Everyman’s Land

Interview by Julia Kidder / Photography by Shawn Dogimont

Arriving above the Arctic Circle feels like knocking on the door of a distant relative, as an estranged guest to an unfamiliar home. The settlement of Svalbard is still and small against the backdrop of white rounded waves of mountains—coaxed into existence by glacial forces. Just the word ‘polar’ lifts the imagination into dreamscape, that idea of blushing emerald electricity pulsating paint strokes in the air, the beauty of Aurora in a tug-of-war with time until the midnight sun takes over the sky, the light playing mind-games in the raw and alien winter landscape. Life in the small town of Longyearbyen exists separated with whatever wild possibilities lie just beyond the mountains, just beneath the ice—out to sea in all directions.

To know that the high Arctic is real at all, and not just a figment of our collective imagination, means facing a sensational assumption we make about our planet. We take for granted that the natural world, or rather ‘the wild’ will indefinitely include magical places that we cannot reach.  We would still like to imagine our planet in a state of unshakeable harmony where certain regions are reserved and off-limits, where the only legitimate residents are those who have always held a bond to remoteness, locals passing down intergenerational skills to help them adapt to these magnificent environments. That even the most distant ecosystems are out of balance is abstract and disturbing.

Svalbard, like most of the Arctic, does not fit easily into our broader consideration of ‘home’, and for that reason it can be hard to attract a protectiveness to this dwindling territory. This archipelago is closest of all land to the North Pole, 62,000 square kilometres of the high Arctic, where shifting glaciers and ice-fields have always defined transitory borders. This part of the Arctic is true Terra Nullius, its harsh remoteness making it incompatible with a specific indigenous population or permanent colonies and settlements.

Until recently, physically distant places and islands like Svalbard have been lawless places by default. Until the Svalbard treaty of 1920 granted sovereignty to Norway, European explorers never attempted to create permanent encampments or overwinter for the most part and groups of Dutch, Danish and British expedition teams came and went, mainly walrus hunters and whalers casually decimating marine mammals for oil and hides or seasonally exploiting the fisheries that may have existed alongside them. Here, that old ‘Man vs. Nature’ paradigm translates into a microcosm of resource exploitation, European guests looking so obviously like an invasive species.

When you’re in a Polar region, the outside world looks oddly foreign—modern resource management and the principles of extractionist economies seem so frightful, so harsh. The tenets of this type of exploitation and development are in ideological opposition to the enduring credo of the First Nations people living just South of the high arctic, in the circumpolar regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia. Habitat loss and the decline in iconic polar species is matched with the human experience of threatened Inuit people in Canada, Alaska and Greenland, the Saami of Scandinavia, and the Nenets, Khanty, Evenk and Chukchi of Northeastern Russia. These populations are constantly dealing with the threat that industrial powers and their projects pose to century-old cultures embedded with a sense of conservation and intergenerational responsibility for the environments that support them. Now, the geopolitical land-grab in the Arctic pushes the sovereignty of indigenous cultures further to the sidelines, disregarding demands for safe environments while bidding on new shipping routes opening up as the ice around the Northwest Passage and Bering Straight melts. Bullies and businessmen seem to enjoy this hamster wheel of destruction, but most of us would agree, it’s all very nasty and unpleasant stuff.

This is where the high Arctic weaves a storyteller’s quilt about the human condition and the consequences of un-curtailed exploitation of natural resources. To step foot in Svalbard feels vulnerable because it’s a place where we are stripped of our comforts and made human. The layers our identities are made up of—nationalism, cultural codes and race hold no bearing here. The Arctic reduces us to being just another species humbled by our dexterous insignificance in the face of greatness. As much as it is no-mans-land, it is every mans land. Nature reigns supreme here and whatever culturally engrained illusions of choice we have seem trivial. Where we have bought into it, we support the erroneous assumption that got us here in the first place; that we are separate from the natural world at all.

Being in this Arctic place, knowing how it’s changing and retreating makes it very obvious that the ‘rational’ desire to control nature in any place eventually effects all places as a result. As we master extractive processes to fuel even more efficient systems, we have treated the planet’s most iconic eco-systems and its species as our personal bank accounts. As climate change worsens it becomes clear that continuing full-speed, head-first into a brick wall of limits is ecological suicide, and that the biosphere doesn’t know or accept the human constructs of things like geopolitics or economic globalization. Right now Mother Nature’s credit line is up, we’re so in debt that as a species we are—quite literally speaking—on the verge of being disowned by our own mother.

