Is the Arctic Out of Time? A Conversation with Andrew Stuhl

Arctic iceberg with its underside exposed

“All of Arctic history continues to build on itself, entangle with itself,” states Andrew Stuhl. Yet what Stuhl finds especially troubling is how Arctic scientists and scholars have “displaced the Arctic from its history of colonialism and environmental change.” In his new book, Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Stuhl animates, or “unfreezes,” this history to bring it into the present—in other words, to place the Arctic back in time.

"Unfreezing the Arctic" by Andrew Stuhl (University of Chicago Press, 2016)Andrew Stuhl, who earned his Ph.D. in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bucknell University. Unfreezing the Arctic draws upon twenty months of fieldwork in Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories, as well as archival research in more than 15 archives in the US and Canada. Stuhl’s book is based on his doctoral dissertation for which he won the 2014 Rachel Carson Prize for Best Dissertation from the American Society for Environmental History.

Recently, anthropologist William Voinot-Baron had the chance to chat with Stuhl about Unfreezing the Arctic, contemporary indigenous politics, and their respective fieldwork in the far north.

Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

William Voinot-Baron:  One of the most important contributions of your new book Unfreezing the Arctic is its call to humanize the science of the Arctic. As you note in the introduction, your methods are not strictly archival.  You also draw on 20 months of fieldwork  in Canada’s Northwest Territories. How did your time in the field shape the perspective you bring to the book?

Andrew Stuhl: I went to the Arctic first in 2007, after finishing my master’s at University of Wisconsin. I went with the sense of concern about climate change and a desire to understand the Arctic.  I think these were important orientations to have “in the field.” We would now maybe refer to these orientations as community-based scholarship or public scholarship. The people we are going to study turn it into collaborators in the regions of the world we find our interests in. Those places and people can shape the questions that we ask, and they should, especially in places that have long been marginalized, or colonial places. I remember specifically a drive I took with a man named Jimmy Kalinek. We were driving down this road, and I was asking him all about climate change.  “Are you seeing ice melt?  Are you seeing changes in the migration patterns of geese and caribou?” He had things to say about those issues, but he really wanted to tell me, “Look, this isn’t the first time the government and corporations have been concerned about environmental change in our homelands. It’s not the first time that scientists have tried to tell us what to do.” So, that really put my radar up.  It turned my project towards a presenting a more critical view of the Arctic. It taught me to include Inuit voices and listen to them, and to position the Arctic not just as a place of fascination, but as a place that we’re intimately connected to.

Through the connections I made with community members I started to see scholarship and flows of knowledge through a long stream of time. There is a long history of scientists coming up and studying the Arctic, taking that work back, presenting it in conferences, earning tenure at universities, publishing their work, but never really returning the knowledge to the north, not allowing that work to raise the profile of communities in the north, or allowing communities control of that information. I wanted to allow my research to do work outside of the academic circles that we travel in.Photo of Andrew Stuhl, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Bucknell University

WVB: Research is fundamentally extractive. Returning knowledge to local people that help to produce our work is vital. One of the men I worked with over the summer told me not to write a hollow text. I asked him what that meant, and he said it was a work in which the ending of the story is always bad, one which doesn’t do anything to help the community. This man was saying that something that is not a hollow text will  articulate what they are doing and how they are surviving, not just despite the problems they are facing but because of them.

AS:  That’s right. These issues are something I sat with when trying to end the book.  It is easy to tell a declensionist narrative about places around the world that have experienced rapid environmental change. But there are also awesome moments, however small, for possibility. In the 1960s and 70s, you see the very actors who 100 years prior had gone north to try to control resources through research take a different stance. They start working with local communities, combining ideas about environmentalism with social justice. If we ignore this shift we miss the complexity of the present moment. We miss the complexity of science.  We miss the choices that all scientists have to make concerning their research agendas. It isn’t hopeless to try to write a richer history, or as you called it a non-hollow text. By attempting to do so, we’re actually confronting the richness of history, and this gives us in the present moment ideas of what’s possible even in the face of what seems like an overwhelming change. It’s not just a question of narrative now. It’s a question of practice. It’s a question of what history really is and what history can do for the public.

WVB: You make it very clear in your book that you do not intend to speak for Inuit. When someone shares a story with you, you take the responsibility to share their experience, not just your own.

AS: We’ve been speaking in the context of environmental history of places with rich indigenous communities, but I think it’s actually much broader than that. This responsibility should be part of all historical practice. Oral history can be an extractive process. The scales in which we frame environmental history can either open opportunities for community engagement, or close them off. What we choose to study can inspire different amounts of political change in the world. Not every historian needs to be political, but every historian needs to be aware that the choices they make have those possibilities within them.

This is also the conversation I have with scientists. Environmental history was founded on political activism. You need to engage the public. In the field of climate science, I sense a lot of hesitance. Some would rather stand in their laboratories and collect the data. But, I think this choice to frame their work as removed from society is closing off other possibilities and ignoring the connections such work has to society. I want scientists to understand that their work has political effects, that there is responsibility that comes with research, and that they should apply their research to activism.

