Global Warming and Capitalism: As the Ice Melts, the Land Rush Begins

By Devin Stronge

The Northwest Passage is one of the most fabled sea routes in the world, located above the northern Canadian province of Nunavut among the frozen arctic islands that dot the North Pole. The Passage provides a sea route from Europe to Asia, but had never been used extensively because of the Arctic islands that choked the sea route and barred any large shipping means of access through the Passage. All this, however, is about to change. Satellite images from the European Space Agency (ESA), taken in September of last year, show that the ice covering the Passage has shrunk to a size small enough to allow navigation. The ESA reported that this is the first time that the Passage will be navigational since the agency began monitoring it in 1978.

The ice has been shrinking steadily for the last ten years, but last summer's reduction has been the largest and most rapid. Leif Toudal Pedersen of the Danish National Space Centre called last year's reduction "extreme," stating that typically the ice had been melting at about 38,600 square miles per year, but last year saw a shrinking of around 386,000 square miles, one- hundred times the "typical" rate.

This environmental disaster has created an exciting opportunity for capitalists. In 1997, Pat Broe, a Denver entrepreneur, bought derelict ports in Hudson Bay from the Canadian Government. Broe was hoping that the ice would eventually melt to a navigational level and thus make his initial investment of seven dollars a very profitable venture. Large and small corporations alike are mimicking Broe's logic and this year will see a corporate rush for virgin territory.

The capitalist invasion of Manitoba and Nunavut has other consequences, as well. Nunavut is a province populated by mostly indigenous people whose way of life, which is already threatened by the disappearing ice, will be changed drastically by the corporate onslaught. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a leader of a transnational Inuit group explained: "As long as it's ice, nobody cares but us because we hunt and fish and travel on that ice. However, the minute it starts to thaw and becomes water, then the whole world is interested."

And the whole world is interested and not just in the Northwest Passage, but in all of the Arctic and North Pole. A United Nations treaty called the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas allows countries to make claims to territory according to how far their continental shelf extends into the sea. Using this treaty, nations have begun to stake claims in the Arctic including Russia, Norway, the United States and Canada. The prospect of undersea oil among the melted ice has made the North Pole prime real estate. Russia has claimed almost half of the Arctic Ocean. If oil is found, Russia could come to challenge the power of OPEC. Canada has already commissioned ten nuclear submarines to patrol the Northwest Passage and the Arctic. Eventually, all of the Arctic ice will melt and create a sea that will be larger than the Mediterranean, which could very well be a future cause for conflict among nations over the sea routes and the natural resources.

This environmental disaster is of little concern to capitalists and nations currently vying for influence in the region. Profits and realist policies have taken precedence over the preservation of our planet. Not only have the environmental consequences of the opening of the Northwest Passage been largely ignored, but the impact of industrial and corporate development on the virgin land of northern Canada has been of little interest to the capitalist invaders.

According to transportation minister of Manitoba Ron Lemieux, "[This is] the positive side of global warming, if there is a positive side."

-Warming Opens up Northwest Passage, BBC News, September 14, 2007, news.bbc.co.uk, 2008

-As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound, Clifford Krauss, Steven Lee Myers, Andrew C. Revkin, Simon Romero, The New York Times, October 10, 2005, www.nytimes.com, 2008