It is said that we must control nature because it is a necessity for growth and development, but climate change and species loss exposes the need to constantly develop as an addiction more than a set of needs. It’s most obvious with our addiction to fossil fuels, but also in more local, case-by-case examples where we accept practices that are cruel and corrosive. The culling of wild animals that are already on the brink of extinction, mass denial of the eroding coastlines of the Pacific Islands, the boundless and foul bleaching of the coral reef, the oblivious determination to build more pipelines to bring oil and gas out of the ground at any cost. With the current onslaught of scientific data about climate change, arctic ice melt and feedback loops, we are bombarded with dire information and called to act, but haven’t had the chance to pause in silent self-reflection to really know how.

What makes Svalbard different, is that unlike other places we are grounded in and connected to, the polar region’s inhospitality to mankind leaves little room for sentimentality. As Gary Snyder puts it “Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.” For the world to truly feel grief and loss for an arctic home that was never theirs makes the project of addressing the climate crisis something of an existential trip. We don’t have time to properly grieve for degraded wilderness’ or for individual species when the rate of extinction and habitat loss accelerates the way it does. But now, way up here in this arctic desert unfit for most humans, scarce summer-ice turns out to mean a great deal more to every region of the planet, to all the places we do call home.

Grassroots environmentalism and champions of indigenous people are at the birthplace of a new and organized climate justice movement. Looking to this movement is more important now than ever and it replaces disenchantment with a sense of clarity on what to do next. These individuals, organizations, children, scientists, entrepreneurs and grandmothers are working in direct opposition to the sociopathic tendencies of the fossil-fuel industry, and now we can look to them for guidance. At the core of these new networks are frontline indigenous communities like the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, as they refuse to accept policies that do not honor their treaties, that bulldoze their ancestral land and threaten to pollute their drinking water. After hundreds of years of ongoing oppression, Native people and their allies from all over the world have been joining at the camp in Standing Rock, and demanding in prayer and peace that fossil fuels are left in the ground and that their water be protected. But what is remarkable about this, is that by way of protecting their own territories, they inherently protect distant, vulnerable places like the Arctic. These climate justice warriors are at the forefront of a new wave of conservancy efforts, lifting the changed face of an aging civil rights movement.

Catch phrases like: ‘Keep it in the ground’ mean that there can be no more pipeline projects, no more fracking, no more attempts to safely or cheaply exploit fossil fuels. The stability of regions like the Arctic are at the centre of these mobilizing chants because the feedback loops of a warming arctic will inevitably exacerbate social ills, conflict and mass migration. To accept this is to commit the poorest people on our planet to the status of ‘climate casualties’. Martin Luther King wisely said in his Letter From Birmingham City Jail, “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.” To join in acts of resistance against systems that are deplorable is vital to the establishment of rights, and it works.

Though the enemy of the environmental movement has always been our attention spans, we are finally thirsty enough to ask for help re-framing the climate crisis as something that cannot be solved using tired political processes. What we hear coming loud and clear from the front lines of the climate justice movement is that we are at a major fork in the road where: We can accept Trojan horse solutions heralded by those who profit from said crisis, or; we can choose bottom-up activism to fight against a manufactured illness and heal. This is the beauty of a social immune system at play, making it very clear that if government and industry will stop at nothing to keep destructively slow-moving policies entrenched and unquestioned, then the climate justice movement will stop at nothing to stand in their way.

In the light of April’s midnight sun, an animal is beckoned within us, and though we are not born or raised here, it’s our planetary home. When staring at skyscraper glaciers, or just imagining them—we cannot consider a future where the town closest to the North Pole is a warm and temperate place. But no use wasting melancholy on places that are fading away, being sad because the Arctic is changing, instead let us recognize that our twisting internal compass is there to remind us of our own impermanence in interconnected homes on an incredibly delicate planet. The eerie, unquestioned stillness of the Arctic is growing louder and louder, its force becoming blinding in the midnight sun. If we choose to attend, the stage has now been set for mankind’s greatest and most climatic act; one performed together like champions of destiny, as ambassadors of the thick and wild places that paint our fantasies and make us feel alive.