A major goal of this Virtual Classroom is to utilize the Internet and World Wide Web in actively exploring the social and environmental impacts of industrial societies on the Circumpolar North. Equally important is the opportunity to explore the range of human responses to these developments as they have been shaped by diverse histories, political economies, and cultural perspectives. However, as discussed in the Introduction, gaining this knowledge requires that considerable attention be given to the workings of the larger world system and the way its history is intertwined with that of the Arctic and Subarctic's original inhabitants.
The classroom itself is composed of a set of case studies dealing with specific issues faced by diverse groups at different times and places. The settings range from isolated northern villages and towns to urban executive suites of multinational corporations. In analyzing these case studies, viewers are encouraged to envision themselves as seminar participants addressing problems in different regions of the North. Such an approach has a number of benefits not the least of which is that it enables the viewer to learn how given events in one region are intimately linked to comparable forces present in other settings. In each instance, the specific problem chosen for investigation is linked to at least one of the three themes selected by the staff of Arctic Circle for particular attention: Natural Resources; History and Culture; Social Equity and Environmental Justice. In many instances, several are involved.
Other, more specific issues to be addressed include the following:
Contrasting Views of the Environment:This includes a comparative analysis of differing premises, ideologies, and approaches to nature, natural resource development, and environmental sustainability - including how they have been influenced by various factors, historical and contemporary.
Cultural Values and the tangibility/intangibility of 'nature:' While some environmental costs of development can be quantified, (e.g., pollution levels, new jobs, etc.) other costs relating to cultural or aesthetic values are largely intangible. How do governments, corporations, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and others evaluate the social costs of given development projects? Can a monetary cost be placed on cultural subsistence practices of an indigenous population -- or the aesthetic envisionment of a wilderness area? In planning development endeavors, can subjective environmental values be "objectified" through the political process?
Property Relations: What has been the impact of diferent forms of property ownership [e.g., common, private, communal, state] on human-environmental relations at critical historical junctures? Under what circumstances, if any, are certain forms most likely to assist in promoting policies of sustainable natural resource development for the people of the region as well as the larger society? Under what circumstances does common ownership of land and resources promote cooperation and collective involvement that can enhance the sustainability of the resources in question - as opposed to creating a "tragedy of the commons" situation in which overall responsibility for common or communally shared property is only minimally taken? What forms of resistance can be expected from local indigenous populations when their common or communal land is privatized or placed under state control?
The Equity Issue: The uneven distribution of costs and benefits stemming from natural resource development regularly raise questions of social and intergenerational equity. Thus, in any large scale development project, it is important to determine not only how are resource mangement decisions made, but who has the power to make them; and, finally, what is the overall impact of these decisions on the peoples and environments in the given location?
Sustainable Development: What are the differing premises underlying the various approaches to 'sustainable development?' In what ways do these differing premises influence the dual focus of the concept on (a) the limits which nature imposes on human beings; and (b), the potential for human social development that is contained within these limits?
In reviewing these case studies, the viewer will note that each one begins with an Introduction. This is followed by a statement of The Problem which raises key issues associated with the case. At the conclusion of this discussion are suggested References for Further Study - including those drawn from other locations on the World Wide Web. In several instances (of which the first case study is one example), a more in depth analysis of the topic in question can also be found in one of the three directories of ArcticCircle: Natural Resources; History and Culture; Social Equity and Environmental Justice. The last section of the case study contains The Assignment.
In tackling the problems associated with these case studies, participants will have the satisfaction of knowing that that they are exploring some of the most important issues affecting our time - including how to reconceptualize relationships between human societies and the natural environment in which we live. Hopefully, it will be an intellectual adventure worthy of your effort.
Finally, it should be mentioned that our virtual classroom is presently being implemented on an experimental basis at several colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, and northern Europe. We at Arctic Circle want to emphasize that in such contexts, our virtual classroom should always be seen as a supplement to existing educational endeavors, not a replacement for them. Computer-based education in which students isolated from one another derive most of their knowledge from a monitor, is always a diminutive form of learning.