Introduction: Assembling the Valuable and Vulnerable North

From the Series: Arctic Abstractive Industry

Photo by Christopher Michel, licensed under CC BY.

Above sixty-six degrees north of the Equator lies the Arctic, a region that has been altered dramatically through climate change. As a result of the opening of formerly ice-bound waters, transcontinental shipping, resource capture, and scientific observation are accelerating in what many describe as a rush for the Arctic. New initiatives from Arctic Council member states (the United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) are creating organizational processes suggesting the arrival of knowledge-intensive economies that will condition site-specific Arctic operations. The essays in this Hot Spots series provide an ethnographic unmasking of some of the key practitioners, symptoms, and symbols that characterize this expanding set of interests.

The essays also complicate some of the meanings behind a narrow set of key narratives and images that frame the contemporary Arctic. The attention-grabbing visuals of the starving polar bear, melting ice cap, and offshore oil rig, for example, are often used to depict Arctic biodiversity, climate change, and resource capture. The polar bear has become a standard bearer for biodiversity, projected on everything from posters and lapel pins to PowerPoint presentations at all Arctic gatherings—replacing the so-called Eskimo as the first among charismatic megafauna. A satellite image of the Arctic ice cap at its minimum in September 2007 symbolizes climate change and circulates through virtual settings from Google searches to commercial airline flight maps. As for resource capture, images of Arctic offshore oil rigs grace both industry and environmental websites, anchoring speculations about what the Arctic will look like if global temperatures rise more than 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

While such visuals circulate before millions daily, seldom do they expand our understanding of the colonial legacies whose impacts give weight to their promotional value. Through the continual display of these images, the Arctic is registered as both a delicate, self-enclosed system threatened by global warming and a type of early-warning system whose indicators of environmental collapse fan cosmopolitan anxieties at lower latitudes. Such images carry none of the weight of accountability associated with written documents and offer no credible authorship outside of a logo. What they project is a shared principle of simplification, one that involves sensuous qualities whose function maximizes the effects of aesthetic experience, often at the expense of acknowledging the real, lived adaptations to climate change among Arctic inhabitants.

In this way, the popular creation of the Arctic aligns with certain non-Arctic imaginaries such as, for example, the fantasized displacement of “clean coal.” While no one believes that coal is clean, everyone can nevertheless enjoy the magical thinking associated with the idea of unlimited electricity flow (see Appel, Mason, and Watts 2015). Similarly, the Arctic, although home to nearly four million people whose rights are shaped by eight sovereign states, is nevertheless routinely imagined as a desolate and pristine location whose changing climate, once viewed as a heroic barrier to development, now authorizes the endless proliferation of valuable and vulnerable land/seascapes.

The following essays by anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists address this current crop of reductionist epistemologies by drawing attention to some of the normative projects that today’s rush for the Arctic entails. They highlight the increasing speed of change in the Arctic; the complex relationship between Arctic inhabitants and their land/seascape as they negotiate with outside interests; and the possibility of a postdiscursive turn in which managing Arctic risk increasingly relies on the shaping of aesthetic experience.

The speed with which the future is approaching the Arctic is now felt everywhere in discussions on resource extraction, climate change, and sea transportation. The production of simulations, forecasts, and scenarios is constructing the Arctic as a resource-rich—but perhaps more importantly, accessible—land/seascape. Stratigraphic mapping, mineral licensing, environmental assessments, and other practices of inscription are translating the Arctic into representations that can be compiled and compared, while simplifying landscapes into readable signs that can be taken in at a glance. The work of assembling and mobilizing now focuses on redefining interests among stakeholders, while creating new interests along new axes of common and conflicting purpose. Indeed, borrowing a phrase from Mabel Toolie, a Native elder of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, the Arctic is a place “where the Earth is faster now” (Krupnik and Jolly 2002, 7).

Traditional ideas of deeply inhabited landscapes and a distinctly Arctic sense of place remain a strategic resource in protests against initiatives that only reluctantly integrate local knowledge systems into Western institutional apparatuses. Today, however, potent political practices around Arctic belonging are emerging through multi-sited identifications with experiences of forced displacement, uprooting, and the cosmopolitan imagination. Such multi-sited political agency resists simple characterization, as in one-way claims about rural outmigration and urbanization, instead reflecting a conjuncture between identity movements and corporate liberalism as a kind of post-land-claim capitalist modernity on Arctic terms. This sensibility is associated with indigenous claims to sovereignty as well as new scales of values, expertise, and traditions proliferating in a globally interconnected, locally inflected postmodernity (see Clifford 2013).

Finally, the active weighing of the sources of Arctic knowledge reflects a postdiscursive turn toward charismatic visualization, whose finality is part of an effort by both practitioners and detractors of the modern to transcend the ideological conditions of their origin (Mason 2016). The discourse of rationality that once displaced questions of political legitimation, such that technical interests were valued in their own right, is giving way to the authority of images whose authenticity as emblems of progress or injustice can mobilize international movements over ineffective responses to all manner of environmental and humanitarian crises, from Arctic warming to the Syrian civil war. It remains unclear whether this shift will shore up or complicate the taken-for-granted teleology of Arctic development, for which more modernity serves as the only model.


Appel, Hannah, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts, eds. 2015. Subterranean Estates: Lifeworlds of Oil and Gas. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Clifford, James. 2013. Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Krupnik, Igor, and Dyanna Jolly, eds. 2002. The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change. Fairbanks, Alaska: ARCUS.

Mason, Arthur. 2016. “Arctic Energy Image: Hydrocarbon Aesthetics of Progress and Form.” Polar Geography 39, no. 2: 130–43.