Northern (En)Light(enment) April 09, 2014 17:11
Polar Bears. A frozen wasteland. Uninhabited. These are often used to describe the Arctic.
A rapidly changing environment. Resource extraction. Pollution. Increasing incidences of disease. Human trafficking. These are merely some of the issues that come to mind when we think of the Arctic.
“There will always be two blocks: nature as it is, and the variable representations we make of it.” - Bruno Latour, The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy
Aspiring young Arctic researchers are few and far between, so it was no wonder that we were excited to first find each other on social media and eventually meet each other at a conference in Kingston, Ontario a few weeks ago - an Arctic Feminist Legal Studies conference at that! So here we were, two young women trying to make it in a field that is primarily dominated by older men oftentimes hailing from the energy sector, the government or the military. How did we end up sitting across from each other talking about two different aspects of the Arctic, one of us specializing in environmental governance and the other in health?
Coincidentally, both of us started our journeys with papers on Arctic security during our final year of university. From Russia dropping its flag at the bottom of the North Pole to “a race for the resources”, the media hype that we’re often bombarded with was nicely reflected. It wasn’t until Rachel began a research assistantship on Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in young Inuit infants with the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation (3CI) and I moved ever so slightly above the Arctic Circle to Northern Finland to delve into research on the governance of pollutants and indigenous property systems in the Arctic, that we truly grasped the complex nature of the Circumpolar North.
The Arctic is like a crystal ball: it is a glimpse of what is to come. Environmental change in the North is far outstripping the rest of the world and while this is systemic in nature, it has very real consequences for local communities. The same current that brings warmer weather to the North brings pollutants across invisible borders to a land that was once pristine and untouched. The consequences incurred are clearly not bound to only the people within a single region. So, why should our view of nature be trapped within these invisible lines?
Once you liberate yourself from such bounded definitions, you realize that the story becomes quite different. In speaking of the Arctic, there is a general tendency to focus on nature, oftentimes forgetting the people who live there. While living in Finland, it was the people that I encountered who changed my perspective. It’s when you befriend locals who are lawyers by day and reindeer herders by night, anthropology professors who spend their time living with indigenous communities in Siberia, or university students at the closest bar that you begin to have conversations about the physical and social environment that you are in. And across the pond in Canada, for Rachel, it was realizing that health, just like nature, has many different interpretations, and decision-making cannot move forward without it being lead by the voices of northern residents, so that the policies touch people, not just paper. So while some may be hustling to develop and extract resources in the North, others are hard at work in trying to preserve and appropriately adapt to the changes that are, and will continue to take place. In fact, the Arctic is often heralded as a model of cooperation initiated under the auspices of the environment, not security.
Yet, raised south of the Arctic Circle, who are we to speak of these things? Sitting face-to-face, reflecting on where we fit into this massive puzzle that encompasses eight nations, we have traced our passion for the Arctic all the way back to St. Margarets Bay, Nova Scotia, where it turns out both of us grew up down the street from one another. While we have taken our own paths to get to this cross-road, we’ve realized what a single conversation can do: it can make you realize that there are other people in this world who are passionate about the same things as you and oh, the things that can be fostered when two heads are put together, instead of just one. There is so much to be learned. To speak of the Arctic is to speak of many things.
It is actually happening. In real time. With real people. And a real environment.
Tahnee Prior. Tahnee is pursuing her Ph.D. in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, Canada. When she’s not trapped under a pile of books reading about complex social-ecological systems, environmental law and the Arctic, you can find her bouncing between dance parties or on a snowy adventure.
Rachel Kohut. If you ever start a conversation with Rachel, it will more than likely end up being about Canada’s position in the circumpolar world, reproductive health of Canadian women or how she has a hard time pinpointing a hometown having grown up in various cities across the country. She currently assists the Arctic Institute with all things pertaining to her beloved Canada and is looking forward to starting McGill Law in September.