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The Imaginary Arctic

By Ashley Chappo

What is it about the Arctic that inspires such human flights of fancy?

For the past several hundred years, writers and artists have turned to the region in their work, creating fictional and imaginative realms vastly different from the true Arctic.

Perhaps the most well known of these daydreams was the tale told by Mary Shelley about a man-made monster, “gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” born from an unsanctioned scientific experiment and the subject of the widely popular novel Frankenstein. Shelley chose the Arctic as a backdrop for her horror story, with themes aided by its ice, snow, and starkness.

Her gothic novel begins by framing the story through the tale of explorer Captain Robert Walton, who ventures to the Arctic in pursuit of the North Pole. But along his journey, Walton first encounters a giant figure aboard a dog sled, followed by an emaciated, forlorn scientist named Victor Frankenstein, later revealed as the creator of the monster.

Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, at the height of exploration for the Northwest Passage and almost 40 years after explorers had first ventured beyond the Arctic Circle. But explorers would only reach the North Pole nearly 100 years later after multiple failed attempts.

At the time, the Arctic was still largely unknown in Europe and America, which led writers and artists like Shelley to imagine the Far North in ways that best captured its sense of wonder and mystery. Today, these fictional conceptualizations have lingered, transcending the human imagination and informing visions of an otherwise largely unknown region.

“Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has traveled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes,” writes Walton in a letter to his sister at the beginning of the novel. “Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid.”

In Shelley’s fictional realm, the Arctic becomes both the home to the monster but also, as evidenced by Walton, a paradisal region of pristine, untouched desires.

“I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight,” writes Walton. “There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour.”

In these creations, we witness Arctic mythmaking, in effect, the blossoming of human fantasies about a region known for its long periods of near-constant night or light.

Jack London constructs the same myth building in his famous novels, White Fang, published in 1906, and Call of the Wild, published in 1903, set in the Yukon Territory. In his case, London captures a violent human and animalistic struggle on what is seen as the world’s last frontier. But, even in his narratives the setting of the Arctic is given to extremes, presented as a largely untamed and otherworldly environment.

These Northern myths are even extended in literary fiction for young people. Take the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, published in 1995, or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, first published in 1950, both widely popularized by blockbuster movies for kids. In the book Northern Lights, the first in the His Dark Materials series for which Pullman won the Carnegie Medal, the primary character Lyra Belacqua ventures to the Arctic to rescue her friend Roger Parslow. In that story, the region is presented as an isolated, mystical place where evil roams in ungodly experiments, with people even riding armed polar bears. The Arctic in this story is magical, not real, just as it is in many fictional presentations.

The most volatile of these myths views the Arctic as a pristine environment, untouched by the outside world. This could not be further from the truth. Today, the Arctic, while beautiful, could hardly be called pristine. In fact, the Arctic has become home to some of the harshest effects of climate change and influences of pollution, including plastics.

When the Arctic Council was created in 1996 one of the founding purposes was environmental protection. In fact, the passage of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in Rovaneimi, Finland, in 1991 was the first non-binding environmental protection agreement among the eight Arctic nations, developed as the region’s leaders recognized the increased need for multilateral action in concert with international cooperation.

Back in 1991, the Arctic nations united around the call for increased cooperation, in part as a result of fears about the deteriorating Arctic environment. To begin with, there had been well-reported scientific evidence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals turning up in the Arctic, according to the Arctic Council. These POPs and metals were making their way into the food sources of indigenous people. There had also been reports that the Soviet Union had dumped radioactive materials in the region, as a consequence of limited regulation or rule setting in the region.

It was only in 1996 that the Arctic Council was declared a consensus forum to increase cooperation between the eight Arctic states with the inclusion of the regions indigenous peoples’ organizations. In this vein, five initiatives were created: the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna program; the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group; the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response working group; and the Sustainable Development and Utilization program.

Today, new efforts to address sustainable development and environmental protection are being made, such as the establishment of the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation in 2015 to assess increased cooperation in Arctic marine areas. Yet even as the Arctic Council takes well-intended steps in this direction, certain misconceptions about the Arctic region persist, leaving sustainable development and environmental progress stunted.

The view of the Arctic as a remote and untouched region, a concept that is accepted and even embraced by the unknowing, has provided a single-minded analysis of the region as a resource-rich, untapped zone. In fact, over 500,000 of the Arctic’s 4 million inhabitants are indigenous. Their ancestors have lived in the region and utilized its resources for centuries, and today these communities are dealing with major environmental changes. Given this reality, policy setting must be done with an emphasis on local, indigenous voices, not only through increased representation of the Permanent Participants at the Arctic Council, but also through increased local environmental observation.

Indigenous people of the Arctic have continued to express concerns that they are being excluded from multilateral environmental discussions within regional forums, such as the Arctic Council—a point that was raised at World Policy Institute’s jointly held Arctic workshop in Washington, D.C. Indigenous homelands are under increased pressure as the effects of climate change are felt in the Arctic region at alarming rates, threatening food sources and ways of life.

The idea that the Arctic needs to be tamed is introduced by literary tropes and reflected in myths that fail to include the original inhabitants of the region. A more profound effort to include and support indigenous people in the Arctic will lead to more productive action on environmental issues, with those who are most affected by climate change taking a leading role in combating its effects.

Permanent Participants—the status of indigenous peoples’ organizations in the Arctic Council—cannot currently vote when the Council makes decisions, as that right is limited to national governments. They are able to exert influence during the decision-making and policy-forming processes, but their role could be expanded. This would involve improving relationships with Arctic states, providing equal support for all six Permanent Participant organizations, and ultimately expanding the resources at their disposal. 

The Arctic will certainly continue to be a playground for humankind’s wildest imaginations, but we should all take note to dispel the fact from the fiction, at least when it comes to policy decisions.

*****

*****

Ashley Chappo is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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