Defining Issues of our Era

T shirt, Dame Vivienne Westwood and ‘Save the Arctic’

Anyone looking at their Observer newspaper this morning will have spotted the actor George Clooney assuming a superman pose. Dressed in his dinner jacket, Clooney’s shirt is exposed to reveal a Dame Vivienne Westwood t shirt declaring ‘Save the Arctic’. If you wish to purchase the shirt then click here. But my interest is less in promoting someone’s else t-shirt and more to do with the use of celebrities and the use of the map motif itself. As Al Pinkerton, Matt Benwell and I noted there is something intriguing about how celebrity geopolitics works – the manner in which issues are ‘celebrated’, the role of the bodies of celebrities, and the manner in which their agency is used to enrol other actors and objects into a particular political project. George Clooney is well known for his work on Sudan for example.

The call to arms which Dame Vivienne is embracing is one that has been developed by Greenpeace and their ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign. Coupling climate change with oil/gas exploitation, the environmental group has been highly active in drawing attention to the manner in which the Arctic has been imagined as a resource frontier. Fearing that energy companies and Arctic states (such as Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) are determined to press on with resource extraction, celebrities and indigenous fauna such as the polar bear have been enrolled alongside more traditional environmental campaigning. Greenpeace protested, for example, in the vicinity of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in the Swedish city of Kiruna in May 2013. The meeting was significant because it signalled the admittance of a new group of observers to the AC including China, Korea and Singapore. Phil Steinberg and I reflected on that particular development here, and there was no shortage of speculation at the time that the admission was these new observers was a reflection of the growing commercialisation of the Arctic region. While some of that commentary may be more hyperbole than sober reflection, nonetheless the Arctic Council has recently taken the decision to create a so-called circumpolar business forum.

But back to the t-shirt. The image of the globe at the heart of the garment has ‘Save the Arctic’ running across it – stretching from Brazil to somewhere towards the Russian far east. A flag appears to be planted somewhere in the central Arctic Ocean ( it reminds me of those Russian stamps I have seen in the past commemorating the first flight and landing at the North Pole).  Just as a Russian flag was gently deposited on the bottom of the central Arctic Ocean in 2007, now we have a flag albeit on a t-shirt being located on the apparent surface of that oceanic body. While the flag might mark the ‘North Pole’ in the popular geographical imagination, it is an important space in legal and political terms. Since the 2007 flag planting incident, there has been much commentary on an ongoing ‘race for the Arctic’ and or ‘scramble for the Arctic’ involving Arctic states, non-Arctic states and others seeking to accrue resource, territorial and political advantage. While much of this commentary has been either exaggerated or just plain wrong (when it comes to the Law of the Sea and the rights that coastal states enjoy regarding outer continental delimitation), there has been a scrambling of sorts. Such a scrambling I would suggest is as much an imaginative one as it is material – a scramble to represent the North Pole/Central Arctic Ocean as a nationalised space, as a global common, as thinly governed space and or a space deserving of humanitarian/environmental rescue. On the idea of this space as a global common see here.

The t-shirt is just one of many material objects currently being enrolled in what we might see as Arctic ‘world making’ rather than simply the kind of statecraft we see when political leaders travel to the Arctic and when militaries conduct sovereignty/patrolling exercises in the ‘Arctic theatre’. The t-shirt, the toy polar bear, the flag and so on are objects which play their part in conjuring up various understandings and performances of the Arctic, and I think are worthy of reflection.

What is less clear to me is how many people living and working in the Arctic region will actually want to get their hands on this particular t-shirt. If you take internal flights in places like Alaska and northern Canada, it is common to see people (and I mean Northern residents including non-indigenous and indigenous peoples) wearing t shirts and baseball caps. But their clothing and head ware will often feature the part of the Arctic that they hail from (e.g. Barrow Alaska). There is a huge premium placed on rootedness and connection to particular communities. They might well share concerns about climate change but they might also raise an eyebrow or two when told that the Arctic needs to be ‘saved’. Saved from what? Who is going to do the saving? And who would judge what is safe and not-safe for example?

One of the challenges for those who wish to ‘save the Arctic’ is that ‘the Arctic’ is a large complex space. There are many Arctics with an array of challenges and opportunities. The ‘Norwegian Arctic’ is hugely different to the vast, geographically scattered ‘Canadian Arctic’ composed of communities – some large and some small. Resource development is complicated in the Arctic – resource-related projects provide employment and training opportunities on the one hand and on the other hand in places like Greenland they also provide hope for some that independence might be a possibility. So the idea of ‘saving’ the Arctic might generate rather mixed emotions within northern communities where consultation, engagement, legal rights, traditional knowledge and revenue sharing all matter greatly. But as with other parts of the world, the idea that others should dictate what is to be ‘saved’ can also breed resentment.

Putting a flag on the surface of the central Arctic Ocean invites speculation about intent and scope. While there is a case to be made about the central Arctic Ocean being a global common, for many Northern residents and Arctic states it also appears to be a ‘flagging strategy’ initiating a wider geographical concern for the fate of the Arctic as a whole. But as I have noted, you generalise about ‘the Arctic’ at your peril.


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