All posts by pederroberts

Norway’s responsibility in Antarctica

As some of you will have seen, it looks like Norway will be getting a new government. During the election campaign climate change became a major issue — not before time! — and the future of the country’s oil industry became a topic of discussion.

What does this have to do with Antarctica? Well, potentially quite a lot. My excellent colleague Alejandra Mancilla (professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo) and I wrote an op-ed that was published recently in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, in which we argued that if Norway wants to be serious about upholding its commitments to protecting the Antarctic environment, then it needs to take a hard look at its policies on oil exploration and production closer to home. An English translation of the article appears below.

Norway’s Responsibility in Antarctica

The most recent IPCC report paints a dark picture. Among other things, melting Antarctic ice could put many parts of the world underwater. We therefore want to pose two questions: do we have the necessary tools to preserve Antarctica, and thereby also the world? And can the Antarctic Treaty states (including Norway) claim that they are fulfilling their commitments under the Treaty when they continue to pursue oil-focused policies?

Norway is one of the 29 consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty, which marks its 60th anniversary in 2021. Many celebrate that the treaty has achieved peace and scientific cooperation. Additionally, it is 30 years since the Protocol on Environmental Protection (widely known as the Madrid Protocol) was agreed. Since then no further legal instruments have been developed to deal with new challenges – above all, the climate crisis. We argue that the Antarctic Treaty does not lack the necessary tools to address this challenge, and that instead it is a matter of more ambitiously interpreting the texts that already exist, and the responsibilities of the individual countries involved.

The Madrid Protocol states that the parties commit to protecting “the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems.” This phrase (which occurs nineteen times in the text) leads to the question: what does it mean to protect ecosystems that are dependent and/or associated with Antarctica? The Protocol, like the Treaty itself, covers the area from the South Pole to latitude 60 degrees south, but to attain that goal it is necessary to act further north. Actions outside the geographic boundaries of the Antarctic Treaty should therefore be taken into account when evaluating the extent to which a state fulfills its commitments to protect Antarctica.

The Protocol also asserts that Antarctica has “intrinsic value”. Intrinsic value stands in contrast to instrumental value. Using Antarctica as a laboratory is an example of the latter, where Antarctica functions as a means to achieve the end of increasing scientific knowledge. Intrinsic value, on the other hand, demands that we treat Antarctica as an end in itself. What exactly that means is a discussion that the Antarctic Treaty parties are yet to have, but which could lead to a more ambitious interpretation of the Protocol’s mandate.

The processes that drive climate change and loss of biodiversity do not follow political geographical boundaries. For Antarctica, it is not enough to regulate activities within the Treaty area itself: activities beyond must also be considered. The states that signed the Madrid Protocol committed themselves, in a way, to protect the whole world. It is high time that citizens of the signatory states voiced that demand, particularly in the context of elections. Committing to meet or exceed the targets set in the Paris Agreement would be a good start.

As a founding member of the Antarctic Treaty that continues to be active in the continent, Norway should take the lead in this process. The country has a self-image as an enthusiastic advocate of human rights and environmental causes at the global level. If it wishes to live up to its reputation, Norway ought to begin by stopping issuing new permits for oil exploration and taking concrete steps toward reducing fossil fuel production. Thus can Norway truly make a contribution to protecting Antarctica.

Does the science criterion rest on thin ice?

Antarctica, famously, is governed not by a sovereign state but through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The currency for attaining Consultative Party status within the ATS (which gives a state a vote at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, where decisions on the continent are taken) is “substantial research activity.” Exactly what this means is unclear, and there’s good reason to ask whether the “substantial activity” part can outshine the “research” part given the importance of logistics to getting parties into the field (and keeping them there). Nevertheless, the basic equation is that scientific activity is the means through which states earn a seat at the big Antarctic table.

This is a view that’s been around since the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, an eighteen-month burst of global research that produced amongst other things the Sputnik launch and the US research station at the South Pole. For the duration of the IGY science was decoupled from sovereignty, so that research in Antarctic couldn’t be taken to either affirm or undermine a sovereignty claim in legal terms. The IGY also helped establish a view of the Antarctic as a kind of enormous laboratory — a space within which truths about the nature of global geophysical systems could be revealed, in addition to a place worth studying in its own right. And this was widely accepted, in large part because practically everyone in the world recognized Antarctica as remote from world affairs. There were no people for whom was a a homeland, no air or navigation routes, no realistically viable prospects for extractive industry, and very few military-strategic dimensions. So why not just leave it to the scientists?

