Arctic science, Arctic policy and Arctic politics: A tale of different lifeworlds

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

On the 1st and 2nd of June 2009 the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a discussion meeting entitled “New frontiers in science diplomacy”. On 2nd June 2009 the first afternoon session was dedicated to environmental security in the Arctic. The title was “Environmental security: Poles apart?” The session was chaired by Dr. Jim McQuaid FREng and the three speakers were Professor Howard Alper of the Canadian Science, Technology and Innovation Council, the British Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis, and Professor Paul Berkman of the newly formed Arctic Oceans Geopolitics Group at Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute. On the same day an historic landslide election was held in Greenland, in which Siumut, the dominant social democratic party for three decades, was swept out of power by the left-wing nationalist Inuit Ataqatigiit on a wave of popular discontent. Much was said about policy at the meeting in London, but no mention was made of the election or of politics, and the inhabitants of the Arctic were only mentioned in passing.

At exactly the time the event in London began, the polling stations in Qaanaq in Northwest Greenland opened. Voting had already been under way for an hour in Nuuk and most of the country and for three and four hours respectively in the two eastern timezones. The two events are closely related yet took place in historically and culturally constituted lifeworlds so distant as to exist almost as parallel discursive universes. The European and North American scientists and the people of Greenland have overlapping concerns and in some cases identical objectives, but their epistemological positions are the “polar” opposites of large-scale structures and processes and small-scale subjective meanings and actions. The discourse of the speakers at the conference in London was one that systematically ignored the lived reality of the human inhabitants of the Arctic, such as the Greenlandic electorate, particularly their historical and political reality.

Policy/natural science discourse on the Arctic may be an extreme case, but it is nevertheless symptomatic of wider Western discourse on the non-West. It is a discourse, which systematically denies non-Westerners historical agency by treating them as “peoples without history” and as parts of nature rather than bearers of culture. In this Eurocentric discourse, the Arctic is constituted as a natural geographical region rather than as a dynamic political construct, as an object of scientific research and policy interventions working in partnership, but the subjectivity of its human inhabitants is left out of the equation. Nothing could be further removed from the world of the Greenlanders exercising their voting rights to make history, motivated by nationalist aspirations, frustration and anger with the political elite of the last 30 years of home rule.

Except for Mrs. Willis, the legally trained politician, the speakers and the chair were distinguished natural scientists actively involved in national and multilateral policy towards the Arctic as advisors to Western governments and intergovernmental organisations like the EU and NATO. The politician’s presentation will not be treated in the following. What the scientists said was characterised by, on the one hand, a number of surprisingly naive statements about science, the policies of state governments and international organisations and, on the other hand, a number of glaring silences about the fact that the Arctic is more than ice, water, rock and biological life. It is both nature and culture, but these natural scientists had almost nothing to say about its sociocultural characteristics or how Arctic human life interacts with the ecology. Like homo sapiens everywhere else on the planet, they live in societies, which engage in politics. Our “metabolism with nature” is culturally mediated.

Both the chair and the speakers seemed to share the same basic epistemological assumptions about the nature of science and its interaction with policymaking. Many social scientists and philosophers will probably find it a somewhat naive view. Science was conceived of as cumulative, progressive and politically neutral. There was no consideration of how scientific discourse is produced and reproduced by power à la Foucault. One might say that was an unstated implicit recognition that power is based on knowledge and that the exercise of political power as policy requires the mobilisation of expert scientific knowledge. But how science exists in sociocultural contexts and how scientific knowledge is itself shaped by power was not addressed. The idea and ideal of science was that of a neutral tool for solving policy problems by “making realistic assessments of prospects, impacts and time horizons”.[i] The role of science in governing international spaces was said to be: “to interpret the dynamics of the Earth system (e.g. phenomena of stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change) and to carry out the monitoring, reporting and verification needed to maintain trust in international cooperation.”[ii] Science is thus believed to play an instrumental role in furthering certain political goals, such as “trust in international cooperation”, which are beyond question, as are “the economic benefits that could come with increased shipping activity and resource development in the Arctic Ocean.”[iii] Underlying these assumptions is the Enlightenment myth of the “international republic of letters”, i.e. that international scientific cooperation has the potential to somehow tame the anarchic self-help system of international political and economic relations and transform it into a more cooperative order or “international sociey” as theorised by Bull & Watson. The hope is that scientists can enlighten the world in order to avoid a “slide into a new era featuring jurisdictional conflicts, increasingly severe clashes over the extraction of natural resources, and the emergence of a new ‘great game’ among the global powers.”[iv] There is a sense of urgency to the task, as environmental change is driving these undesirable political changes: “Before sectoral activities accelerate with the diminishing sea ice, there is a window of opportunity to use science as a tool of diplomacy to establish common interests in the central Arctic Ocen as an international space dedicated to peaceful uses.”[v]

One speaker asked “Where does science fit in – not only in Canada’s but other countries’ foreign policy strategies to affirm leadership, stewardship and ownership?” No satisfying answer was given, but the entire session opened up another question: “Where do human beings and culture fit in?”

Human subjectivity and its collective manifestation as political contestation was passed over completely. The populations of the territories discussed were only mentioned in passing in a remark that “the Inuit and other aboriginal citizens of nations like Canada, The United States, Russia and Denmark” are involved in the implementation of environmental protection measures.


[i] Alper, Howard “The Canadian Arctic Research Station: International science partnerships to nurture and reinforce diplomacy”. Paper presented at Royal Society and AAAS discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy. Royal Society: London, 2nd June 2009.

[ii] Berkman, Paul “Governing international spaces: Negotiating the Antarctic Treaty and the future of the Arctic”, Paper presented at Royal Society and AAAS discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy. Royal Society: London, 2nd June 2009.

[iii] Alper, Howard “The Canadian Arctic Research Station: International science partnerships to nurture and reinforce diplomacy”. Paper presented at Royal Society and AAAS discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy. Royal Society: London, 2nd June 2009.

[iv] Berkman, Paul “Governing international spaces: Negotiating the Antarctic Treaty and the future of the Arctic”, Paper presented at Royal Society and AAAS discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy. Royal Society: London, 2nd June 2009.

[v] Berkman, Paul “Governing international spaces: Negotiating the Antarctic Treaty and the future of the Arctic”, Paper presented at Royal Society and AAAS discussion meeting on new frontiers in science diplomacy. Royal Society: London, 2nd June 2009.

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