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Greening the Poles: Science, the Environment, and the Creation of the Modern Arctic and Antarctic

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - GRETPOL (Greening the Poles: Science, the Environment, and the Creation of the Modern Arctic and Antarctic)

Reporting period: 2021-08-01 to 2022-08-31

Greening the Poles: Science, the Environment, and the Creation of the Modern Arctic and Antarctic (GRETPOL) is a historical study of how humans perceptions of the polar regions have changed during the years 1945-1992. During the late 1940s the term 'environmental protection' was commonplace in American military thinking, referring to the need to protect fragile soldiers from the harsh Arctic environment. Yet by the early 1970s the idea of the 'fragile Arctic' had become widespread, with assumptions that delicate Arctic environments needed protection from tourists, hunters, and builders of infrastructure (particularly related to the oil industry). By the early 1990s the Antarctic had also undergone a shift from being a potentially attractive site for mining to a heavily regulated environment with strict regulations on the presence of non-Antarctic animals -- including humans. Why did these shifts take place? Part of the answer comes from natural scientific research in the biological and geophysical sciences, but social and political factors were equally important. Indigenous organizations and individuals asserted rights to determine what kind of activities took place on traditional homelands, challenging ideas of 'development' as an uncontroversially good thing. Public opinion began to mount against the hunting of polar animals, particularly polar bears. And banning mining in Antarctica -- but not creating a World Park -- allowed the member states of the Antarctic Treaty System to maintain their authority and in some causes (such as Australia) to shore up domestic political support.

The golden thread that runs through GRETPOL is that the kinds of actions deemed appropriate in polar spaces always reflect the anxieties and ambitions of particular historical contexts. That understanding in turn demands research across state boundaries, with the aim of transcending national versions of stories that are by their nature often international, such as the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears or the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources. By exploring how polar environments were defined and managed during the Cold War -- a period when interest in both polar regions was arguably at an all-time high -- our hope is to challenge ideas that environmental management flows primarily from natural scientific findings alone. Choices to regulate certain activities (like hunting or mining) or to regard particular actors (such as Indigenous groups) as relevant participants in decision-making processes were fundamentally political and social. At the mid-point of the project, the research team has already begun to develop new understandings of how and why particular agreements became possible at particular historical moments, bringing in diverse factors ranging from national economic structures through to military-strategic imperatives and changing public perceptions of risk and development. There is nothing inevitable or irreversible about such agreements. Like all events that make sense in particular historical moments, changing values and priorities in the future may well lead to different conceptions of what kinds of activities are warranted in the polar regions, and indeed in other environments.

GRETPOL succeeded in investigating how, when, and most importantly why the concept of the polar regions as fragile environments emerged during the second half of the twentieth century. The central hypothesis was confirmed, that this conception did not emerge simultaneously across time and space due to different social, political, and economic rather than environmental factors. A stronger version of the thesis is now argued -- that the fragility identified in the environments reflected the fragility of existing consensuses on who ought to control resources and territory, from claims to Indigenous rights to calls for global economic justice to include Antarctica. Moreover, a view of the polar regions as harsh and challenging environments for individual human visitors could coexist with a view of the environments (including even their human communities) as vulnerable and threatened.
The empirical backbone of the project is archival research. This has been conducted in Canada, the United States, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, France, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Russia, and New Zealand. Researchers have also conducted interviews and field visits in the United States and Russia. GRETPOL aims to go beyond nationally- or regionally-based histories -- something that has led to systematic underrepresentation of non-Anglophone actors in the history of the polar regions -- and so far the results have been positive. Significant differences based on specific national concerns can be discerned, but so too can larger forces that push even comparatively powerful states to regard environmental cooperation across boundaries as advantageous at political moments. The role of natural scientific findings is important but not decisive: polar bears were protected in part because their numbers and migrations became better understood, but also because tourist hunts became less socially acceptable and the power of the sealing industry to define polar bears as threats to their livelihood also decreased. Polar bear protection was also hoped by some (especially in Norway) to be a first step toward a large, multilateral Arctic environmental cooperation. This did not come about in large part because the USSR remained skeptical, and we have seen strong evidence that the vigorous attention given to Arctic environmental protection by Nordic states in the late 1980s was similarly due to Soviet attitudes -- which in this case were more positive. Again, although natural scientific results regarding persistent chemical pollution, renewable resource depletion and the like were important, the opening of a political space for such concerns to translate into regulatory action is perhaps the key point. GRETPOL team members have made particularly striking finds regarding the origins of the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities which will likely result in a dedicated book on this episode, which is very likely to become relevant in the future as speculation over mining has already resumed in earnest -- despite the moratorium lasting until at least 2048.
The effort put in to assembling archival material from such a diverse set of national sources will result in new historical understandings that go beyond linguistic barriers -- a problem that is common in histories of the polar regions, where Latin America and Japan in particular are systematically underrepresented. This is not simply a question of justice but also of producing more nuanced historical understanding. GRETPOL will thus provide better accounts of polar environmental management agreements than are available to date, and also to push for a more fundamental appreciation of how historically specific concerns have shaped the possibilities for reaching such agreements. This includes appreciation of how structural conditions such as colonialism have shaped conceptions natural environments. The keystone publications from the project are yet to be completed, but all are significantly advanced toward completion.

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