The laboratory metaphor has persisted into the present. The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, which came into force in 1998, establishes Antarctica as an environment to be rigorously protected from pollution or contamination from north of 60 degrees. But the global nature of geophysical processes, from ocean circulation to atmospheric carbon levels, means that in practice it’s impossible to insulate Antarctica from certain changes — changes that I argue undermine the premise of the laboratory metaphor. Because it’s no longer just the rest of the world intruding on Antarctica, but Antarctica possibly intruding on the rest of the world. Greenhouse gas emissions cause global heating, which in turn melts polar ice, which in turn raises sea levels and potentially disrupts ocean circulation. Far from being distant and irrelevant, Antarctica and its massive ice sheets are now regarded as potentially existential threats to livelihoods far to the north. Antarctica isn’t just a laboratory. It’s also a conduit through which greenhouse gases produce rising sea levels.

This contradiction has been gnawing away at me for some time and I finally vented a half-baked objection to it at a conference in 2019. What if instead of awarding seats at the Antarctic table to the countries who did most science, we instead gave the seats to the countries who were most affected by the changes Antarctic melting would wreak, and thus have a more meaningful stake in the continent? Isn’t global warming a game changer in that it makes Antarctica directly relevant to the world in a way it wasn’t before, and shouldn’t this be recognized in its governance structure? As I worked through the idea I realized that it’s going to be awfully hard to make such a system work because the remedy for sea level rise for Kiribati or a Bangladesh isn’t control over Antarctica, but rather control over greenhouse gas emissions in the global north. But there’s still an important issue to address. If Antarctica is no longer this laboratory in splendid isolation from the rest of the world, does that mean countries like Australia, Russia, Norway, or the US that contribute more than their share to global carbon emissions through either exports or domestic consumption have some self-reflection to do? As I put it in the conclusion:

To take meaningful steps to control emissions, and to reduce change in and from Antarctica, would be a statement of intent that a continent reserved for science and peace cannot be allowed to become a conduit for conflict and destruction. Otherwise the moral standing of the system risks erosion even if the CPs continue to diligently and creatively conduct quality research in Antarctica. If the magnitude of harms caused by Antarctic ice sheets melting is as great as predicted, it will be entirely fair to ask why the states which contributed most to that melting also retained privileged positions at the Antarctic decision-making table all along.

You can read the pre-publication version of the paper here (open access!) It’s coming out soon in the Geographical Journal. My particular thanks to Alejandra Mancilla, first for organizing the workshop at which I got to inflict my ideas on a sympathetic group when they were still rather fuzzy, and whose razor-sharp thinking helped me tremendously as I prepared the final text.

European fellowship opportunities!

The annual call for European Union international research fellowships will be coming soon. These are often referred to as post-docs, but in practice they are suitable for anyone with a) a PhD in hand or b) at least four years of research experience who would like to spend a year or two at a university in the EU research area (which happily includes Norway. Don’t ask about Britain.) The guiding principle is that this is an opportunity to develop a new competence under the mentorship of someone particularly suited to helping you develop both the project and your career. Pitch a topic to the potential mentor and if it clicks, then you write the application together. You don’t need to be an EU citizen: the only restriction is that you can’t have lived in Norway for more than twelve months during the previous three years.

So why should you think of Stavanger? Apart from the fact it’s just been ranked the fifth most liveable city in the world there’s also our growing environmental humanities group, and a number of faculty who would be delighted to work with you. I’m a historian with broad interests in everything polar — particularly related to science, the environment, and politics — and I’d love to help with applications anywhere within that broad field. (I’m also very happy to work on topics related to the history of the oceans, which I’ve also written on.)

You’ll find details below on the internal UiS process. Note the deadline of 28 February if you want to be considered for the grant writing workshop, which in our experience tends to be helpful, but which absolutely isn’t essential. It’s good in any case to start thinking early. Please don’t hesitate to send me an email with any questions. I’d love to hear from you.


The Greenhouse is now accepting proposals from scholars interested in applying for the EU Horizon2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships program (MSCA IF) in 2020. The MSCA IF program is for scholars who already hold a PhD to spend up to 2 years at a European university in order to advance their research and career. In the previous call, three persons affiliated with the Greenhouse received MSCA IF funding.

