Arctic Futures: Fresh Conversations and New Ideas

Recently, the World Ocean Observatory, in partnership with the University of Maine Law School and the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, created a new collaborative entity — the Arctic Futures Institute — to integrate policy and law, science and research, and communications and public engagement into a program focused on the emerging interrelationship between the northeastern United States and the eastern Arctic, particularly Greenland. The idea was to move beyond the conventional approaches to Arctic development, policy, and governance and to create a process that combined exclusive perspectives into the development of fresh ideas and specific outcomes to advance all Arctic interests in the region.

The situation has emerged from three existing, accelerating events: 1) the impact of rapidly changing ice and access conditions in the Arctic resulting from climate change; 2) the resultant intensity of traditional private and national interests in the exploitation of Arctic resources; and 3) the evermore obvious implication of this change on the interests of Arctic inhabitants, especially indigenous peoples.

If you have attended the meetings of the direct and indirect Arctic parties, you will have noticed a two-tiered conversation. First, there is the high-minded aspirational agenda that speaks to cooperative and consensus agreement, acknowledgement of the precautionary principle — do no irreparable harm — and commitment to conservation values, transparent discussions and negotiations, inclusive participation, and the assertion of native/indigenous rights as co-equal in the discussion.

What disturbs me at these meetings is a second tier, not necessarily part of the dialogue, an enduring whisper that suggests that the old agenda of nationalist interest and resource exploitation is alive and well, that in the end those conventional claims will assert themselves, especially as the ice melts and access becomes much more possible and practical, and that the perceived value of suddenly available, voluminous oil and gas, fisheries, minerals, and tourism increases exponentially, and the high-minded principles and declarations melt away as fast as the ice.

Is this just a cynic’s point of view? Well, maybe not. If you examine the various preemptive claims and declarations of the Russian government over the past few years, and if you look at the looming availability of Chinese capital as a force for development and influence, you might easily perceive a return to the destructive ways that have brought our own environments and economies to crisis in the name of short-term profit. If this analysis is even partially true, then the need for alternative ideas and conversation is that much greater as a means to counter or substitute positive alternative action against this force.

The Arctic Futures Institute mission is to advance that conversation. Last week, we convened a five-day Summer Workshop in Portland, Maine, to bring together law students, climate scientists, interested individuals, and experts on policy, the Law of the Sea, and the capacity to model future climate conditions and consequences through innovative analysis of existing historical data.

In addition to these presentations, we engaged in a process of investigation from a definition of goals, trends and factors to application of predictions and innovations, with teams comprising disciplines and interests addressing the process in the context of specific challenging issues. It was an intense and constructive exercise and gave proof of the concept that a small, concentrated, interdisciplinary group of thinkers, representing all constituencies, can create a liberating exploration of “plausible scenarios” in search of an inventive, viable, alternative future.

The New North does not have to be an iteration of the old northern behaviors. The New North can be more than a theoretical conversation if we can free ourselves to an open forum and place an outcome into the hands of those for whom it matters most. The next step for the Arctic Futures Institute is to facilitate further this beginning in 2019, to meet in unexpected places, to imagine unexpected ideas, and to suggest unexpected outcomes. In the Epilogue of his wonderful book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes:

“The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution… Whatever world that is, it lies far ahead. But its outline, its adumbration, is clear in the landscape, and upon this one can actually hope we will find our way.”

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

< Arctic Futures Institute
< Climate Change Institute
< Maine School of Law
< Law of the Sea
< Arctic Summer Institute 2018 Program
< World Ocean Radio