Arctic History on the Edge of Greenland

The view from downtown Nuuk, by Stephen Bocking

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Downtown Nuuk

by Stephen Bocking

Last weekend we gathered in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, to consider past and future Arctic histories. The occasion was the Conference on Heritage and Change in the Arctic, brilliantly organized by Robert Thomsen and his colleagues at Aalborg University and the University of Greenland. Folks from Greenland, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Russia and Canada attended. Some spoke from decades of local experience; for others (including me) it was their first encounter with Greenland.

Nuuk’s situation between mountains and fjord provided spectacular scenery; chill winds, icebergs and the aurora borealis made the Arctic tangible. Everyone was wonderfully hospitable, and the University of Greenland provided a comfortable space. And Greenland’s land and waters fed us very well: everything from salmon to shrimp to scallops to whale, muskox, and reindeer.

The University of Greenland is somewhere around here
The University of Greenland is somewhere around here

Conference presentations presented many ideas about Greenland and the Arctic. The adventure of uncovering in the “wilderness” of northeast Greenland a long-occupied cultural landscape. Ideas and metaphors of nature in Greenlandic literature. The varied implications of history – colonization, climate, Christian missions and modernization – for Greenland. Contemporary relations between Greenland and Denmark, and negotiation of the meaning of self-government. Industrial heritage and its role in Greenland’s future.

Catching supper in Nuuk
Catching supper in Nuuk

Some presentations ranged beyond Greenland. Conservation of archaeological sites in northern Quebec. The relation between Arctic seafloor mapping and assertion of territorial claims. Myths and realities of the Arctic resource scramble. My own talk was about the history of Arctic science.

Where Nuuk began
Where Nuuk began

Three themes seemed especially prominent, at least to me. All relate to the dramatic changes now underway in Greenland and the Arctic. And all might be worth further discussion.

The melting Arctic.

Climate change will be transformative – for people, polar bears, and everything else accustomed to an ice-covered Arctic. But the notion that climate change is “opening up” a new resource frontier, by making mineral deposits and shipping routes more accessible, has a power all its own – and so should be examined more carefully. As has been the case in the past, so it is today: a host of political and economic imperatives are driving northern resource development. A kind of neo-environmental determinism, according to which climate change is said to be driving all development, hinders attention to these other imperatives.

Understanding Arctic development.

But if it’s not just climate change that’s driving development, what is? Conference discussions about current issues illustrated the complexities. The Greenland government has announced that it intends to end a 25 year moratorium on uranium mining. The leading site for a mine is in southern Greenland – unhappily, next to one of the few sites suitable for raising sheep and other livestock. The government sees revenue and jobs – and another step towards financial autonomy from Denmark. But many in Greenland are uneasy about both the risks, and the prospect of joining the global uranium economy.

The uranium mine is just one possibility. There are others: iron ore, rare earths, even rubies. (On the plane from Iceland I chatted with a journalist from The Telegraph, coming to Nuuk to do a story about Greenland’s mining future – it’s a new Klondike here, he told me.) But decisions about these mines seem wildly incomplete: local researchers showed at the conference how their environmental impact assessments (done by consultants from elsewhere) have failed to notice that landscapes near Nuuk are as rich in biodiversity and cultural history as in minerals.

Circumpolar comparisons.

It was interesting to learn about the many differences and similarities between Greenland and northern Canada:

– In both places a mixed economy has emerged: “modern” economic activities such as resource development, tourism, and public services, alongside a continuing role for country foods. Even in Nuuk – the biggest town in Greenland – many people still get much of their food from the countryside. I saw butchered seals on the back decks of houses, and in the fjord, a steady traffic of boats heading out to hunt; gunfire periodically echoed.

Nuuk's Backyard
Nuuk’s Backyard

– Both places are dealing with the challenges involved in dealing with big corporations eager to develop resources, while trying to respect existing environmental and cultural values. But those with experience in both countries say the development review process is much more extensive in Canada than in Greenland.

– Both Greenland and Canadian territories are also trying to work out the right balance between local governance and centralized administration, whether in Copenhagen or Ottawa. But these arrangements are also the product of very different national histories.

Together, these similarities and differences suggest there’s much opportunity for comparison between Canada and Greenland. Perhaps these comparisons could help expand the range of options available in public discussions in both countries.

These themes also indicate, I think, the value of an historical perspective on Arctic issues. As this

On the edge of the ice sheet
On the edge of the ice sheet

conference showed, serious discussion about Arctic futures should be based on an understanding of its past.

This article was originally posted on Stephen Bocking’s Environment, History, Science Blog.

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Stephen Bocking

Professor, Trent School of the Environment at Trent University
Professor of environmental history and policy in the Trent School of the Environment, Trent University. Teaches courses on environmental history, science and politics, and environmental issues in the Global South. His website is:

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