Laurence C. Smith
Review by Clive Tesar
This is an interesting book about the circumpolar world mostly because it is not solely a book about the circumpolar world. Smith, a geography professor from the University of California in Los Angeles, devotes the first portion of his book to global pressures and global consequences.
Demographic trends, climate change, natural resource demand, and globalisation are traced across the world, with their projected impacts to the year 2050. The picture that emerges is disturbing for much of the world – parched, overcrowded, chaotic and scorched.
When he gets to the Arctic, the picture ameliorates. An already water-rich area gains even more water (except in Canada’s south-central prairies and the Russian steppes). Crushingly cold winters ease off; it’s not always shirt-sleeve weather, but the successive weeks of minus 40 become a thing of the past. In addition, the north holds a pool of untapped oil and gas for which the rest of the world is increasingly thirsting.
Even the traditional lives of Indigenous peoples, who are seeing ice highways disappear and have to feed their reindeer herds because of changing forage conditions, are not all gloomy. Smith says when he went looking for climate impacts on coastal marine mammal hunters (mostly Inuit) what he found instead was that, “They are not sitting about idly in despair or gazing forlornly out at the unfamiliar sea. They are buying boats, and organising workshops, and setting about catching the fat salmon that are increasingly moving into their seas.”
While envisioning a relatively comfortable future for the peoples of the north, Smith predicts a more negative future for northern nature. Those ‘fat salmon’ he mentions are likely displacing existing northern species, or have moved in because other species have already moved to surroundings that better suit them – assuming any of those surroundings remain. There will be many losers in the natural world, especially those closely associated with sea ice. Having said that, the overall abundance of wildlife in the north may increase, as Smith says: “The ecology of the North is imperilled and changing. But it will be anything but lifeless.”
Smith does not reveal much about his feelings about the transformations he sees in the Arctic until nearly the end of the book where he says, “Many of the transformations I’ve presented in this book are negative, and those that are positive extract a toll someplace else.” In other words, northerners should not feel smug about their privileged place should the changes envisioned by Smith come to pass. Rather, they should reflect on whether their relative good fortune should come at the price of human misery elsewhere in the world, and the loss and transformation of their own natural world.
As Smith concludes, “No doubt we humans will survive anything, even if polar bears and Arctic cod do not ...To me, the more important question is not of capacity but of desire: What kind of world do we want?”