The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith (2010)


Chapter 10. The New North

Within hours after the CCGS Amundsen docked at Churchill, my life had changed completely. After months of railroads through desolate boreal forest, long empty coastlines, and the cold salt air of Hudson Bay, I sank back into the smog-choked din of my sweating desert megacity. It was familiar but surreal, exhilarating but perturbing, all at once—in short, the typical reaction most Arctic scientists have at summer’s end when they migrate from north to south, like overeducated birds, to reintroduce themselves to society.

What makes coming home so jarring, compared to other returns from other exotic places—isn’t simply culture shock. It’s human shock, seeing so many people again after dwelling in a place so empty of them. Even Iowa farmlands seem crowded after one has steamed for days along the Labrador coast or flown hundreds of miles overland, seeing virtually no trace of humans. To experience true northern solitude is both spooky and thrilling, like being time-warped to another planet without us. The question is how many more years things will remain like this.

The number of people wishing to visit, exploit, or simply become informed about the Arctic grows larger every year. The count of prospective students contacting me to pursue graduate degrees has leapt from none to dozens per year. At annual conventions of the American Geophysical Union, research presentations about the Arctic now overflow giant convention halls where before there was a tiny room of lifers talking only to each other. Some ten thousand scientists and fifty thousand participants from sixty-three countries participated in the 2007-2o09 International Polar Year.

Research and development spending is rising too. The U.S. National Science Foundation alone now funnels nearly a half-billion dollars annually toward polar research, more than double what it did in the 1990s. I wish that this trend meant winning a research grant was half as hard, but with so many new young scientists around, they are more competitive than ever. Global investments in the International Polar Year totaled some USD $1.2 billion. NASA and the European Space Agency are developing new satellites to map and comprehend the polar regions as never seen before. NASA’s investment alone will likely reach USD $2 billion by the middle of this decade.529

Thanks to heavy media coverage, images of drowned polar bears, bewildered Inuit hunters, and satellite maps of shrinking sea ice are now commonplace in people’s minds. In a remarkably short span of years these phenomena have changed the world’s perception of the Arctic from unconquerable ice fortress, to militarized zone buffering two nuclear superpowers, to frail ecosystem on the verge of collapse (or business bonanza, depending on one’s point of view). A place perceived as a maritime graveyard and killer of men even into the 1980s is now perceived as dissolving into a frontier ocean, laden with natural-resource riches for the taking. With so few actual Arctic residents around to protest these frames, all of them have been freely cemented into public consciousness by the words and images of their times.

On the following page, the image on the left reflects the height of the Arctic exploration craze in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The one on the right is a popular stock photo currently circulating on many climate-change Web sites and blogs. Both portray the same geographic location—the Arctic Ocean—but to very different effect. At left (Abandonment of the Jeannette, circa 1894) it is a darkly foreboding place, deadly and impregnable. At right (The Last Polar Bear, circa 2009) it is a place of sunny skies, an alluring glass-calm sea, and a magnificent animal doomed to extinction.

Both are stylized, of course. The craggy spires ensnaring the Jeannette more closely resemble alpine mountains than sea ice; upon magnification, shadow angles and other subtle details in the photo reveal that the polar bear has almost surely been digitally inserted. Each has its own message it is trying to advance. But stylized or not, it is images like these that powerfully reflect—and shape—the perceptions of their times. And, as any good advertising executive knows, when it comes to spending money, perception is everything.

Frames of the Arctic: (Left) impregnable killer of ships and brave men, ca. 1894; (Right) imperiled ecosystem or business bonanza, depending on one’s point of view, ca. 2009.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explorer accounts of glorious adversity shadowed by death persuaded urban donors around the world to loosen their wallets and fund expeditions to the Northwest Passage and North Pole. During World War II and the Cold War, fears of Japanese invasion, atomic bombs, and communist ideology loosened enormous national expenditures of blood and treasure to essentially open up the North for the first time. Today, scientists, through USGS oil and gas assessments and climate model projections, are convincing governments and investors that the region is a place of rising strategic value that is opening for business. And history tells us, when it comes to human decisions about spending money, this growing perception is as equally important—perhaps even more important—as the climate changes themselves.

