The Arctic in the Anthropocene: An International Relations perspective

1.3.2022 9:00

Monica Tennberg discusses different understandings of the Arctic in international relations research.


Kartta: Aluevaatimukset arktisella alueella

This map is an example of the state-centric understanding of the Arctic. State sovereignty, borders and territorial control of natural resources in marine areas dominate the map. Marine regionalism is the main focus of attention in International Relations (IR) scholarship about the Arctic (Knecht 2013). Utopian and dystopian imaginaries, such as the Arctic as a resource region, a science lab or a warning example of global ecological catastrophe, dominate  political agendas and media discourses. The contemporary understanding of the region is based on scientific and political collaboration for the past 30 years in the region, but with historical roots in the times of polar exploration, colonialism and modernization (Dahl 2012).

In IR research, the environment is a source of disturbance, such as transboundary pollution, in intergovernmental relations. Such disturbances cannot be solved by individual states, and thus, cooperation between states is needed despite the anarchical nature of the international system. The typical IR approach makes the nature an exogenous force to human affairs, produces a state-centric world view and understands human action as strategic problem-solving by local interventions (see for example Corry 2020a). These practices in IR legitimize anthropocentric power relations, naturalize focus on human agencies and interactions and mobilize action as collaboration between governmental and non-governmental actors to manage common problems and create opportunities for further governance. The nature is seen to be under human rule as governable in need of domestication by exploring, conquering, exploiting and protecting the perceived wild nature (Palsson 1996).

Veistos: Kwaje: Pars pro Toto. Helsinki Biennale 2021.
Kwaje: Pars pro Toto. Helsinki Biennale 2021.

Increasingly, the IR as a discipline is criticized to be “excessively abstract and disconnected from … the materiality of the world of entangled human-nature relations” (Oliveira 2020, 133).  In practice, this critical take turns the IR focus from formal, high-level, and hierarchical “intergovernmental international” to the “everyday international” of informal, mundane and fragmented human experiences and complex, entangled relations with the nature (Björkdahl, Hall& Svensson 2019). Furthermore, the IR practices have been deemed inadequate to respond to governance challenges in the Anthropocene. The term Anthropocene refers to the era after 1950 with increasing awareness of harmful, planetary impacts of human activities. The multiple transformations, for example due to climate change taking place in the Arctic, are often used as a global example of the era of the Anthropocene. The idea of the Anthropocene has entered the Arctic debates in a rather reductionist manner as only a natural science concern (Sörlin 2018). Responding to the Anthropocene is seen mostly as a question of adaptation of the region to globally driven transformations (Huntington et al 2014).

The significance of the Anthropocene for Arctic IR research boils down to two questions: 1) what constitutes the “international” and 2) which “relations matter”. It is not a novel idea for IR scholars to ponder these questions (see for example, Walker 2016; Rosenberg 2017).  “The international” as particular governmental relation is a constitutive, yet contested notion in the discipline with historical Eurocentric, Western roots. As Olaf Corry (2020b) notes “the planetary does not mean the end of the international”. Instead the IR needs a reinterpretation based on post-anthropocentric theorisations and empirical examinations. Recent writings in IR, inspired by post-humanist, new materialist and relational philosophy-based ideas provide a rich source to rethink human-nature relations in the Arctic with implications for IR in general. Critical scholars in different ways challenge the tendency in the mainstream IR to isolate agencies and their relations by making particular claims about “the international” on the expense of other kinds of relations. Instead of a human agency-based view, this perspective focuses on relations produced between peoples, peoples and objects, and between objects and ideas beyond imagined communities of humans assumed to be separate from the natural world.

The advocates of Planet Politics (Burke et al 2016) demand a new kind of IR for the Anthropocene by reformulating its human-centred world views, understanding of non-human agencies and non-anthropocentric power and multiple modes of governance. The post-humanist, new materialist and relational philosophy-based writings provide a basis of new kind of IR for the Arctic. They provide also a response to the recent critique about Arctic IR research presented by Sebastian Knecht and Paula Laubenstein (2020). They note that academic immaturity, methodological monoculturalism, state-centrism and analytical parochialism which dominate Arctic research “can make a research community blind to important factors, forces and developments that emerge in the shadow or even outside of conventional research objects” (Knecht & Laubenstein 2020, 9).

These new openings for Arctic research will be the discussed in the Northern political economy symposium in the fall 2022. More information will follow.


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