We are looking for early career researchers who will use the MSCA IF as a training and exchange period in addition to working on their independent research project. At the Greenhouse, we are interested in hosting MSCA fellows with environmental humanities projects who would benefit from being in an interdisciplinary dynamic environmental humanities environment and working closely with one or more members of Greenhouse.

Through the University of Stavanger’s EU grants office, The Greenhouse can arrange for potential applicants for the MSCA program to attend a grant writing workshop on 3 June 2020, which will discuss the application writing process, required contents of the MSCA IF application, and evaluation of applications. The grants office will select ten participants from across the university to attend this training, which we have found to be excellent training for this particular grant. These candidates will also get an external review of their proposals.

In order to take advantage of this training opportunity, we need to receive a statement of interest no later than 28 February 2020. Send an email to the Greenhouse directors Finn Arne Jørgensen ( and Dolly Jørgensen ( with a CV and project statement of no more than 2 pages that gives us an idea of what you would work on during a MSCA stay, which skills you need to develop through training, and how it would align with the Greenhouse program area.

A note about the grant application timing: The official MSCA call for 2020 will be issued on 8 April 2020, with an application due date on 9 September 2020. If selected for an award, the exchange period can start from late 2021.

Dmitry Arzyutov, take a bow!


Egle Rindzeviciute and Dmitry Arzyutov. Not pictured: the three boxes of very good Finnish chocolate that Dima brought for the occasion.

Yesterday marked a milestone on Dmitry Arzyutov’s path toward his PhD — or perhaps I should call it a highway, given how quickly and smoothly he is progressing. Dima presented three papers (respectively on woolly mammoth research in Siberia, the history of the concept of ethnogenesis, and a study of the modern history of Novaya Zemlya) within the overall rubric of exploring the “environmental archive”. (For a taste of his work, see the wonderful mammoth article here.) Dima’s opponent was Associate Professor Egle Rindzeviciute from Kingston University in London. Egle gave a terrific commentary, ranging across the politics of international scientific cooperation, the intertwined evolution of social and natural scientific disciplines in Russia, and the art of writing a text. I suspect many of my colleagues will be using her beautiful analogy of the hammer and the nail when explaining the relationship between an argument and the literature it engages with. Bravo Dima — and bravo Egle!

Now for the self-indulgent part. I have the privilege of being Dima’s lead supervisor, and amid the sense of pride in how well he’s done, I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I’ve been. As is so often the case in Scandinavia these days, Dima is employed within the overarching framework of a project (Greening the Poles) that puts him in the position of being responsible for a deliverable in addition to a dissertation. This in turn puts me in the position of being both mentor — I obviously want him to develop his project into something unique and meaningful in the context of his own professional development — and his boss, as the person ultimately responsible for the project’s success. In this particular case it’s gone beautifully. Dima’s articles will contribute neatly to the overall project while also staking out some unique ground for himself, and I have the luxury of being funded by the European Research Council, who have a commendably positive approach to risk and reward. But I do catch myself wondering if this is ultimately a healthy trend. I’d hate to be in a position of trying to corral a student in a particular direction because they risk straying from the bounds of the project if that direction happens to be original and exciting — just not quite within the project frame. I wonder if the question is worth pondering, given that the project-based funding landscape here probably won’t change any time soon.

But that’s for another day. Congratulations to Dima for a job well done, and thank you to Egle for helping to make this happen. The work required to do a good commentary is huge, particularly when the texts are so rich and diverse as Dima’s. Onward to the next step!

How Sweden fell in love with iron ore exports — and a plug for the Journal of Northern Studies

One of the best things about working with Dag Avango at KTH was that he pulled me into thinking about the past, present, and future of the enormous iron ore mining operation at Kiruna in northern Sweden — and how the mine has become intertwined with both the town and with the country as a whole. Today the state-owned mining company LKAB is the dominant employer in a town of over 17,000 people. Despite attempts to build alternative industries around space science, it’s pretty clear what drives the local economy, to the point where parts of the town are being moved in order to permit continued extraction of the iron ore body. It’s a fascinating place and well worth a visit, particularly if you also make time to explore the surrounding mountains. (For the omnivorous, be sure to try the reindeer pizza at Palladium restaurant.)