Viewed in this light, disappearing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is profound—but so also are the decisions of NORC governments to begin military exercises there, to start buying frigates and F-35 fighter jets, or to commit to the long and costly process of filing UNCLOS claims to its seafloor. Thawing permafrost is profound—but so also are the business decisions of private capital to snap up Canada’s northernmost railroad and port of Churchill, to buy USD $2.8 billion in Arctic offshore energy leases, and to begin developing specialized LNG tanker ships and platforms for offshore drilling in icy environments.530

Environmental groups around the world, horrified at the prospect of an entire ecosystem going extinct, are raising money for, and awareness of, the Arctic. And unlike most other fields of geoscience, when yet another polar ice shelf crumbles the news media actually reports on it. My colleagues and I routinely field reporters’ questions on subjects, like soil carbon storage in permafrost, once relegated to the dusty bin of academic obscurity.

All of this publicity has spurred a massive increase in tourism to the area. In 2004 more than 1.2 million passengers traveled to Arctic destinations on cruise ships. Just three years later the number more than doubled; by 2008 there were nearly four hundred cruise ship arrivals in Greenland alone.531 Many passengers cite the desire to “see the Arctic before it’s gone” as motivation for the pricey tickets. And while a liquid Arctic won’t arrive anytime soon, the new tourism companies, port-of-call businesses, and other new stakeholders springing up to meet this demand will.

This tide of interest in the Arctic is being spurred by the dramatic climate-change impacts that are happening there. They are recasting the world’s perception of what the place is. By transforming its frame from empty fortress to ecological catastrophe, from military theater to business opportunity, climate change is triggering yet another powerful feedback loop in the region, a distinctly human one, that will transform it in very tangible ways. For the region’s development, its perceived strategic value, and its ties and economic linkages to the rest of the world, this may prove the most profound feedback of all.

But does a thawing Arctic deserve all of this hype? I myself travel often to this remarkable area to study the torrid pace of climate change there. But as we’ve seen, climate is but one of four global forces driving this story of change. Furthermore, the Arctic proper (northward of the Arctic Circle, approximately 66°33’ N latitude) is actually tiny relative to the outsized attention it enjoys with news media, science funding agencies, commonly used map projections, and the public imagination. Only 4.2% of the planet’s surface and 4.6% of its ice-free land (meaning not buried under glacial ice) lies north of this parallel, nearly all of it treeless, deeply frozen in permafrost, and plunged into polar darkness for much of the year. North of the 45° N parallel, however, we find 15% of the planet’s surface area and a whopping 29% of its ice-free land.532 While the Arctic is unique, extreme, and home to remarkable people, it also drags the spotlight away from the vaster NORC areas to the south. With their greater land area, population, biological productivity, and economic clout, it is these much larger regions—together with their Arctic hinterlands—that form the heart of a New North, a place of rising world interest and human activity in the twenty-first century.

By a more generous definition,533 the “Arctic” contains some twelve million square kilometers, four million people, and an economy of USD $230 billion per year. Those numbers are surprisingly large to most people. However, that entire GDP is less than one-half of the annual U.S.-Canada trade figure alone. Relative to the total NORC geographic area, population, and economy its numbers are dwarfed, even after restricting U.S. participation to the northernmost states.534 Even using this narrower geographic definition of NORC members, they collectively control some thirty-two million square kilometers, a quarter-billion people, and a $7 trillion economy. Such a bloc, if so measured, would represent the world’s fourth-largest economy behind the BRICs (Brazil, India, Russia, and China, $16.4 trillion), the European Union ($14.5 trillion), and the United States in its entirety ($14.3 trillion). Its population would approach that of the entire United States, its land area more than triple that of China. Viewed in this way, the NORCs are an impressive collective (see table on following page).

Unlike the European Union or United States of America the NORCs are not, of course, a formal alliance or free-trade bloc. However, the previous chapters reveal numerous connections among these countries that go well beyond the obvious geographic ones. Nearly two decades after NAFTA the economic and cultural embrace between Canada and the United States is arguably stronger now than at any other time in their history. It will clench even tighter if oil production from the Alberta Tar Sands (and possibly water exports someday) rises as projected. Despite memberships in the EU, Sweden and Finland feel greater cultural and economic kinship to Iceland and Norway than to Italy or Greece. Since the 1990s, even cantankerous Russia has been forging ties with its NORC neighbors, including participation in the Arctic Council, healthy trade with Finland, the Ilulissat Declaration, an expressed desire to open a shipping lane to Canada’s port of Churchill, and an orderly filing of seafloor claims under UNCLOs Article 76. The NORCs collaborate constantly on issues of fisheries, environmental protection, search-and-rescue, and science. They share peaceful, stable borders that count among the friendliest in the world. Aboriginal groups like the Inuit and Sámi both identify and organize across national borders. Among these eight NORC countries, I see many more ties and similarities than say, among the BRICs, or even many countries of the European Union.