Drawing of the 1845 Franklin Expedition. Wikimedia Commons.

Drawing of the 1845 Franklin Expedition. Wikimedia Commons.

WVB: What implications might such awareness on the part of scientists have for how society comes to know or imagine the Arctic?

AS: If you only look at social media, the Arctic does not really show up in a historical sense. For example the New York Times recently featured reports on finally finding the lost Franklin expedition, or articles on how cruise ships are now traveling through the Arctic because there has been a lane opened by climate change. What I see when I look at these reports is history being presented in a very shallow way. There’s a fascination with the failure of the British Empire in an extreme environment,  or there’s a fascination about a place that is about to transform. These “Arctics” are out of time, either displaced into the past or displaced into the future.

My work challenges this, pointing out that these are interpretations of the Arctic. Where do they lead us? We miss the colonial history that is alive and animating interactions between residents of the north, their elected officials, and scientists. We need to take this lesson and apply it to other places that are affected by climate change which face the risk of this same kind of media erasure.

In addition to this, I want to point out to readers that we cannot let the Arctic become the full target of our concern about climate change. The places that drive climate change in the north are the places where we live. We are the ones putting out most of the greenhouse gas emissions. We have to be able to see the Arctic as a colonial place, to see scientists doing work in the Arctic, to see opportunities for resilience. We also have to take that understanding back to where we live, and engage scientists around the climate change where we live. This probably feels like difficult work, because it’s harder to see climate change if you don’t have ice melting in your backyard, but it’s the most important work we have. The places where climate change is most visible are not the same places where climate change starts.

WVB: When it comes to climate change’s visibility and effects, we can’t think of this as a native/non-native issue. Indigenous people are not all against resource development. In fact, many times they benefit from such development. Your book raises the important question of how indigenous people are involved in decisions, especially in cases where they profit from decisions that might affect their land. Why is it important to complicate the narrative around indigenous peoples when it comes to land-use, climate change, and the development of natural resources?

AS: This is been part of an important discourse in the United States over the past couple of weeks in regards to the Dakota Access pipeline. What I’m starting to see in these complex controversies is how relevant historical agreements like treaties can be for land-use decision-making, and also how relevant environmental policies like impact assessments can be. These documents set the terms of who gets to move on land and who gets to be involved in decision-making. Right now the Army Corps of Engineers is saying they do need to carry out further consultation with tribal governments. If you took this conversation into Canada, the public—people living in the south, living in the north—they would be nodding their heads, saying this is a no-brainer. In Northern Canada and Alaska, this is an everyday conversation. This is the last 40 years of history. This is what the nation has been moved by since 1970. It’s really surprising to me that our understanding of climate change in the south and within academia in the United States has not brought into that conversation the place of treaties and the place of environmental policies. These treaties from the past set the terms of not only who owns land, but who gets to make decisions about land, and what kind of knowledge is brought to bear on such decisions.

Scientists set up equipment on an iceberg to measure climate change. Public domain.

Scientists set up equipment on an iceberg to measure climate change. Public domain.

WVB:  In your earlier article for Edge Effects, “Why Our Students Should Debate Climate Change,” you draw upon biologist Barry Commoner‘s call for the repositioning of scientists in society. How do you envision the positioning of scientists, and what can we as the public do to engagement science particularly, science of the Arctic?

AS: Part of being a publicly engaged scholar on the issue of climate change in the Arctic was attending conferences that I might not otherwise have attended, particularly the conferences of climate change scientists. Usually, I’m the only historian in the room. What I have seen is that there are many scientists who are committing their entire research agenda to community-based work. They are allowing their research to be led by communities who want data to adapt to changes. There are many scholars who are already out there, already doing this kind of work. In regards to the scientific community, it’s just a matter of showing the benefits of that work, showing the ethical dimensions of this research, showing that they are producing rich data that can be quickly transformed into policy and into action.

My book tries to point out for the readers places where they might encounter climate scientists. They might see them on the news, they might see them in the media, or they might read an Inconvenient Truth. Readers are already consuming science, learning to see the information presented there as embedded in colonial history is an important mindset to adopt. I don’t think that will be hard for Edge Effects readers and listeners.

The next thing is a bit more challenging. We need to see what is transpiring in the Arctic not as closed off from the rest of the world, or as an unique example based on the extreme environments of the Arctic. Rather, it’s the first of what will be many examples of the climate changing local environments and animating deep histories. So, wherever your readers and listeners are, they are going to face the same questions concerning representation, community-based knowledge, histories of science, and rapid environmental change. We all need to engage the scientists in our communities to understand what is happening locally with climate change.

Featured image: An iceberg floating in the Arctic Ocean, 2015. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Andrew Stuhl is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Bucknell University. He is the author of Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Website. Twitter. Contact.

William Voinot-Baron is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation research focuses on how fisheries management along the Kuskokwim River in southwest Alaska is affecting Alaska Native lives and livelihoods, and how fishing entails more than the catching of fish itself, but also the social and moral relations of care that are tied up in it. Contact.

Leave a Reply