The early years of Kiruna (founded at the turn of the twentieth century) were dominated by the local administrative director of LKAB, a larger-than-life character named Hjalmar Lundbohm who is often praised as the father of “mönstersamhället” — a model community that others would do well to emulate. I’ll leave it to others to debate how far that praise is warranted. (If you read Swedish, this is a good place to start.) But I found myself thinking a great deal about the place of this mine in the wider Swedish economic and political context. The ore is both an economic commodity (a source of revenue) but also a geopolitical one, tied up with links to political developments abroad. Iron ore exports to Germany were sufficiently important that they made Narvik, the Norwegian port from where the majority of Kiruna’s ore is shipped, a vital strategic point in the Second World War.

In the first fifteen years or so of the mine’s existence a controversial question raged in Sweden: should the iron ore from Kiruna be exported to earn valuable income for the state treasury, or should it be kept in the ground so that Sweden could process the ore in addition to simply extracting it and selling it? Without coal resources of its own Sweden lacked the combination of iron and coal that made the Ruhr Valley such an industrial powerhouse. The choice was tied up with bigger questions such as whether it befitted a country with ambitions to status in the world to be an exporter of raw materials, whether hydropower could underpin alternative means of turning iron ore into steel, whether the state ought to exercise control over the ore fields in order to protect them from foreign exploitation, and whether foreign capital did more good than harm. In the paper here I’ve gone through those debates to explain how Sweden fell in love with iron ore exports. The answer, as in so many things, boils largely down to money: the revenue generated from iron ore exports proved a wonderful asset to political projects of various kinds, from defence spending to national insurance. (Though being a historian I’m obligated to say that of course it’s a bit more complicated than that.)

And I also want to give a plug to the Journal of Northern Studies. This is the second time I’ve published with them and I have nothing but praise for their winning combination of professionalism, friendliness, and open access. Please do keep them in mind if you have an article touching on the history of the circumpolar north.

Does Antarctica have a colonial history – or a postcolonial present? Exciting workshop ahoy!

In January 2008 I saw my dear friend Adrian Howkins deliver a presentation at the American Historical Association on Antarctic history within a framework of colonialism. He got a mixed response. We’re used to thinking of Antarctica as being subject to the waves of European imperialism, yes, but colonialism? Is the concept appropriate when you don’t have an Indigenous population? (Unless you count the penguins.) Can we think of residents of Antarctic stations as settlers in colonised lands? Is it possible to think of power over territory and resources without people as a form of colonialism? And if any of the above are true, did we enter a postcolonial moment in Antarctica at any point?

I’ve thought about these questions over the years and it turns out many of my colleagues have been too. Adrian was way ahead of the curve and continues to do excellent work linking the history of Antarctica with the broader history of British colonial and imperial history. (His book is great.) Alejandra Mancilla has really pushed the conversation forward recently through her project on political philosophy and Antarctica, which has brought a welcome focus on justice and power. We now think the time is ripe for a serious discussion of how colonialism and post colonialism relate to Antarctica. We aren’t against case studies, but we are keen to have submissions that really get to the big questions, and to get input from scholars who study colonialism and post colonialism rather than Antarctica. Here’s the call for papers. Please feel free to ask either Alejandra or myself if you have any questions!


Call for Papers: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Antarctica

December 3-4, 2020 at the University of Oslo

Does Antarctica have a colonial history? Has it entered a postcolonial present? And are those terms even appropriate for a continent without an Indigenous population, a continent that is paradigmatically represented as a space for science and peace that is exceptional to the processes governing the rest of the world? The aim of this workshop, sponsored by the projects “Political Philosophy Looks to Antarctica” and “Greening the Poles: Science, the Environment, and the Creation of the Modern Arctic and Antarctic”, is to critically explore these and related questions. The aim is to produce an edited volume that poses fundamental questions about how power has been exercised in Antarctica in the past – and how it continues to be exercised in the present – and about the analytic limits of colonialism and postcolonialism in Antarctica and beyond, in sites like the outer space or the deep seabed.

