever.

The fact is, we’re already changing the Arctic. In reality, if no future fossil fuel, mineral or fish extraction was to occur, we would still not have a “sustainable Arctic” – warming ocean currents, ocean acidification, loss of Arctic sea ice due to climate change, and loss of albedo due to black carbon emissions are all altering the Arctic’s natural cycles. We burn fossil fuels, the Arctic melts.

By discussing “how” government, industry and science can work together in the Arctic Ocean, all we’re doing is falling into the trap, humouring the fossil fuel vendors’ obsession with sucking more oil out of the ground, so us idiots can burn more of it down south, which in turn will pollute more air, and met more ice, and raise more sea levels.

How we use energy, and where we source our energy at home, in our cars and planes has a direct effect on the Arctic, both in the release of CO2 – which creates global warming and ocean acidification, and in the release of black carbon, which reduces the albedo, or reflectivity of ice, making it more susceptible to melting. As a result, the Arctic is changing – the Greenland ice cap is pushing fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean, which affects currents and weather. Arctic sea ice extent is on a downward trend. Less white sea ice, means dark open water, which promotes more warming. Round and round it goes. Where it will stop, we don’t know, we don’t even know if it will stop.

The EU resolution is a shot across the bows of the nations who tell us that we should mind our business, and stay out of the Arctic, while they bolster their polar military services, and draw up new seabed claims. The EU may be seen as an interloper in Arctic affairs, but its multilateral approach may help smooth diplomatic disagreements or military conflicts. EU diplomacy certainly not make for “sustainable Arctic”, and may in fact hasten the arrival of extractive industry, but to my mind it’s better than thecurrent rather dubious “everything’s fine, there’s no disagreement here” stance constantly reiterated by the Arctic coastal nations.

Reassuring the world, to buy time, yet racing to secure territory and resources is both disingenuous and unsustainable; it can lead to unreasonable ambition and blind optimism that outstrip ability and safety. We could face situations far worse than Shell’s Bering Strait misadventures; no one wants Gulf Oil Spill or Costa Concordia situation in polar waters, yet many seem to see this as an acceptable risk.

It is my opinion some engaged in Arctic politics and ‘development’ may also be falling prey to cognitive dissonance – the simultaneous entertaining of conflicting beliefs. We keep hearing about how the Arctic can be opened up to oil drilling, while the environment is protected. There is little substance to this claim; it does not appear to be based in fact, and is perhaps fueled by mixed sensations of hope and inevitability, or romantic notions of the march of “progress”. Or maybe it’s the dancing with the Narwhals fantasy I exposed earlier.

We live in a strange time; humanity is coming to terms with its domination of our finite planet, and is realising, in real time, the fruits of our destructive exploits. Burning of fossil fuels is driving global warming, causing irrefutable changes to the Arctic region, potentially opening up the Arctic to a new era of resource extraction.

Its seems absurd to talk about Arctic sustainability, while welcoming fossil fuel industries that risk polluting an environment on which Arctic residents depend, these fuels supply the feedback loop responsible for the Arctic’s rapid changes.

Rather than accepting a “sustainable Arctic” as a concrete concept, we must constantly question what we mean by “sustainable”. And we must keep asking questions: “do you really think that’s a good idea to exploit the Arctic Ocean? Who gains? Who loses?”

If we keep on the way we’re going, then we all lose.

Dave Walsh

Further reading:
Maritime Executive: EU Arctic Resolution Not Binding

Neil Hamilton, Greenpeace: The European Parliament backs our vision for an Arctic sanctuary

James Turner, Greenpeace: Europe’s Parliament Wants To Create A Giant Ice Park At The North Pole

Is there a future for Greenland without Arctic oil?

Increased extreme Summer heat events are linked with vanishing Arctic ice and snow says new research published in Nature Climate Change.

1 thought on “No Such Thing as “Sustainable” Arctic Management”

  1. Great text, Dave.
    “What is sustainability?” has indeed become THE big question, though most people have yet to realize it. To answer the question, we should simply take the word literally… but it seems we don’t. To many, sustainability refers to “sustainable development”, an idiom so twisted that its concrete application has hardly ever anything to do with actual “sustainability”.
    As you write, achieving sustainability is far from being a formality, it’s not something that “can of course be achieved, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to work together towards this common goal”; this is BS and the fact is that many life support systems of our small planet (like the Arctic) are well past sustainable levels and are currently undergoing irreversible changes with dramatic consequences for everything that lives on Earth. Tipping points are looming ahead, some may already have occurred or be occurring as we speak, and it’s indeed high time we redefined sustainability and stopped tolerating our political and economic leaders’ incompetent and irresponsible rhetoric speeches.
    Reaching sustainability isn’t an option for anyone who understands the concept. Without sustainability, no viable future for anyone. Which renders what we do today pointless, in my opinion. It should not be an option for any responsible leader (if such a thing still exists), they should go out of their way to ensure it. Instead of that, they do not undertake the bare minimum, and we citizens are partly guilty of that too, in as much as we complacently let them do.
    I wonder if sustainability is reachable at all now. Maybe some sort of global civilisational collapse is already inevitable as a result of the rich’s individualistic obsessions and of the peoples’ terrible lack of reaction. Some major scientists claim so. Maybe our only hope to survive what’s coming our way is to develop our resilience the best we can. The new question may be: can we achieve sustainable resilience?

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