Gross Domestic Product, Land Area, and Population of NORCs versus Other Major World Economies

The foundations of this New North run far south of the Arctic Ocean, to global immigrant destinations in Toronto and natural gas markets in Western Europe. They are laid by the global forces of demographics, natural resource demand, globalization, and climate change—together with lesser actors like the shipping industry, UNCLOS, and aboriginal land claims agreements. A broad set of “push” and “pull” forces—physical, ecological, and societal—are set in motion. The changes will unfold along the preexisting bones of geography and history, the legacy of past political decisions, the birth rates and migrations of people. They will be constrained by physical realities like the continental effect, sea ice, thawing ground, and an uneven distribution of natural resources. In many ways, this coming-of-age for a new geographic region is just business as usual in the history of the world. But unlike past human expansions it will probably be orderly, bearing little resemblance to the violence and genocides so common in the past.

In many ways, the New North is thus well positioned for the coming century even as its unique ecosystem is threatened by the linked pressures of hydrocarbon development and amplified climate change. But in a globally integrated 2050 world of over nine billion people, with mounting megatrends of water stress, heat waves, and coastal flooding, what might this mean for motivating renewed human settlement of the region? Extending the thought experiment further, to what extent might a wet, underpopulated, resource-rich, less bitterly cold North promise refuge from some of the bigger pressures described in the first four chapters of this book?

If Florida coasts become uninsurable and California enters a Perfect Drought, might people consider moving to Minnesota or Alberta? Will Spaniards eye Sweden? Might Russia one day, its population falling and needful of immigrants, decide a smarter alternative to a 2,500-kilometer-long Sibaral canal is to simply invite former Kazakh and Uzbek cotton farmers to abandon their dusty fields and resettle in Siberia, to work in the gas fields?

Such questions demand consideration of what makes civilizations work in the first place. In his book Collapse, my UCLA colleague Jared Diamond scours human history to ask the question of why civilizations fail. By studying past collapses like Easter Island and Rwanda, and close calls, like eighteenth-century Japan, he identifies five key dangers that can threaten an existing society. In no particular order, they are self-inflicted environmental and ecosystem damage, loss of trading partners, hostile neighbors, adverse climate change, and how a society chooses to respond to its environmental problems. Any one of these, Diamond argues, will stress an existing settlement. Several or all combined will tilt it toward extinction.

Turning the question around, what causes new civilizations to grow? My approach suggests that first and foremost will be economic incentive, followed by willing settlers, stable rule of law, viable trading partners, friendly neighbors, and beneficial climate change. No one of these alone is enough to spawn a major new settlement, but several or all combined might tilt one into existence, or encourage existing outposts to grow.

At first blush all eight NORC countries fulfill these requirements to some degree. Save Russia, they rank among the most trade-friendly, economically globalized, law-abiding countries in the world. Whether a boon or a curse,535they control a valuable array of coveted natural resources. Already, they enjoy more petitions from prospective migrants than they can or will absorb. Media hype about Arctic scrambles notwithstanding, they are friendly neighbors. Their winters will always be frigid, but less bitterly so than today. Biomass will press north, including some increased agricultural production in contrast to the more uncertain futures facing much larger agricultural areas to the south.

Already the NORCs possess a sprinkle of sizable settlements from which to grow. Their biggest hubs, like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ottawa, Reykjavík, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Moscow are growing fast and attract many foreign immigrants today. Smaller destination cities include Anchorage, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Quebec City, Hamilton, Göteborg, Trondheim, Oulu, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, and others. Some truly northern towns that might grow in a New North include Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Fort McMurray, Iqaluit, Tromsø, Rovaniemi, Murmansk, Surgut, Novy Urengoy, Noyabr’sk, Yakutsk, and others. The ports of Archangel’sk, Churchill, Dudinka, Hammerfest, Kirkenes, Nuuk, Prudhoe Bay, and others are poised to benefit from increased exploration and shipping activity in the Arctic Ocean.

Fueled by West Siberian hydrocarbons, Noyabr’sk and Novy Urengoy—brand-new cities that did not even exist until the early 1980s—are now up to a hundred thousand people apiece. Canada’s Fort McMurray is the fat tick of the Alberta Tar Sands, feeding on bitumen and water like Las Vegas feeds on gamblers. Its population boom, closing in on a hundred thousand within the decade, is probably just the beginning. Covering an area roughly the size of Bangladesh, this vast plain of tar-soaked dirt is thought to hold 175 billion barrels of oil, second only to Saudi Arabia and 50% more than Iraq. Despite devastating environmental damages, tar sands development is fast proceeding and by 2040 is projected to produce ten times more oil than Alaska’s North Slope does today.

