Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, does anyone care when a rocket crashes in the Arctic?
Russia plans to ditch a launch stage of a satellite rocket into the North Water Polynya on Saturday June 4 violate both state sovereignty and the integrity of Inuit residents who depend on the resources of this environmentally-sensitive area for their livelihoods. North Water, a 19th century whaling name for the sea area between Greenland and Ellesmere Island in the northern reaches of Baffin Bay, is kept open by wind and currents year round. A rich fishing area, currents take any pollutants south along Devon Island into Lancaster Sound.
The assumption appears to be that this is not only an “empty” wilderness but a no-man’s-land, terra nullis. Worse is the assumption that no one and nothing will be damaged, and that no one cares. This is what I have called a reduction of the ecosystem to “Bare Nature”, ethically without value and consequences to which we have a reigning “non-relation”/ Although the hydrazine fuel degrades, it is toxic.
“If Canada was launching a rocket and some of it was going to be landing in the Russian Federation,. you can imagine what kind of reaction we’d have there. The Government of Canada should be defending out territorial integrity” (Paul Crowley, World Wildlife Fund Arctic Program quoted in The Globe and Mail Sat. 4 June 2016 p. A14).
Rape by rocket, however, is indicative of the attitudes of non-residents, ‘southerners’, to the Arctic. The region has been treated as an inconsequential ‘sink’ for global pollution and a margin of global disrespect for the environment. This is in part a counterpart to the romantic attitudes toward the Arctic that developed in the 19th century period of European imperialism and a search for a Northwest Passage from Atlantic to Pacific — Baffin Strait to the Bering Sea.
A further irony is that the Arctic is so poorly served by communications, satellite programs notwithstanding. This summer will see further increased in shipping through the Northwest Passage. Many countries regard this as international waters despite its proximity to the northern coastline of mainland Canada. The result may become a free-for-all, as commercial interests including fishing begin to access these waters during ice-free summer months despite the lack of navigational aids. There is almost no search and rescue capacity, which is a risk to the rising numbers of tourist cruises, now carrying tens of thousands annually.
This contradictory spatialisation in which the Arctic is exoticised as an adventure margin for tourists while being relegated to the null status of a nowher aof blankness, absence and emptiness is a serious flaw in the spatialisation of the globe as a context for human action and activity. Both positions do not truly engage with the concrete reality of the North but indulge in an abstract metropolitan imaginary in which the region virtually becomes a kind of non-place. Rockets are dumped in regions not out of necessity but because they are thought to be empty in the ideological understandings of ill-informed people whose parochial geographies and politics leads the world to crisis.
Rob Shields (University of Alberta)