Road on Kola Peninsula, Russia, leading from Murmansk, Russia, to Kirkenes, Norway. Photo: Ninara
The Arctic is often portrayed as a pristine wilderness devoid of human traces, while human settlements and infrastructure are underrepresented. However, for the people living in the Arctic, infrastructure and settlements play a critical role. Northern residents have to cope with challenges specific to the North, such as the harsh climate, permafrost, as well as other issues brought on by remoteness. This paper gives an overview of the major themes discussed in the edited volume More than ‘Nature’ – Research on Infrastructure and Settlements in the North, which was published in July 2022. They encompass the impact of changes in the perception of nature on settlements, the link between different industries and the development of Arctic settlements and infrastructure, and a variety of infrastructural issues, all of which should be considered when preparing for the future of the region.
One major theme which runs through many of the contributions of the volume considers how changes in the perception of nature and the use of natural resources affect those living in the Arctic. The answers span from seeing nature as a frontier to conquer and as a resource to exploit, to paying greater attention to people’s impact on nature and viewing it as a place to live within. A number of contributions to the volume examine the development of Arctic settlements and the role of different prominent industries in the North, such as extractive industries and tourism. In planning or preparing for the future of the region, a wide range of topics emerge as important. Most critically and connected to future human security are infrastructural developments, such as sustainable energy, and preparations for potential challenges, such as space weather preparedness and maritime emergency response. Socially, societally, and culturally the way forward in such planning also needs to include considerations of the cultural identity, vitality, and flourishing of Indigenous peoples. All of these issues critically depend on the associated infrastructures.
Perceptions of Nature and the Use of Natural Resources
he perception of nature is a key factor when it comes to different approaches in dealing with one’s natural surroundings. Therefore, changing perceptions of nature are a major driver behind changes in ways of living in the Arctic. Such viewpoints span from a frontier to be conquered, with land that needs to be put to use and exploited as much as possible for its resources, to a more mindful notion, one that considers the effect of people on their environment while emphasizing sustainable coexistence with nature as a place to live in and with. In their contributions, Alla Bolotova and Gololobov explore the changing attitudes toward nature, in particular with regard to the linkages between ideology, the establishment of settlements, and legal and political environmental procedures and planning in the Soviet Union and Russia.
In the volume, Gololobov examines the industrial development of the Siberian North in the Soviet Union and the exploitation of its natural resources. After the wide-spread industrial development of the Siberian North, which began in the late 1930s with the establishment of the city of Norilsk and its copper and nickel plants, many political documents called for the development of these regions’ natural resources. Driven by the underlying core idea of “conquest of nature” or “attack on the North,” the industrialization of northern territories implied control over the natural environment as well as over its social aspects, including the dissemination of “city life.” This rapidly transformed the northern area of Western Siberia from a “wild” space into an industrialized region. Gololobov’s contribution follows the development of the idea of “nature protection” throughout the twentieth century. The rapidly developing oil and gas industry in the North quickly led to environmental problems, which resulted in lobbying for environmental protection and more legislation over time, however without adequate enforcement. To this day, the influence of local decision-makers on the regional environmental legislation and protection affecting them is still severely limited.
Also focusing on the Soviet Arctic, the chapter by Alla Bolotova assesses the relationship between the exploitation of natural resources and the associated Soviet ideology. She argues that the official rhetoric of the Soviet Union, of conquering nature and mastering the North, construed nature as hostile, empty, and meaningless, and therefore in need of human activities to fill it with rationality. Based on fieldwork in three industrial towns in the Murmansk Region – Kirovsk, Apatity, and Kovdor –, Bolotova explores the interactions of northern city dwellers with the environment in the planning and establishment of new mining towns throughout different historical periods. In the 1950s and 1960s, the North gained a more romanticized image as a challenging territory for self-realization and friendship, which shifted the motivation for new settlers to move to it. However, the reality of harsh nature often shocked the newly-arrived southerners. Nevertheless, over time, the settlers transformed an unfamiliar and seemingly hostile landscape into their own livable space, while also developing a strong emotional attachment and positive regard for their environment. Thus, Gololobov and Bolotova explore the perception of the environment and the consideration of measures for its protection and inclusion in the Soviet Union and later Russia. Both contributions show the shift from a more exploitative stance toward natural resources and the “conquest of the North,” to recognizing nature’s other values and benefits.
The uses of nature that are considered sustainable and environmentally friendly have also witnessed a shift, as Marco Eimermann and Benedict E. Singleton, and Doris Friedrich remark in their contributions focusing on Scandinavia. In her chapter, Friedrich assesses the impact of wolf-related conflicts on rural-urban relations in Trysil, Norway. The degree of urbanization, the place of residence, and direct experiences with wolves affect people’s attitudes towards wolves and wolf management. Different ideas about nature, predators, and the use of natural resources also contribute to entrenched and seemingly incompatible attitudes. A typical example would be the dispute over whether humans should eliminate animal species whose presence they consider inconvenient or disadvantageous and whether it is better that game animals are hunted and killed by non-human animals or by humans.
