Stories about the Arctic have snowballed across popular media in recent years. Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes collide with headlines drumming up prospects for Arctic oil. Reports of another historical low in sea ice combine with requiems for the timelessness of a frozen land. Scientists, bureaucrats, journalists, and environmental activists around the world have turned their gaze northward to track how globalization and climate change are reshaping our planet. For these observers, the transformations taking place in the Arctic today render it a “New North.”
Suspend judgment about the likelihood of any Arctic future and consider the phrase “New North.” Like the larger arguments in which it is enrolled, “New North” packs its rhetorical punch not simply by compiling the facts of contemporary Arctic matters, but by arranging them in relation to the historical record. For its full effect, the New North requires an Old North that is a remote and unchanging place, one that has been shielded from civilization until this very moment. Tales of the “New North” are thus much more than they seem. Beyond calls for global environmental action, or prophecies of geopolitical conflict and economic opportunity, they are historical narratives. They tell of the coming of history and, in doing so, imply the Arctic has not yet known history.
Unfreezing the Arctic turns this discourse on its head. I argue that the processes at the heart of the “New North”—scientific exploration, resource extraction, environmental change, and governmental intervention—have been at work in the far north for generations. Positioning the Arctic as only just now experiencing the effects of industrial society thus perpetuates a paradox in which colonialism’s northern history is both concealed and repeated. This book demonstrates, then, that while the Arctic is warming, an equally pressing problem is how we think about that place. We need to unfreeze our fixed notions of the north as a land before time to see the moral and ethical dimensions of global change. The seemingly unprecedented situation playing out across the top of the world today is better understood as the most recent of many attempts to understand, exploit, and control the region.