The Geo-politics of Arctic Sustainability

By Klaus Dodds

Having spent a very pleasant few days in Nuuk Greenland (as part of a University of Aalborg-led project called ‘POLITICS OF POSTCOLONIALITY AND SUSTAINABILITY IN THE ARCTIC’) I have refined my thinking about what such a topic might entail.


Transport to Nuuk came via Air Greenland, a company involving the Danish and Greenlandic governments in alliance with SAS. Air Greenland supports the transport needs of the island’s energy/resource extraction projects. (Authors own image)

Listening to scholars from Denmark, Norway, UK and the United States, it was striking how diverse the ‘referent object’ of sustainability actually became. From sealing and fishing to mining and climate change, the who, what, where, how and why of sustainability transmuted. Like ice, sustainability became slippery and profoundly elemental in the sense of being able to shift in morphology and texture.

For some colleagues, sustainability was foregrounded as a term and practice signifying the everyday lives and experiences of northern communities, working with infrastructure, campaigning for resourcing and adjusting where possible to terrestrial and marine ecologies that are dynamic and lively. For others, sustainability had a spectral like presence, hinting at something rather eerie – past, present and even future endeavours to make inanimate and animate objects and communities ‘sustainable’. Indigenous peoples living and working in the Arctic have long since retorted that they don’t need to be told how to be ‘sustainable’.


Royal Arctic Line are one provider of a vital shipping/container/passenger service to many Greenland communities. It is owned by the Government of Greenland (Authors own image)

Walking around Nuuk harbour, you could easily alight upon the ubiquitous shipping container as a material marker of sustainability. As some of my own colleagues, such as Peter Adey and Rachael Squire have recognised, the container is both vital to networks of mobility and capable of being put to use in multiple ways. In Greenland, companies such as Royal Arctic Lines provides vital links to remoter communities both north and south of Nuuk. Goods and materials, in the absence of runways (or on the grounds of cost), are often transported by sea. Ensuring the sustainability of many Arctic communities, and not just in Greenland, is in large part about ensuring the integrity of infrastructure and transport. As many folks learnt last week in Greenland, bad weather can quickly ground flights and delay the movement of goods and people.

The politics of sustainability, for me at least, is literally grounded. It involves a sort of geo-assemblage of things, people, scales, spaces and affect. Arctic sustainability is, in that sense, entangled and co-relational. The route of the container brings people and their lived worlds into contact with other things together. And how and where this is made possible is co-dependent on weather, ice, seasonality, sailing schedules, and the like. Communities in Greenland are stratified and prioritised in this economy of sustainability, with some enjoying greater connectivity than others. And over the decades, there has been debate about whether some communities should be amalgamated with others, or even people simply moved to larger more urban centres like Nuuk to ensure efficiencies and economies of scale. Making Greenland sustainable is an ongoing project but one which is not in the gift of one agent alone (such as the Government of Greenland).

The politicising consequence of sustainability were only too plain to hear and see in the aftermath of a public lecture on Greenpeace’s role Greenland, which was hosted by the University of Greenland. After the lecture, members of the audience asked questions of the presenters. Given the environmental organization’s controversial involvement in anti-mining and anti-oil drilling protests as well as the ‘Save the Arctic‘ campaign, it was not surprising per se that local opinion was not supportive. For some, Greenpeace’s campaigning work was ‘unsustainable’. Or, at worst, it represented an assault on the ability of Greenlandic people to exercise their own agency to make sense of who, what, where and how was and is sustainable.

The referent object of sustainability slipped across spatial scales (local, national and global), materiality (ice, rock and air) and objects (oil, gas, minerals, fish) as well as being infiltrated by colonial and Cold War ‘impurities’. Greenpeace’s representations of the undesirability of Arctic oil proved capable of generating/producing counter-representations, and altered the affective forces that brought them into existence into the first place. The anger of some members of the audience was palatable.


Statue of Hans Egede in Nuuk

Thinking about the political terrain of Greenland demands that one thinks beyond the figurative. Standing by the statue of Hans Egede (one of the earliest Danish-Norwegian missionaries of Greenland in the 18th century) close to the old habour, there are ample reminders of how colonial and Cold War histories and geographies have made their mark on this island. For over 300 years, Greenland has been ‘harvested’ by some agent or other – taking resources such as fish, ice and minerals out of the country and extracting information about ice and climate often in the name of sustaining the Danish Kingdom and later in the name of NATO and the defence of the West. Could we even say that human and non-human populations and habitats in Greenland have ‘suffered’ for the sustainability of others?

It is now 30 years since the Brundtland Report (‘Our Common Future’) was published by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. There is still a great deal to do regarding ‘sustainable development’ and the report betrays its academic and policy vintage. When thinking about sustainability in an Arctic context, we are reminded that for all the references to ‘future generations and their needs’, there are plenty of stories still to be told about past and present sustainability and un-sustainability. The habitability of the Arctic is changing, and elemental forces such as heat are playing their part to ensure that geophysical (as much as the geopolitical) terrain of sustainability is dynamic and lively.


Nuuk is an expanding city now number some 17,000 people out of a total population of around 56,000 people living in Greenland (Authors own image)

Interconnectivity and interdependence in the Arctic and beyond is ongoing, and our workshop illustrated well that the politics of sustainability is not something easily ‘rooted’ in one place or another. Rather, what these intriguing discussions revealed is that the referent objects of sustainability are akin to a ‘striation’ – they mark and scour people, objects, practices and representations and reveal evidence of remnants (a stratigraphy of memories and elements) of past, present and future expressions of the sustainable/unsustainable.


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