Our aim is to bring scholars of Antarctica and the polar regions into conversations with historians, philosophers, and geographers who study colonial and postcolonial processes elsewhere in the world. As such, we welcome submissions from scholars at all career stages who can speak to this topic. Our primary focus is on deeper conceptual issues related to the concepts of colonialism and postcolonialism in Antarctica and other spaces without Indigenous populations. Applicants should submit a 500-word abstract (max) with contact details to Oda Davanger (, no later than March 30. Successful applicants will be notified by April 20th. The workshop will consist of pre-circulated papers and applicants should be prepared to deliver a draft paper suitable for commentary and discussion (of c. 6000 words) by November 15. Travel funding is available for successful applicants.

“Political Philosophy Looks to Antarctica” is financed by the Polar Program of the Research Council of Norway. “Greening the Poles” is financed by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. [716211 – GRETPOL]). The workshop organizers are Associate Professor Alejandra Mancilla (University of Oslo, and Associate Professor Peder Roberts (University of Stavanger,

Trump’s idea to purchase Greenland: a backhanded compliment?

Donald Trump’s reported wish to buy Greenland has sparked contempt, amazement, and not a little anger in both Denmark and Greenland. The idea is transparently bizarre. The days of selling or trading people to the jurisdiction of another state without their consent are long gone. Times have changed since the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, the 1917 purchase of the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands), or even the 1946 offer to buy Greenland from Denmark.

What I find more interesting is the rejoinder from Greenland’s foreign minister, Lone Bagger, who said that “We are open for business, but we’re not for sale.” This is not a generic statement about the profits that await the brave capitalist, but a specific statement about the agency of the Greenlandic people to assert control over their economic as well as their political future. Greenland is not for sale because Greenland is not a commodity; Greenland is a community.

The effect of such a statement is to negate the kind of thinking that makes purchasing a swathe of Arctic territory (and its people) seem plausible in the first place. That language of commerce and business is often regarded as a sign of modernity being imposed upon a pre-modern space. And indeed, the mantra of the Arctic being newly “open for business” often irks me. It conjures images of a timeless, frozen space being brought into the modern, global economic system as its ice melts and its minerals and shipping lanes come into view. Being a historian, I find myself agreeing with those who wonder when the Arctic has not been open for business. Even if the term “business” is reserved for the Eurocentric model of commodity extraction and trade, it still has a multi-century history.

What Bagger’s statement does instead is to reposition the Arctic as the site of the marketplace and its residents as rights-holders. If the United States wants to avail itself of the value of Greenland, either in economic or military-strategic terms, then it has to work with the owners of that value in order to reach a mutually acceptable arrangement. This is perhaps also where things get more complicated. Control over subsurface minerals was one of the most contentious points in the negotiations leading up to home rule in 1979. Even under the 2009 self-rule agreement, Denmark retains veto rights over security-related issues. This has included the role of China as a commercial partner in infrastructure development, a point that perhaps parallels American and British concerns over the role of Huawei as a telecommunications provider.

The rhetoric of buying an entire political unit and its people is of course laughably old-fashioned. But the problem that Trump thought might be solved through such a purpose is perhaps a deeper one. Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently referred to the Arctic as “real estate,” and pointed to “aggressive behavior elsewhere” on the part of China to convey a sense of competition over control of strategically important territory.  Were the territory safely under control of a reliable and docile ally, the concern for its being taken or controlled by a rival state would presumably be obviated. I doubt the idea have been floated if Trump and his aides were confident that Denmark could continue to ensure that business in Greenland was done on the terms it wanted.

This leads me to a cheeky thought. Could one respond to Trump’s outlandish comment not by assuming he must not realize that people live on the island, but rather to wonder whether the capacity of those people for independent action is its source? And is floating a wish to buy Greenland a back-handed compliment to the success of Greenlanders in asserting their rights to potentially employ whoever they wish to aid in their economic development? Lone Bagger’s pithy response is a valuable reminder that Greenland is a participant in the global economic system, and that its government holds rights to determine the nature of that participation. That, rather than the military-strategic context or the price tag, is the biggest difference between 1946 and now.

What should we think about the starving polar bear?

This time with my excellent colleague Justiina Dahl as coauthor!


Images of a starving polar bear foraging through trash in a rather green northern Canadian landscape recently went viral. Paul Nicklen of Sea Legacy, who recorded the footage, placed the suffering of this individual bear in the wider context of climate change, “to convey a larger message about how a warming climate has deadly consequences.” Reporting soon became more cautious and the bear was even presented as evidence of how the media keeps getting the Arctic wrong.

