The End of the World as We Know It?

A Q&A with Barry Zellen on his new book, Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic

Alaska Report: Tell us about your new book, Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom? Near Kotzebue, Alaska

Barry Zellen: Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom considers the geopolitical transformation taking place at the top of the world as the polar ice cap thaws and a new sea emerges from beneath the ice pack  and opens up to maritime commerce and naval activity.


It looks at the history of the Arctic as a strategic theater throughout history, from the imperial era when Russia and Britain sparred for control of the Far North, through World War II when Japan grabbed the western Aleutians and sought to divide our Pacific fleet and gain a launching pad to mainland North America for la later invasion, and the Cold War, when Alaska become a forward base abutting the Soviet Far East, and became of increasing strategic importance to strategic stability. After the end of the Cold War, a general strategic withdrawal took place as Russian military power declined, easing tensions across the Arctic basin.


With climate change and recent rapid ice melt trends suggesting we might witness the emergence of what I call the “post-Arctic world,” interest has been rekindled as the promise of vast reserves of natural resources long beyond the reach of resource developers, and new shipping lanes and sea lines of communication, refocus attention on the top of the world for the first time in a generation. My book examines these strategic opportunities as well as the challenges associated with what some call the “Big Thaw.”


Alaska Report: What inspired you to write Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom?


Zellen: I lived in the Western Arctic during the 1990s where I worked on issues of indigenous cultural renewal and survival, language preservation, and efforts to reconcile tribal and state interests along frontier regions where traditional tools of national power are least effective and therefore largely absent.


Back then, the Cold War’s rapid end and the disappearance of the “Ice Curtain,” the Arctic’s equivalent of the Iron Curtain, introduced an era of intense political/structural innovation as new models of regional and local governance were developed to enable indigenous self-governance to increase in a manner consistent with national security and constitutional order. Even then, some early and very prescient observers began to speculate about what might happen if climate change did accelerate, and affect the largely frozen geophysical environment, and around 1992, I became intrigued by both the theoretical implications as well as the broader strategic implications of a thaw. And so I dived into it, working on this issue ever since. My first book, Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic focused on these processes of political empowerment and indigenous structural innovation.


More recently, as popular interest in climate change increased, crossing over from obscure and little read science to a pop-cultural phenomenon thanks in part to the hard work of former Vice President Al Gore, who’s maintained a steady interest in the topic since well before Earth in the Balance and culminating in An Inconvenient Truth as well as his Nobel Peace Prize, I became concerned with what looked to be a politicization of the climate issue, as well as pervasive pessimism that presumes the “Big Thaw” is inevitably a “crisis” and to many activists, a “catastrophe.”


More optimistic and open-minded analysis became marginalized by the dominance of this single paradigm, and the many intriguing strategic opportunities of a polar thaw were not being widely discussed at conferences or in the media as a result of the dominance of this dogma. So I decided to contribute to the discussion and to present a theoretical analysis that left open the possibility that a polar thaw might create many new opportunities and was not just a crisis defined by risk, hoping in part to enrich the debate and also prepare for what will surely be a unique geo-strategic opportunity.


Alaska Report: In the announcement of your book’s release, it says you consider the importance of the Arctic region through the “bifocal lenses of neorealism and geopolitics.” What do you mean by this, and how does neorealism and geopolitics relate to climate change?


Zellen: Neorealism is the branch of international relations theory that applies a structural framework to the study of world politics, and generally presumes that cause and effect is driven largely by systemic forces inherent in the structure of world politics. For instance, during the Cold War there was a bipolar structure of international politics with much of the world divided into two competing military blocs with their own largely autonomous economic systems. When communism collapsed, we entered into a transition period and for many years people grappled with the riddles of the emergent world order.


Was it going to be a multipolar global structure, a hemispheric or inter-civilizational structure, a transcendent unipolar system, or some sort of hybrid model? Or with the rise of China, might we again see a bipolar structure emerge? And while it’s been a generation, the jury is still out and much debate continues on the structural foundations of world politics, largely because today’s world seems so much more chaotic than during the Cold War period.


In my book, I postulate that geopolitics, a much earlier theory of world politics that fell out of favor during the post-World War II period in part because it had been so vociferously embraced by the losing side of that conflict, is in fact an ideal theory for the post-Arctic world (and indeed the post-Cold War world), since it’s an antecedent to neorealism. Before humanity erected structures of international politics, economics, diplomacy and military power, nature ordained the world with fixed geographical and geological attributes, and these, according to the geopoliticians, were a primary driver of cause and effect in world history, more so than the more ephemeral systems created by political man.


To me, geopolitics represented the ideal “systemless systems theory” if you will, one that operated globally but which endured regardless of the political order that defined world politics, and indeed shaped some of the macro trends in the development of international politics. Such features as the Eurasian heartland, the Euro-Atlantic rimland, and the lesser-known isolated “Lenaland” of the Far North, seemed to be especially relevant in defining the world order after the bipolar structure of international politics collapsed. Indeed, if you look at the strategic calculations made during the Cold War, and efforts to secure the heartlands of both superpowers through extended deterrence linking European security to both Eurasia and North America, you can see geopolitics driving cause and effect even during the Cold War era.


So in addition to viewing an interconnection between geopolitics and neorealism, I saw their fusion as an intriguing theory for the post-Cold War period, and one that might help to guide us during the coming post-Arctic world as strategic competition extends into the polar basin.


