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Interspecies Ethics of Care in Arctic Geopolitics

7 April 2022
Image by Robert Anthony Carbone (via Pexels).
Image by Robert Anthony Carbone (via Pexels).

By Anna Soer

The Arctic Council, established in 1996, posits sustainability as a core principle around which policies and practices are constructed. Sustainability is not only a matter of environmental protection but also a matter of social protection: an ethics of care from communities to communities, from individuals to individuals, from country to country, and from humankind to non-humankind. And yet, regional development is forever torn between this need for sustainability and the economic need of some to continue with unsustainable practices such as intensive fishing or oil drilling. To this effect, Russia and the local Indigenous peoples recently had to pay a heavy ecological price after the Norilsk oil spill. In this ecological price, the voices of the non-human life seemed to be absent or spun around human interests: the interview by Greenpeace [hyperlinked above] highlighted, for instance, the river as a “supermarket” and the fish as a “resource” for local Indigenous communities of the affected region of the Taimyr Krasnoyarsk Territory in Russia (Vikulova, 2020). So, what does it mean for geopolitical scholars and policymakers to understand sustainability in the Arctic from a wildlife ethics point of view?

Interspecies political ethics addresses a flaw of current conversations around development and ecology: sustainability cannot only depend on humans (see Eckersley, 1992). Decentering geopolitics from a solely human point of view and interest is a matter of sustainable survival during this climate crisis: to prepare for a world where there is no ‘post’-climate crisis comes through a shifting of our positions within our diverse and complex societies. Keeping this in mind, where we define the political understanding of animal-hood through the agency we attach to our idea of the animal either as an individual or as a representative; how we define humanhood is how we situate ourselves within the physical and symbolic worlds. These understandings shape how development and sustainability are understood. Our performance as a species, what we determine to be human and non-human, and how we delineate those categories, is therefore intrinsic to our performance as sovereign entities, from individuality to statehood to regionality, from personal to collective politics. If this collective approach includes the more-than-human in effective ways, what is understood by sustainability will be decentered and no longer only depend on human interests.

Image by Magda Ehlers (via Pexels).

How we choose to situate ourselves ecologically is a direct political strategy of reputation for individuals but also larger entities such as states and institutions (Adkin, 2016; DeLuca, 2005). The power imbalance between our international political and economic structures catered to our sole human-species interests on the one hand, and non-human life forms being at the mercy of human actions on the other hand, halts the possibility of ‘thinking with’ non-human life forms, according to Eva Meijer (2019). The few examples of non-humans, such as rivers, being granted legal personhood (Clark et al., s. d.; Gordon, 2018; O’Donnell & Talbot-Jones, 2018) do not address the underlying logical fallacy here: instead of addressing why non-human life forms must conform to human structure, why can human-made structures not conform to non-human life forms structures?

To achieve sustainability, it is not enough to ‘include’ the interests of other life forms within our priorities and interests. There needs to be an engagement in reshaping the place of humanhood within the physical and symbolic worlds. Otherwise, non-human life forms will continue to depend on humanity for their survival. One example of this hijacking of ecological interests for the purpose of human-centered-development is greenwashing – and its sibling green colonialism. The Arctic Council for instance highlights its commitment to safeguarding the environment and puts the voices of Indigenous communities as key in their mandate. Yet, their members don’t appear to always uphold those same standards: The windfarms constructions in Nordland, Norway, harming reindeer herds and their Sami herders, and the 2016 Canadian oil and gas moratorium in Arctic waters imposed without consultation of Inuit communities, are two examples of where so-called sustainable development takes on the shape of colonialism to impose development trajectories without considering the voices of those impacted (Normann, 2021). Sustainable development in those cases reinforces the power imbalance both within human societies and between human and non-human societies.  Sustainable development here becomes a greenwashed way to say colonialism, whereby reindeer herder and hunter voices are not listened to (Banerjee, 2003; Parson & Ray, 2018).

The fairytales of eternal growth, from continued traditional extractivist capitalism to ‘ecological technology’ are not only economic in nature, but reflect the political power game as well: concepts such as sustainability and growth are emptied of their revolutionary substance to be molded into a particular understanding of who should shape the future. The examples mentioned above show that Sami reindeer herders, reindeer herds, and Inuit communities are often not deemed important enough to be part of the conversation. Unrooting colonialism and its logic of innate superiority, both within humanity and beyond, is key in redesigning interspecies cohabitation. An ethics of non-human animal care is therefore not only an attempt to deconstruct anthropocentrism but is intrinsically linked to deconstructing colonial patterns as well (Banerjee, 2003; Dalby, 2019, 2020; Johnson et al., 2014; Liboiron, 2021; Whyte, 2018).

The present embodiment of the future of humanity is shaped by the historical-cultural legacy of colonialism. The presence of non-human animal interests and their equal consideration counters the dynamics of colonial power imposition. When all the layers of society are formed through colonial heritage, from the legal system to education to urban planning to consumption and production, unrooting and displacing which interests are considered is a step towards disassembling the cogs of deep-rooted colonialism. An institutionalized – from law to (supra)national governing bodies – interspecies ethics of care addresses the pitfalls of regional Arctic development, from the Norilsk oil spill to the Nordland windfarms constructions, where development is seen through the eyes of the interests of a political-economic majority. By centering non-human and human voices in an ecological manner and no longer in a hierarchical manner, ‘sustainability’ takes on its supposed meaning; a meaning guided towards a future for all.


You can read an extended version of this article on Anna Soer’s Fantarctic blog.

Anna Soer holds a Bachelor in English Literature and History obtained at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne in France, as well as a MSc in Human Geography – specialization in Conflict, Territories and Identities – obtained at Radboud University in the Netherlands. She is currently a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Her research is centered on the gendered impacts of renewable energy developments among Indigenous communities in Nunavut (Canada) and Nordland (Norway).


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