There is some truth in both positions. Climate change is affecting sea ice levels, and will almost certainly affect traditional bear habitats for the worse. But what contemporary discussions tend to overlook is that polar bear populations were stressed well before climate change became recognized as an issue. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, signed by all countries that have polar bear populations, was a specific response to a sense that polar bear numbers were in retreat due to recreational human hunting. All this raises a bigger question. What is it about this animal that makes it so symbolically powerful, and how has this shaped its conservation?


From individual trophy hunting to international cooperation

Indigenous Arctic residents have long hunted polar bears. The long-term patterns of this subsistence hunt require a high degree of practical knowledge about polar bears and their ways – knowledge that comes from living in surviving in that same Arctic environment. Sport hunting, which was one of the more divisive questions when negotiating the 1973 Agreement, derives much of its appeal from the idea of conquest, the white person (usually but not always a man) who travels to a distant, exotic, and often inhospitable land and comes home with a trophy to prove his superiority. Much the same was true for those who worked in the Arctic and returned to their southern homes with a bear-skin souvenir.

Individual national governments started to impose their own bans on polar bear hunting from the late 1950s, motivated largely by evidence that populations were in decline. These motivations were later accompanied by a wider sense that the winds of public opinion were blowing green, symbolized by the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The 1973 Agreement did two things. Firstly, it committed its five national signatories to a program of practical action by preventing polar bear hunting with a small number of designated exceptions, and to collecting more data to enable sound management. Secondly, it used the bears as symbols of their of “common will and desire to protect the whole of the Arctic natural environment”, as Norwegian environment minister Tor Halvorsen put it in his opening address to the final negotiating session.

The Agreement proved broadly successful in protecting polar bears from human hunting, and in focusing attention on the ecosystems upon which their survival depended. It did not however lead spill over into larger-scale Arctic environmental cooperation between the five circumpolar states, something Norway in particular desired. In the revision meeting of the parties of the Agreement five years after its ratification in 1981, the Norwegians attempted to enlarge the treaty again. Part of the reason was the political situation in Svalbard. Indeed, Erik Lykke from the Norwegian government delegation confided to a Canadian diplomat during the meeting that his government wanted a multilateral approach to Arctic environmental management because it worried about the USSR isolating Norway in a bilateral agreement over the sensitive Svalbard archipelago.

It was only when Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev made a now-famous speech in Murmansk in 1987, calling for a de-escalation of tensions in the Arctic, that space opened for this larger-scale multilateral environmental cooperation. The concept of “charismatic megafauna” offers one explanation for why even though the Arctic states succeeded in multilaterally protecting the polar bear, it took nearly twenty years to achieve this desired spillover effect.


Charismatic megafauna

The history of the conservation of the polar bear is in many ways a classic example of charismatic megafauna – a term used to described animals whose combination of size, grandeur, and cultural resonance makes them ideal vehicles through which particular values or arguments can be advanced. Cultural resonance is not inherent in the animal: it is a human product that says at least as much about the people for whom the polar bear possesses meaning (and the culture they are part of) as it does about the bear itself. As a recent comment piece in Nature put it, charismatic megafauna are “large, interesting animals that the public — and donors — love.”

In the context of collective Western history with the polar bear, part of the emotional effect of the contemporary Nicklen footage comes from the incongruence of a majestic predator, king of an icy domain, being reduced to an emaciated bag of bones within a landscape defined by human presence (trash and a snowmobile). This is why Nicklen refers to polar bears as “unwitting mascots of climate change”, whose kingdom retreats with the sea ice. The conception of polar bears as vulnerable in turn relies upon a conception of humans as powerful. (This is perhaps why some at the 1981 meeting worried about the effect on public opinion in favor of bear protection if the bears caused too many human fatalities.) In relation to the success factors behind the polar bear treaty, we find it tempting also to wonder whether there is a parallel with the great whales.


The collapse of Antarctic numbers led to the collapse of the Antarctic whaling industry, and ultimately to an international moratorium on commercial hunting that was signed in 1982. In the process whalers have become demonized figures in many (though certainly not all) parts of the world, at the same times as that the whales themselves have ceased to be regarded as floating oil barrels and have even been regarded by some as possessing sentience. Banning whaling has proved much easier than banning the other activities that interfere with their habitats, from waste dumping to sonic pollution. In the same way, banning the commercial hunting of polar bears is far easier than addressing the underlying causes of anthropogenic climate change.


