"Policy makers and citizens alike look to the social sciences to explain social phenomena, draw lessons from history about the resultant problems, and develop policy options to come to terms with them. Social scientists in turn, look to regions such as the Arctic, as testing grounds for theories and as natural laboratories in which to evaluate innovative programs and policy responses. Thus, the Arctic may contribute to our understanding of such contemporary global issues as the collapse of the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the progressive degradation of ecosystems around the world, and the persistence of racism in many societies."

Arctic Contributions to Social Science and Public Policy, U. S. National Research Council [1993]


Sustainability, Equity, and Environmental Protection

Norman Chance

In recent years, scientists have become increasingly concerned over damage to the arctic environment caused by petroleum, hydroelectric, mining, and other large-scale development projects. Additional apprehensions are expressed as the Circumpolar North becomes a major depository for organic pollutants and heavy metals derived from sources both within and outside the Arctic. Thinning of the ozone layer with a corresponding increase in ultra-violet radiation is expected to have significant effects on biological organisms in the region, which in turn, will promote further disturbance in the atmosphere. The impact of human activities encourages melting of the northern permafrost, thereby creating the potential for destroying large portions of tundra ecosystems. Risks associated with the release of radionuclides into the environment have also multiplied, of which extensive military dumping of nuclear wastes into the Arctic Ocean is but one example.

While the most dramatic evidence of environmental devastation and rising health problems is found in the Russian north, serious threats are by no means confined to that area alone. Nor are the negative effects limited to the borders of the countries in which they originated. Indeed, the deleterious ecological impact of our global industrial economy has become sufficiently profound that growing numbers of policy-makers are beginning to ask whether existing natural resource development strategies causing such harm to the Arctic should continue, and if not, what should take their place.

Apprehension over this environmental damage extends well beyond the policy-making communities. In Russia during the 1980s, extensive public discussion and protest followed new scientific reports addressing the overwhelmingly negative ecological impact of industrial development on the land and peoples of Siberia, the Far East, and other regions of the former Soviet Union. Popular pressure was also influential in bringing about the cancellation of the large-scale hydroelectric project in the Chukchi Autonomous Okrug and postponement of the massive gas development in Yamal Peninsula in Northwest Siberia.

Dumping of trash by construction workers on the tundra of Yamal Peninsula

In Alaska, similar protests resulted from the massive oil development at Prudhoe Bay which destroyed thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, caused declines in wildlife populations, and left hundreds of open pits containing millions of gallons of oil industry waste. The concern was of sufficient magnitude that it led the director of the federal agency regulating the TransAlaska pipeline to warn in a 1993 Congressional subcommittee hearing of a potentially disasterous accident stemming from a disregard for safety regulations, poor management, and "...a repressive atmosphere at Alyeska [pipeline company] that punished or intimidated those who are aware of problems or try to shed light on them for corrective action."

These problems have stimulated in the U.S. an extensive debate over wilderness preservation versus the proposed exploration of petroleum deposits on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Discovery of a small oil field in the Beaufort Sea adjacent to the Wildlife Refuge has raised further questions about the dangers of offshore oil drilling under fragile Arctic conditions.

So too in Canada, and particularly in the region surrounding Hudson Bay, efforts to dramatically expand hydro-electric power projects are facing challenges from opposing parties who perceive such developments as highly detrimental to the flora and fauna of this subarctic region. In Greenland and Scandinavian Lapland, comparable debates are occurring over what constitutes proper utilization of natural resources in these areas.

A second issue, less thoroughly analyzed but also of vital importance, concerns the environmental and social impact of natural resource development on northern indigenous peoples and their response. A long history of land usurpation and environmental injustice has left these populations and their subsistence economies highly vulnerable to human rights abuse. Particularly acute has been the impact of assimilationist policies of North American and European governments which for years denigrated native language and culture, eventually culminating in a substantial loss of cultural diversity as well as ecosystem integrity. As for the nonrenewable resource value contained in their land, by far the largest portion has been appropriated by regional and federal governments to be used by these entities or made available to private or state corporations that extracted its resources. In many instances, relatively little if any of its wealth has been directly returned to improve the economic and social well-being of the people from whence it came.

In a recent effort to address these twin problems of environmental degradation and social inequity, the ministerial representatives of the eight arctic-rim countries sat down and discussed the need for an Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. At the close of the meeting, it was agreed that all would cooperate in ensuring"...the protection of the Arctic environment and its sustainable and equitable development, while protecting the cultures of indigenous peoples." It must be acknowledged, however, that although this initial effort at mulilateral cooperation produced a number of positive recommendations including observer status for indigenous non- governmental organizations and scientific monitoring of changing environmental conditions, the delegates were unwilling to address problems associated with the utilization of the Arctic's natural resources or the environmental effects of military activities - both topics perceived by key participants as being too politically sensitive for international discussion, let alone collective response.

It appears, therefore, that while environmental threats to the northern ecosystem and its peoples continue to grow, competing economic and political interests, along with conflicting ideological and cultural outlooks, seriously hamper additional multilateral activity. On the other hand, if the constraints are reduced, more effective national and international efforts can be expected. Under the circumstances, deepening our grasp of these constraints becomes an important first step.


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