The Virtual Classroom


Norman Chance

In the case studies that follow, we will see how history is made by the active involvement and struggles of human beings. Although no universal laws of social development emerge, certain patterns do appear that are worthy of careful review. Most obvious are those linked to the historical unfolding of economic, social and political relations in the 19th and early 20th century between a rapidly industrializing world and indigenous peoples of the Circumpolar North.

Two distinct interpretations of these changing relations should be kept in mind as we undertake our comparative investigations. One, commonly associated with what has come to be called modernization theory , assumes that industrialization itself is a progressive force. Hence, societies already industrialized serve as a model for those who have not yet achieved this status; and by implication, 'undeveloped' ones now entering this arena must tread a similar path as those who came before - thereby reproducing the achievements of the former. Such a view is easily recognized far beyond the boundaries of the Circumpolar North since it has often been utilized by international development agencies such as the World Bank in their relations with governments in nonindustrialized countries, and by various national development agencies in their contacts with minority peoples at home.

However, in recent years such theories of modernization have come under increasing criticism by those who claim that its fundamental premise is false. Specifically, they reject the view that industrial capitalism developed separately from the rest of the world, emphasizing instead that it grew in conjunction with it. Continuing their analysis, they propose that beginning with industrial expansion, these 'undeveloped' nations became 'underdeveloped' in the sense that their increasing involvement with advanced industrial countries led to systematic relations of exploitation, organized by the latter for their own advantage. Thus, according to this 'world-systems' perspective, in most if not all instances, the growth of capitalism actually promoted the very underdevelopment which continues to characterize many countries today.

So too, although the lack of national boundaries separating culturally distinct, minority peoples within a given country make the circumstances quite different, a historical analysis of their changing economic situation suggests that similiar patterns have been at work here too. The economic and cultural decimation of indigenous North Americans in the 1800s brought on by disease, dislocation, and slaughter, along with the wholesale importation of western modes of cultural life, are often given as examples.

Of course, these economic, social and political relations between advantaged and disadvantaged peoples are not static. Indeed, they have varied greatly over the course of the past several centuries. For example, in Alaska, one contemporary illustration is the greatly expanded role of multinational petroleum corporations in shaping the state's economy following the discovery of arctic oil. Some of these corporations are so immense that they have revenues larger than the gross national product of a number of small nonindustrialized countries.

Conservationist critics concerned with environmental degradation frequently target the Alaskan operation of these conglomerates, accusing them of pursuing construction and maintenance practices on wildlife lands that are highly detrimental to the best interests of the public. Emphasizing that simple energy conservation measures such as improved auto fuel efficiency is a far more effective way to develop a sound energy policy, they conclude that the 'cost' in environmental damage is simply not worth the additional 'benefit' in oil production. Petroleum companies respond by stating that new technologies enable oil to be extracted without incurring the type of damage to the environment that occurred earlier. Industrial supporters, pointing to the large capital expenditures spent in the area, urge their continuance, implying that only by such endeavors will Alaskans be able to achieve long-term material prosperity.

Clearly, such debates fall within the mainstream of discussion regarding the best strategy for the sustainable development of the North's nonrenewable resources. It is grounded in the view that nature is a commodity among other commodities; to be protected as much as possible as long as it doesn't impede the achievement of material fulfillment or national defense. Underlying this message is the belief that once nature is subjugated, it becomes an object for human satisfaction. Furthermore, whatever problems emerge in the process of achieving this subjugation can be solved through the utilization of advanced science and technology. Science thus becomes the means of controlling nature for the material benefit of humankind.

Is there an alternative discourse to the one just presented? Yes there is, but it is so well concealed by the cultural and economic values associated with the professed ability of science and technology to solve our energy and environmental problems, and by the perceived separation of nature and society into two distinct realms, that one has to search diligently to find it. This is quite ironic for the essence of this alternative view has been around since the beginning of human history. Its fundamantal edict is that human beings are not distinct from nature but are a vital part of it. Indeed, one need go no further than indigenous northerners to find such a perspective expressed today - most frequently associated with issues of economic subsistence and cultural reaffirmation - although a consumer-oriented life-style has gained sufficient ground that its active expression is considerably more muted than in the past.

It is perhaps easy to disregard a perspective on the human condition that has such a small voice and limited ability to challenge a core assumption of industrial society. Yet the implications of such a step are highly significant. Industrial nations are already consuming a vastly disproportionate share of the world's natural resources. Even more will be depleted in an effort to clean up existing pollution. It is little wonder that questions are being raised as to the ecological limit of natural resource utilization by industry.

In summary, we can see that humankind today is faced with two immense problems, one pertaining to the formidable unequal distribution of productive wealth among the world's peoples, and the other, the ecological deterioration of the environment. In fact, as we will learn in the case studies, there is an inextricable bond between these two problems suggesting that efforts at their resolution require joint attention.

Addressing major questions such as these, involving as they do the whole of humanity and its future, are far beyond the scope of ArcticCircle. But that does not mean they should be set aside, for the initial step in solving large problems is to break them down into smaller, more manageable units in the context of particular historical circumstances. Once these elements are grasp more clearly, then the various parts can be rejoined and the whole issue looked at with greater understanding.

There is, of course, a potential danger in carrying out such an effort. One may focus so minutely on the parts that the larger picture is put aside and lost. Social scientists, for example, would be poorly advised to try and understand relations of political power in a given society without taking into account the economic resources of the area, how labor is organized to tap those resources, and the rights and obligations involved in their distribution and consumption. Thus, a key component in undertaking any social analysis is the study of connections. As will become obvious in the case studies, this holistic orientation is an essential ingredient helping us to understand how human beings have made their own history in the Arctic and Subarctic from their first arrival thousands of years ago to the present. A similar view was offered a decade ago by Robert Mulluk, an Inupiat Eskimo from Northwest Alaska:

"This is what we have to do. We have to look beyond the horizon because when you look into the horizon, you think that is the end - but it is not. You walk to that horizon again and there is another horizon. You can go all the way around the world in this manner. If we can look at it in that way, we will be better off. Otherwise, we will get too caught up in one simple thing, or one matter, or one problem. We have got to look at it from all angles."

Case Studies

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