The scramble for the poles

May 2, 2008

What's behind the new attempt to claim the resources of the Arctic and Antarctic--and why the mad scramble could spell disaster for the planet.

"THE NEED of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe," Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto. "It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere."

The struggle for natural resources--today, energy resources particularly--also forces capitalists to "nestle everywhere, settle everywhere."

But when we imagine the dynamics of global capitalism 160 years after the writing of the Manifesto, we usually don't think of either the North or South Pole--the Arctic and Antarctic--as a particular site of struggle.

Yet today a new scramble for control of the two polar regions is unfolding, with consequences that could further hasten capitalism's destruction of the planet and also increase the likelihood that the economic competition between states will spill over into military competition.

The backdrop to the renewed interest in asserting territorial claims on the Arctic and Antarctic by states such as Canada, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom is that global warming, and in particular the warming of oceans, is leading to accelerating erosion of the ice mass at both poles.

Rather than seeing this as a global crisis, as any person concerned for the fate of the planet and humanity would, the governments who have land claims on the polar regions see this as a terrific opportunity.

Why? Because the retreating ice shelves may open up new territory for oil and natural gas exploration and may also open easier shipping routes, including perhaps the long-sought Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific.

In other words, the harmful effects of global warming may open opportunities for further accelerating the harmful effects of global warming.

"According to the U.S. Geological Survey, up to a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas may lie beneath the polar seabed--far more than Saudi Arabia's total known reserves--along with vast mineral wealth," Oliver Burkeman wrote in Britain's Guardian.

As oil becomes harder to extract and produce cheaply, forcing oil companies and governments to go to more difficult political and geographic terrain to find oil and natural gas, any potential new source of oil is tantalizing, particularly if it is not controlled by independent political powers such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. This--and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--is what "energy independence," the new mantra of Democrats and Republicans alike, really means.

Damn the consequences for people and the planet.

AND AS overfishing leads to a crisis in the global fishing industry, extending control over waters beyond a state's boundaries to monopolize areas of the sea that were once off limits or shared international waters, is also a newly important goal.

"The 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea convention provides a legal framework for delineating ownership and economic rights but the U.S. has yet to ratify it," notes Barbara Yaffe of the Vancouver Sun. "In accordance with the convention, circumpolar states are busily mapping undersea turf to establish their own claims, as yet to be adjudicated."

"Britain is preparing to stake a claim to nearly one million square kilometres" of the Antarctic, Jax Jacobsen of Red Pepper magazine reports. Jacobsen notes that Chile and Argentina, seeking to challenge UK claims related to Falkland Islands and South Georgia, "have even gone so far as to fly pregnant women down to their Antarctic research bases to strengthen their land claims" by having "native 'Antarctican'" citizens.

Meanwhile, Canada and Russia in particular have been stepping up military operations and staking competing claims to the Arctic.

Canadian journalist Avi Lewis, host of a new program on Al-Jazeera called Inside USA, says, "The Conservative government has dashed up to stake a claim to the market opportunity afforded by melting glaciers--the tragic realization of the original colonial dream for a Northwest passage. Stephen Harper has been striking a nationalist posture of 'standing up to big brother' on Arctic sovereignty--from shipping to resource extraction."

And, as Oliver Burkeman writes, "Russia, in the most audacious move so far, dispatched a nuclear-powered icebreaker and two submersible craft to plant a Russian flag, housed in a titanium tube, on the seabed directly beneath the North Pole. 'The Arctic is ours,' declared lead explorer Artur Chilingarov, thereby staking Moscow's claim to 460,000 square miles of ocean floor, more than five times the area of Britain. Canada, apparently taken by surprise, responded by pledging a major military build-up in the north."

Unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic is not a nuclear-free zone. So the risk of the Arctic (and perhaps eventually also the Antarctic) becoming a site for nuclear weapons and the passage of nuclear submarines, with the increased risk of nuclear accident or war, is serious.

Indigenous communities in the Arctic are likely to be displaced by the new settlement concerned based on extraction of the region's resources and with establishing a military presence.

We can be sure that their voices will be ignored in this debate. What matters the people of the region if they have the great misfortune to live over lands or near waters where oil, natural gas, or other resources can be found?

Just ask the people of Iraq.

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