Due to the presence of wolves, people feel disturbed in their “traditional” uses of nature, which are often considered to encompass hunting, using forests as pasture for sheep, and berry and mushroom picking. For many locals, using nature as a resource in these ways is environmentally friendly and contributes to a sustainable lifestyle. This stands in contrast with forms of recreation that are associated with an “urban lifestyle,” such as wildlife viewing and using nature for sports and recreation, which are likely less impacted by the presence of wolves. As a result, wolves have become a contentious species that divides people and symbolizes the power struggles between rural and urban communities, lifestyles, and views of nature and the usage of resources.
Eimermann and Singleton analyze lifestyle migration related to dogsledding as nature-based integration in northern Sweden. Forestry, which was an important economic pillar for the community, has been supplemented by nature-based tourism, such as dogsledding. The “Gafsele Open” is a competitive dogsledding event and can be considered a shared local institution oriented around cohesive values regarding lifestyle and land use. Nature-based integration can bring diverse groups of people together through a shared vision of place and nature use. However, the authors highlight contrasting views of nature and nature use, along with those perceptions attached to dogsledding practices migrant mushers, tourism entrepreneurs, and the local Swedes. These perceptions may create friction and undermine the Gafsele Open’s community-creating potential. They further limit its beneficial impact on the demography of the region, whose population has been declining since the 1970s.
Different conceptions of nature-use can thus result in conflicts. These ideas influence interactions with nature in communities and the associated development of infrastructure and settlements. Keeping these conceptions in mind when navigating differences might contribute to alleviating conflicts and create better cooperation and coexistence.
Development of Arctic Settlements and the Role of Industry
A number of contributions examine the development of Arctic settlements and the role that different prominent industries in the North, such as oil and gas, tourism, and fisheries, play in this context. Alexandra Meyer focuses on the urban development and associated policies of Longyearbyen, the administrative capital of the Svalbard archipelago. The combined impacts of globalization and climate change have affected the development of the town, as have challenges in urban planning, including housing concerns. Longyearbyen was established as a “company town” for coal production. During the Cold War, the presence of Russians put pressure on Norway to constantly legitimize its sovereignty and the state increased its investments in Longyearbyen. As a result, the town was transformed into a “normal” town after the European coal industry crisis, which reduced the industry’s ability to economically maintain the community. Since then, the town’s identity has been under strong pressure between the international importance of Svalbard’s national policies and the needs of a growing number of local inhabitants working in a diversifying economy.
Annett Bartsch looks at the spatial patterns of growth and decline of two settlements in the Russian Arctic. She uses satellite data to investigate how human settlements, infrastructure, and the surrounding vegetation have changed over time. These transformations have depended on settlement and infrastructure uses including the exploitation of natural resources in the oil and gas and timber industries, the building of transport routes, as well as military, demographic, and economic developments. The changes brought about include modifications to the vegetation, such as general browning or greening of the area and the addition of more limited long-lasting vehicle tracks, which contribute to the melting of the underlying permafrost areas. Bartsch argues that climate change has a negligible effect on the magnitude of the greening or browning of vegetation surrounding the settlements as compared to economic growth and decline, the latter visibly enabling revegetation.
Dean B. Carson and Doris A. Carson apply an agent-based demographic model to explore demographic change at the settlement level in northern Sweden. The northern inland of the Swedish Arctic experienced a rapidly increasing demand for its natural resources along with substantial population growth in the first half of the twentieth century. However, by the 1960s, the boom ended and a long process of population decline started. Carson and Carson show how tourism, while a generator of local employment, can render the development of an area’s population volatile, and especially make the region more vulnerable to population loss. This bolsters previous research that suggests the fragility of Arctic tourism.
Birgitte Hoffmann, Kåre Hendriksen, and Ulrik Jørgensen analyze infrastructure systems from a socio-technical perspective based on two qualitative case studies from Upernavik and Qeqertarsuaq. They address the connection between the exploitation of natural resources and structural frames of exploitation in Greenland, which encompass settlements patterns and infrastructure, such as island operations – a series of small, geographically isolated communities that need to be self-sufficient. In Greenland, this relationship is influenced by external ideologies and societal trends that are not sufficiently connected to local conditions, which creates problematic technological and economic dynamics. In particular, changes stemming from a neo-liberal structural frame brought about the marketization of public infrastructure, leading to centralization, brain drain, and sectorization, namely the subdivision and reorganization of companies according to infrastructure sectors. As a result, due to infrastructural inadequacies some communities struggle to maintain livelihoods based on the resources surrounding them. This leaves natural subsistence and development potential untapped, the authors state.