What should we make of the starving bear?

So what should we make of the starving bear? It’s clearly an image designed to evoke emotion, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that. Climate change is an important issue that will affect polar bears in general – even if this individual bear might have been suffering from cancer rather than being the victim of retreating sea ice. What is more problematic is trying to draw overarching conclusions on polar bears in particular and the role of humans in the Arctic in general based on a single uncertain albeit charismatic data point. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which had a leading role in the negotiations for the 1973 agreement, is cautious about making its assessment of polar bear populations appear “more reliable than it really is”, despite considerable effort invested in surveying their numbers. This attitude echoes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reluctance to make aggressively specific predictions. That’s not an attitude that seems to have much traction in the current political and cultural moment.

Northern Nations, Northern Natures: Workshop Report

On November 9-11 the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH hosted a workshop titled ‘Northern Nations, Northern Natures’, funded by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) and Formas. Eighteen scholars took part from Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

The aim of the workshop was to bring eight senior scholars working in northern environmental history – broadly construed – into conversation with ten graduate students and younger scholars, in order to share ideas and develop networks. Over the course of two and a half days the participants gave presentations on a range of topics, including the politics of fisheries management in the Barents Sea, the transplantation of muskoxen to Scandinavia, the commodification of iceberg water as a luxury product, the relationship of certain Inuit communities to forestry, and a great deal more.

In addition to provoking stimulating discussion (and not a few moments of genuine astonishment), the workshop raised some important questions about both the differences and similarities in various circumpolar environments. The diversity of experiences and opinions of indigenous peoples – as articulated by themselves as well as by others – was identified as an important issue, especially in relation to processes of modernization and industrialization. So too were the range of means by which states express claims to northern territories, from science to military occupation. Perhaps the most important theme running throughout the discussions was the breadth of material encompassed by the term ‘northern environmental history’, which participants agreed could function as a loose frame for all manner of interesting studies without the need to be exclusive or programmatic. The connections between polar and temperate regions (and even tropical regions, through the tentacles of the Danish colonial empire for instance) are clear from the age of European expansion right through to the concerns for global climate change in the present. Moreover, by emphasizing that nature can be constructed with particular national flavors – rather than being a foundational component of national identity – a more interesting take on the relationships between people and northern environments becomes possible.

The organizers of the workshop, Peder Roberts (KTH) and Tina Adcock (University of Maine), are extremely grateful to all the participants for a fascinating set of discussions and for an atmosphere of enthusiasm and goodwill throughout. Special thanks are also due to Sverker Sörlin, without whose guidance and efforts the workshop would not have been possible. A number of posts resulting from the workshop discussions will appear on The Otter, the NiCHE research blog and on the workshop’s website.

Science, geopolitics, and the global Cold War

Are you interested in the history of US nuclear testing in the Pacific? How about the Antarctic territorial dispute that once escalated into gunfire? The secret story of uranium prospecting in North Africa during the 1950s? Or the Cold War origins of the Global Environmental Monitoring Project? This coming Friday — July 26 — I’ll be part of the symposium Planet Earth, the Environment, and the Cold War, at the International Congress of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Manchester. These and many other topics will be covered in what promises to be a fascinating day. Here’s a link to the program.

My partner in organizing the symposium, Simone Turchetti, is principal investigator for the European Research Council project The Earth Under Surveillance: Climate Change, Geophysics, and the Cold War Legacy. Over the past few years Simone and the team have looked at how the geosciences developed in Europe and beyond, as aids to statecraft (through surveillance or intelligence-gathering) but also as forums for regional and eventually global cooperation. Studying the earth and its systems, the basis of the modern environmental sciences, could also be a means of shoring up strategic resource supplies and even detecting enemy military capability. The symposium will showcase some of the work we’ve done in the past few years while bringing in scholars with expertise from Eastern Europe, the Pacific, and yes — even the Antarctic.

We’re fortunate to have Jake Hamblin as commentator for the symposium. (If you haven’t got a copy of his excellent new book Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism you can rectify that here.) Along with John Krige, Ron Doel, and many others, Jake has done pioneering work on the political dimensions of United States military support for science after 1945, including on the international stage. You might also have seen his recent op-ed in the New York Times.