Alaska Report: We hear a lot about the environmental consequences of climate change, but why do you believe it’s important for people to be as concerned about the geopolitics of the polar thaw?


Zellen: The political and environmental consequences are very closely interconnected. As the “Big Thaw” takes place, there are numerous regional challenges relating to the direct environmental consequences: a less stable ice pack affects the hunting abilities of the Inuit, and could contribute to an increase in hunger and impact on health security as well as on traditional subsistence hunting cultures of our northernmost communities; coastal erosion and a melting of the permafrost is already causing damage to infrastructure, affecting the stability of roadbeds, airport runways, and damaging the physical plant of commercial and residential structures.


Addressing these issues is costly, and most of the northern communities have very limited economic resources already. As the ice continues its retreat, we’re seeing increased resource exploration and development, a rise in maritime traffic, the northward migration of southern fisheries and wildlife populations, and longer term can expect to see a demographic shift as new economic opportunities attract workers from farther and farther south.


All of these trends will have political, economic, social, and ecological consequences that will need to be managed. For millennia, we’ve enjoyed a unique buffer at the top of the world – a massive, continent-sized barrier of ice. This has essentially divided the world in two, between an East and a West, like a vast desert, enabling both the Eurasian heartland and the North American heartland to maintain their isolation from the rest of the world, and this isolation had a stabilizing effect on world politics.


When the polar ice cap melts, this geopolitical barrier will disappear, taking with it many of our concepts of geopolitics; the result of the post-Arctic geopolitical fusion of East and West will require a new vocabulary, as we adapt to a new geophysical structure. It’s quite a remarkable transformation. So while there are many environmental unknowns and certainly all sorts of risks, the opportunities, of an open polar sea, and a true unification of East and West, are quite compelling.


So as we begin to think about the post-Arctic world, and to prepare for it, it’s important that we think about not just the environmental risks and challenges, but the strategic consequences as well.


Alaska Report: What do you hope readers will learn when they read Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom?


Zellen: I’m hoping that readers find the Arctic to be of increasing interest to strategic and security studies, and also that they, in the words of Herman Kahn, the colorful and controversial nuclear age theorist, begin to “think about the unthinkable,” and explore the many fascinating, complex, and no doubt difficult challenges of the new, post-Arctic world – as they search for solutions, and develop new policies and doctrines, to ensure the post-Arctic world remains a stable and prosperous world.


I also hope they come away from the book with a renewed sense of optimism, that the changes unfolding at the top of the world, while epic in scale, are not beyond our means to manage wisely and creatively.


Alaska Report: Do you have any other books in the pipeline?


Zellen: My next volume on the transformation of the Arctic is just now out: On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State, and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty. It discusses the increasing role of the Inuit in the formulation of defense, security, and sovereignty policies in the Far North, and grapples with how states can most effectively assert sovereignty over a domain where national tools of power have been largely muted by the region’s harsh climate and remote geography.


It also considers aspirations of Inuit independence, and what the restoration of Inuit sovereignty might look like, something that might occur in Greenland in the years ahead and which could inspire a similar movement in Arctic Canada and Alaska.


Now that it’s been published, I’m starting work on the next project: “2041: The Age of the Antarctic,” on the colonization of Antarctica as mankind’s last, best hope for survival in a post-Arctic World. It grapples with modernizing the Antarctic treaty so that it can better meet the needs of mankind if some of the more worrisome scenarios of the Big Thaw do unfold, and considers the historic opening up the entire southern continent to human settlement in a modern day, twenty-first century exodus.


Alaska Report: Environmentalists must really hate you! Do worry that Al Gore might not send you a Christmas Card this year?


Zellen: It's important to stand up and challenge some of the dogma that's passing itself off as scientific truth out there, especially on how a polar thaw must necessarily be a human catastrophe. It will surely present new challenges, most big changes do. But neglecting the opportunities, and refusing to consider creative ways to adapt to these changes, only does a disservice to mankind.


In my book, I note how ironic it is that Gore criticizes President Bush for using the "politics of fear" in his 2007 book, Assault on Reason; and yet the year before, in An Inconvenient Truth, Gore masterfully wages his own campaign based on the politics of fear. Machiavelli would be proud! But even if it means not getting a Christmas card from Al and Tipper, I thought this still worth pointing out.


While I disagree with Gore’s inherent pessimism, I do appreciate his commitment to this issue. Not every politician out there has spent so many decades trying to educate the public on climate science, and while his efforts have invariably become politicized, they have also provided inspiration to young people around the world to take interest in these issues, and to try to make a difference. And that is certainly commendable.


The challenge is how do we maintain interest in, and passion for, an issue, without overly politicizing it? How do we avoid the dogma, and foster a truly open, mutually respectful, debate between differing viewpoints? I hope my book helps to shift things back in this direction, so that we can start to “think about the unthinkable” without experiencing the sorts of scientific McCarthyism currently under fire, as revealed in the public release of the CRU documents last week. Now maybe we can have a fair and balanced debate!


Alaska Report: Thanks, Barry. We look forward to hearing all about your next book.


Zellen: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity!

Barry Zellen is author of Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Praeger Books, October, 2009) and On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State, and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty (Lexington Books, November 2009).

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