Gertraud Illmeier and Natalia Krasnoshtanova investigate different types of roads and how they shape mobilities (or rather immobilities) and sociality in a small, remote community in Eastern Siberia with sparse and fragile transportation links to other places. They compare the implications of winter roads, oil-industry roads, and forest-industry roads and the associated experiences. These types of roads depend on different industries for their establishment, development, and maintenance. Illmeier and Krasnoshtanova reason that the opportunities for outward mobility of local inhabitants remain fragile, as some types of roads fail to meet people’s needs and precipitate various processes of injustice and exclusion. In this case, the dominant type of roads, those with industrial uses, impede subsistence activities, such as hunting, as well as access to forest resources through environmental degradation and the disturbance of animals by intensive industrial operations. In contrast, the community’s strong interest in the improvement of the winter road, which is the village’s most important connection to the outside world, is continuously ignored by companies.
These contributions show the important role of industries on the development of settlements and infrastructure in the Arctic. They all shape the expansion and decline of settlements, as well as impact which infrastructures are prioritized, all of which has an effect on the surrounding environment. Meanwhile, infrastructure and settlements also enable or hinder the economic potential of local industries and the use of natural resources and the mobility or immobility of locals.
Preparing for the Future
Planning or preparing for the future is essential for communities and organizations to thrive, especially in times of rapid change with potentially vast ramifications. It encompasses technical topics such as sustainable energy, space weather preparedness, and emergency response. These topics concern the very fundamentals of human security. No less important, however, is the cultural vitality of Indigenous peoples and reconciliation. All these issues are intricately connected and affected substantially by the associated infrastructures.
A. R. E. Taylor traces the emergence of the Arctic as a vital region for the generation of scientific data on “space weather.” Electromagnetic disturbances in the near-Earth space environment have emerged as a growing security threat to the critical infrastructures on which industrialized societies depend, potentially disrupting communication systems and the electronics of aircraft, and inducing destructive high-voltage surges that can cause damage to conducting material such as pipelines and power grids. As a host for strategic scientific infrastructure and equipment necessary for building up space weather preparedness, the Arctic becomes a “slow sentinel,” contributing to preparedness through the accumulated data collected about it. It has been positioned as central to the protection and security of communications infrastructure, which encourages investment in an increasingly internationalized Arctic.
The chapter by Martin Boucher and Joni Karjalainen discusses the future evolution of energy systems in three northern cities: Anchorage (Alaska, US), Saskatoon (Saskatchewan, Canada), and Luleå (Sweden). The authors examine anticipated developments, in particular those attributed to climate change, and socio-technical and infrastructural changes, which push for resilient and sustainable low-carbon energy alternatives. Analysis of interviews with experts and decision-makers on their views of near-term developments indicates a strong motivation to pursue solutions to climate change and energy security in the three cities.
Kathryn Schwaeble, Thomas Birkland, Marie Lowe, Martha Grabowski, Daniel Jimenez, Thomas Sharkey, and William Wallace address how the increased human maritime activity in the Alaskan Arctic results in a higher likelihood of accidents, emergencies, and disaster events. The specific conditions of many Arctic regions make emergency response particularly challenging. They point to the need for building upon existing infrastructure in coastal communities to support emergency response efforts, as well as for a coordinated institutional effort involving various governance levels of decision-makers.
Susanna Gartler, Joella Hogan, and Gertrude Saxinger examine the planning of a “Living Culture House” by the First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun in the village of Mayo in Yukon Territory, Canada, which has been strongly affected by settler colonialism and the expansion of extractive industries in the twentieth century. Gartler and her colleagues highlight the importance of a participatory, community-led planning process and the building of cultural infrastructure to overcome the colonial past, Indigenize the present, and foster cultural vitality, well-being, and self-determination.
The contributions to the edited volume More than ‘Nature’ – Research on Infrastructure and Settlements in the North present a colorful kaleidoscope of topics surrounding human settlements and infrastructure in the Arctic and examine how they are linked to nature. Part one of this article specifically focuses on the changing perceptions of nature and nature use by pointing out the implications for settlements and infrastructure. The contributions highlighted in this section show how the development of the perception of nature is linked to the establishment of settlements in the Arctic, legislation and policies on environmental protection, and people’s relation to nature.
Part two considers the connections between various industries and the development of settlements and infrastructure. Contributions look at Longyearbyen’s strategic role for the coal industry to its geopolitical importance today, the effect of the oil and gas industry on the vegetation surrounding two remote settlements in Siberia, tourism’s weak potential for demographic development in northern Sweden, how the lack of infrastructure in Greenland limits its natural resources’ potential as economic base for its inhabitants, and the disadvantageous effects of some industry-dependent infrastructures for the local population in Siberia.
Part three looks at some issues of relevance for the future of the Arctic, such as the possibilities for sustainable energy and associated infrastructures, the infrastructural needs for maritime emergency preparedness in Arctic Alaska, the role of Arctic-based infrastructure in generating data in preparation of possible electromagnetic disturbances, and how a “culture house” can contribute to cultural vitality and reconciliation in the Yukon Territory, Canada.