Representing Northern Environmental Histories

Downtown Christmas lights, Stockholm. Photo: J. Luedee

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by Jonathan Luedee

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of Stockholm’s central station was the position of the sun in the sky. It was only slightly after noon in Sweden (though my own internal clock was trapped somewhere between Vancouver’s Pacific Time Zone and the Central European Time Zone), but the sun was sitting dangerously close to the horizon. By the time I found the hotel I’d be staying at while participating in the Northern Nations, Northern Natures environmental history workshop at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), the northern sky over Stockholm was almost dark.

Bikable city; Photo: Jonathan Luedee.
Bikable city; Photo: Jonathan Luedee.

The N4 workshop, which was expertly planned and run by Tina Adcock (University of Maine) and Peder Roberts (KTH), brought together a diverse group of scholars with a shared interest in the history of human-environment interaction in the circumpolar North. A broad range of themes and issues emerged over the course of the workshop. But despite the diversity of methodological approaches represented at the table, the conversations were coherent, insightful, and challenging. From my perspective as a doctoral student who is about to begin research, the conversations spurred by the papers presented at N4 generated much enthusiasm and excitement.

Stockholm, birds eye view. Photo: Jonathan Luedee
Stockholm, birds eye view. Photo: Jonathan Luedee

The workshop forced me to think creatively and critically about my own doctoral work. My dissertation, which explores the environmental history of the transboundary western Arctic, focuses on the history of human interaction with migratory barren-ground caribou. I am particularly interested in thinking through the usefulness of comparative and transnational approaches to environmental history in the Arctic. In my dissertation I will consider the ways that the border between Canada and the Yukon impacted human interaction with migratory caribou herds. How has the border mattered? What new dynamics has the border inserted into the migration of caribou herds in the western Arctic? How have Indigenous peoples and the state (U.S. and Canada) dealt with the international border in the western Arctic? In addressing these historical questions, I hope to make a timely intervention in debates concerning the future of northern resource extraction and wildlife conservation.

At the N4 workshop, I had many opportunities to discuss these questions with scholars who were addressing some of the same issues but in different national and environmental contexts. As I spoke with people and listened to the different papers, I was intrigued by the rich regional and geographic variation being described. But I was also struck by the comparative possibilities that arose: Kirsten Thisted’s examination of Indigeneity in Greenland, Tina Loo’s discussion of state attempts to sustain populations in Canada’s harsh northern environments, and Isabel Lemus-Lauzon’s use of historical ecology to explore the dynamic relationship between the Inuit of Nain and the forested landscape (not to mention all of the other fascinating papers delivered); each resonated deeply as I thought through the directions I will take in my own doctoral research.

At N4, I presented a paper on the history of photographic representations of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in which I argued that a prevailing dichotomy between the North as a “wasteland” and the North as “pristine wilderness” has dominated the visual politics of ANWR. This dichotomy was made explicit in the prolonged Congressional debate over oil and gas exploration within ANWR on Alaska’s North Slope. On 19 March 2003, Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, stood on the floor of the Senate and spoke about her concerns over proposed legislation that would have allowed drilling within ANWR. She had drafted and submitted an amendment to the legislation that, if passed, would strike any provisions for drilling within ANWR from the bill being debated. Boxer spoke passionately about the national importance of protecting ANWR’s natural beauty. But she didn’t rely on the persuasiveness of her argument alone; throughout the debate she illustrated her argument with images produced by some of the most popular landscape and wildlife photographers to have turned their lenses on Alaska’s North Slope. While displaying images that showed polar bears hunting on the Arctic ice, the coastal plain dotted with migratory barren-ground caribou, and colourful Arctic wildflowers, Boxer implored her colleagues to grasp what was at stake in the debate: “This is the alternative: drilling in these god-given areas…We’re talking about a place that look like this.”[1]

Stockholm Looking for VASA
Looking for VASA, Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Luedee

Boxer’s use of visual imagery in the debate countered a representational technique employed by proponents of oil and gas development. Alaskan Republican Senator Frank Murkowski demonstrated this technique in a Senate debate in 2001. With an oil-friendly president in the White House – and widespread demand to increase domestic oil production – many Congressional Republicans thought the time was right to open ANWR. During a Senate debate in January, he held up a blank sheet of white paper and claimed that it was an accurate representation of ANWR during the winter: nothing but “snow and ice.” [2] His brazen tactic suggested that opponents of drilling in ANWR were clamoring to protect a frozen wasteland. When Barbara Boxer displayed the images of Arctic wildlife for her colleagues in the Senate, she directly challenged the rhetoric that was so prevalent among proponents of opening ANWR to oil and gas exploration. I argued that it is important to ask: what is obscured when this dichotomy dominates discussions of northern landscapes?

The gulf between these two forms of representation is not always so wide. Notions of northern “wilderness” and northern “wastelands” tend to dehumanize Arctic landscapes. Of course, not all photographers who have worked in the western Arctic have drawn a rigid line between nature and culture. Wildlife photographer Subhankar Banerjee has thought through the implications of such representations and, through his work with communities in the

State Museum, Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Luedee
State Museum, Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Luedee

North, has come to understand the deep entanglement of nature and culture.[3] But still, this conceptualization of the North has historical roots and it continues to influence the ways in which people think about the Arctic. Throughout the workshop, I was reminded of the necessity of engaging with the historical connections between humans, animals, and Arctic landscapes. But, more importantly, our collective discussion of borders and boundaries encouraged me to think about how I will question and challenge the dominance of those socially constructed binaries in my own work.

I would like to extend my thanks to Tina and Peder for organizing this tremendously successful workshop, to all the participants for a weekend of thoughtful and engaging conversation, and to the city of Stockholm for being such a charming place to wander around with nothing more than a tourist map and a camera.

[1] CSPAN: March 19, 2003. Accessed online on 20 September 2013 See also Finis Dunaway, “Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” American Quarterly 58 1 (2006): 159-180.

[2] Terry McCarthy, “War Over Arctic Oil.” Time Magazine, International Edition 157, 7 (2001).

[3] Subhankar Banerjee, ed., Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012): 1-23.

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Jonathan Luedee

Jonathan is a PhD student in geography at the University of British Columbia. In addition to his work on caribou conservation and science, he also has an interest in photography – its history and potential as a method in environmental history.

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