Cities are key to the New North because the NORCs—like everywhere else—are rapidly urbanizing. Even in the remote Arctic and sub-Arctic, people are abandoning small villages or a life in the bush to flock to places like Fairbanks and Fort McMurray and Yakutsk. Tiny Barrow, Alaska—a metropolis by Arctic standards—is absorbing an influx of people from remote hamlets across the North Slope. Paired with reduced winter road access and ground disruptions from thawing permafrost, this urbanization trend suggests abandonment of large tracts of remote continental interiors. These lands will remain wild even as the oceans become busy. It is not unreasonable to suppose that one day people will visit them not to hunt or live on, but as global tourists wishing to see the last great wilderness parks left on Earth.

Ultimately, this question of future population expansion boils down to economic opportunity, demographics, and willing settlers. All of the NORC urban cores offer diverse global economies and attract large numbers of immigrants, offsetting their aging populations and falling domestic fertility rates. However, the Russian Federation faces sharply falling population, low aboriginal birth rates, and a generally hostile attitude toward foreigners. The Nordic countries are growing but slowly, have tiny aboriginal populations, and while generous to foreign immigrants are culturally resistant to the notion of throwing open their doors to millions more. Only Canada and the United States absorb large numbers of immigrants while also having substantial, fast-growing domestic aboriginal populations. Canadian policies favor admitting qualified workers above all else, benefiting her skilled labor force especially in southern cities. Her rising aboriginal population is fueling growth in remote northern towns as well. Canada continues to integrate economically and culturally with the United States, where nearly one hundred million more people will be living by 2050. These powerful trends are but three reasons why I have begun socking away Canada-region mutual funds in my retirement plan. After all, I need to be proactive: With a graying planet, the probability that a comfortable taxpayer-funded pension will be waiting for me is slim.

But outside the cities and towns it’s hard to attract new settlers, especially in the NORC countries’ Arctic hinterlands. With four million people and a gross domestic product slightly larger than Hong Kong’s536 the circumpolar Arctic holds a bigger population and economy than most people realize, but both are still fleetingly small. For example, with just fifty-seven thousand people and $2 billion GDP per year, Greenland’s population and economy are 1% of Denmark’s. Furthermore, the mainstay of the Arctic economy is simply exporting raw commodities like metals, fossil fuel, diamonds, fish, and timber. Public services comprise the second-largest sector, followed by transportation. Tourism and retail are significant only in a few places. Universities are rare, and manufacturing extremely limited except for a robust electronics industry in northern Finland around the city of Oulu (Nokia is one of the better-known companies operating there). Thus, unlike the southern NORC cities, the Arctic economy is a restrictive blend of resource-extraction industries and government dollars, with an underskilled and undereducated workforce.

With few exceptions most of these natural resource profits leave the far North, creating an apparent “welfare state” situation in which NORC central governments prefer to deeply subsidize public services rather than surrender these profits to local taxation. Career choices are limited and although salaries are high, so also is the cost of living. One can expect to pay $250 per night for a cheap hotel room and $15 for a cheeseburger in an Arctic town. Gas pipelines and diamond mines generate enormous wealth but most of this revenue flows south (or west, in Russia), controlled by an array of private, multinational, and state-owned actors and central governments. In North America, much of what’s left is now controlled by aboriginal-owned business corporations and/or regulated through comprehensive land claims agreements. Northern Transportation Company Limited, Canada’s oldest Arctic marine operator, whose vice president, John Marshall, so kindly showed me around the shipyard in Chapter 6, was bought by two such corporations in 1985 and is now 100% aboriginal-owned.537

Put simply, the Arctic is not an easy place for fresh arrivals and business start-ups outside of a narrow range of activities. Add to all this the infernal cold and darkness of the polar winter, followed by the steaming heat and billions of mosquitoes of the polar summer, and we see the Arctic is not and will never be a big draw for southern settlers. Even the sub-Arctic boom cities of Fort McMurray, Noyabr’sk, and Novy Urengoy must recruit heavily to attract enough foreign workers. While Arctic settlements will grow with the region’s rising energy, mining, and shipping base, its fast-growing aboriginal population (in North America), and the ongoing urbanization trend, it’s hard to imagine big new cities spreading across it by 2050 or even 2100.

Instead, a better envisioning of the New North today might be something like America in 1803, just after the Louisiana Purchase from France. It, too, possessed major cities fueled by foreign immigration, with a vast, inhospitable frontier distant from the major urban cores. Its deserts, like Arctic tundra, were harsh, dangerous, and ecologically fragile. It, too, had rich resource endowments of metals and hydrocarbons. It, too, was not really an empty frontier but already occupied by aboriginal peoples who had been living there for millennia.

Like the New North, the American West presented a strong geographic gradient in terms of attractiveness for settlement, varying roughly with longitude instead of latitude. East of the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and into Texas (then part of Mexico), there was sufficient rain to have a go at dryland farming, but not farther west in the harsher landscapes of what are now Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and California. What drew settlers there were gold and silver, culminating in rushes to California in 1849 and to Nevada a decade later. These metal rushes populated the American West just as tar sands and natural gas are doing today in Alberta and West Siberia, and as offshore finds might one day populate port towns along the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Just as Mexico once ceded what is now all or partly Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming to the United States in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, perhaps one day the Russian Federation will cede its Far East to the People’s Republic of China. One shining difference is that we are unlikely to reexperience brutality toward northern aboriginals, unlike the forced displacement and genocide of American Indians throughout the settlement and expansion of the United States. Indeed, in Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland, aboriginals are poised to lead the way.

Flying over the American West today, one still sees landscapes that are barren and sparsely populated, looking not much different now than they did then. Its towns and cities are relatively few, scattered across miles of empty desert. Yet its population is growing, its cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake and Las Vegas humming economic forces with cultural and political significance. This is how I imagine the coming human expansion in the New North. We’re not all going to move there, but it will become integrated into our world in some very important ways.

I imagine the high Arctic, in particular, will be rather like Nevada—a landscape nearly empty but with fast-growing towns fueled by a narrow range of industries. Its prime socioeconomic role in the twenty-first century will not be homestead haven but economic engine, shoveling gas, oil, minerals, and fish into the gaping global maw. These resources will help to supply and grow cities around the world, as described in Chapter 2. Its second important role is innovative social experimenter with aboriginal home rule, through still-evolving power devolutions in northern North America and Greenland. These new societies will inspire other marginalized groups around the world, even as their ecosystems and traditions are decimated by some of the most extreme climate changes on Earth.

Many of the transformations I’ve presented in this book are negative, and most that are positive exact a toll someplace else. And as painfully demonstrated by the 2008-09 economic contraction, in a globally integrated world, even “winners” suffer pain from the losers. More hydrocarbon development risks not just local damages to northern ecosystems, but global damages through still more greenhouse gases released. For most NORC residents, the downside of milder winters is more rain instead of snow, making them dark, wet, and depressing; while farther north it means conversion of land that is barely livable to land that is hardly livable. The 23.5° tilt in the Earth’s axis of rotation commands that there will always be darkness and cold at high latitudes, even if climate warming causes Februaries in Churchill to warm up to Februaries in Minneapolis.

The identified trends have strong inertia, but none are inevitable. The projections of computer models are not edicts, but bent by social choices. Africa’s violent cities can be changed. Even the four global forces of demographics, resource demand, globalization, and climate change, being human-generated, must—by definition—lie within human control. And through personal choices, everyone has the ability to shape the perceptions and choices of others. Recent studies, using public data posted on Facebook, have shown that individual actions disseminate unexpected influence over strangers by blazing quickly and deeply through extended social networks. Put simply, a surprising number of one’s personal decisions are swayed not deliberately by an advertising billboard, but unintentionally by an unknown friend of a friend of a friend. So each day, by choosing the red pill or blue, we also shape the actions of others. And in turn, the course of history.

To me, the old debates of Malthus and Marx, of Ehrlich and Simon, miss the point. The question is not how many people there are versus barrels of oil remaining, or acres of arable land, or drops of water churning through the hydrologic cycle. The question is not how much resource consumption the global ecosystem can or cannot absorb. It’s moot to wonder whether the world should optimally hold nine billion people or nine million, colonize the sea, or all move to Yakutsk. No doubt we humans will survive anything, even if polar bears and Arctic cod do not. Perhaps we could support nine hundred billion if we choose a world with no large animals, pod apartments, genetically engineered algae to eat, and desalinized toilet water to drink. Or perhaps nine hundred million if we choose a wilder planet, generously restocked with the creatures of our design. To me, the more important question is not of capacity, but of desire: What kind of world do we want?