May 2017: Workshop Report from ‘Anticipating Abundance: Economizing the Arctic’ (Durham)

The first meeting of the Resources subproject was held on 11-12 May at Durham University in the United Kingdom. This invitational workshop focused on practices of resource-making in the Arctic, and brought together geographers, anthropologists, specialists in cultural economy and scholars of Arctic resource development. The workshop combined 8 pre-circulated papers with cross-cutting discussion around three core themes (narrating, knowing and valuing, disrupting). The overall objective of the workshop was to think through how the bio- and geophysical materialities of polar environments enable and disrupt an anticipatory economy. Four guiding questions served to address this objective:

  • What role does the anticipation of resource abundance have in histories of Arctic futures?
  • In what ways do epistemologies (indigenous, scientific, other) of Arctic space shape contemporary narratives of its abundance and scarcity?
  • How are Arctic spaces and materialities represented in ways that can bear value, and/or sustain calculations of risk and reward?
  • How do the diverse materialities and temporalities of the Arctic disrupt practices of economisation?

Speakers at the workshop were Dag Avango (KTH, Stockholm), Gavin Bridge (Durham University), Karen Hébert (Carleton University), Kärg Kama (University of Oxford), Berit Kristoffersen (UiT – the Arctic University of Norway), Magdalena Kuchler (Uppsala University), Brice Perombelon (University of Oxford) and Gisa Weszkalnys (LSE).

The workshop began with an introduction by Phil Steinberg to the aims and scope of the ICELAW Project. Gavin Bridge then introduced the Resources subtheme before outlining the structure and argument of his paper, Economizing the Arctic: polar orientations, which offered an initial framing to guide discussion at the workshop. He introduced the conceptual framework of ‘resource-making’ and outlined how and why resource-making practices (around oil, gas, minerals and fish, for example) have unfolded in the Arctic over the past decade. He linked resource-making to the creation of ‘anticipatory economies’ – in which an orientation towards the future structures actions in the present – and explored how certain qualities of Arctic space have accentuated this process. Gavin’s presentation considered how environments and resources in the Arctic are assembled as economic objects. He closed his presentation with three sets of questions, as an invitation to thinking more empirically during the workshop about how the region’s distinctive materialities mediate the way resource-making unfolds in Arctic space.

Karen Hébert spoke next, drawing on fieldwork in the Bristol Bay and Sitka Sound regions of SW Alaska in her presentation, The biggest, the best, the most, the last: producing valuable and vulnerable natural resources in coastal Alaska. Her presentation centred on imaginaries of scarcity, catastrophe and vulnerability at work in and around fishing and mining projects. Karen explored the complex and contradictory roles these imaginaries play in producing resources as objects of economic calculation and social mobilisation, and the significance in both instances of hyperbolic modes of performance (in reference to size/scale, degree of peril and affective intensity, for example). She showed, for example, how efforts to counter the promotion of mining – a proposed large copper/gold/molybdenum mine in the Bristol Bay area – have focused on mapping, counting and performing the bodies of salmon as an emblem of vulnerability.

Dag Avango discussed recent and ongoing research on histories of resource extraction in the Far North, focussing on the experience of northern Scandinavia. His presentation and accompanying paper (Extracting the Future) explored the actors and forces driving the development of mining in the Spitsbergen Archipelago from 1898 to 1925. Dag described the strategies adopted by early 20th century mining companies to deal with rugged topography and climate, focusing on adaptations around transport, storage, housing and the demonstration of claims to land. His presentation discussed how mining companies and developers sought to project the Far North as an accessible and productive space of future mining and how, at the same time, these efforts were often under-cut by popular narratives that stressed the heroic qualities needed to survive in the Arctic. During a period of roundtable discussion on the theme of narrating abundance and scarcity, participants responded to the presentations of Dag and Karen by exploring how historic experiences interleave with present day mining projects. It was recognised, for example, how the latter frequently draw on historical narratives of mining’s role as a regional ‘pioneer’ as part of constructing their ‘social license’ to operate.

Berit Kristofferson’s presentation Networks of oil, cod and guests in Røst, Lofoten: uncertain entities in meaningful seascapes outlined new research into the impact on fishing communities in Lofoten of an offshore oil production license (PL 219) granted by Norway’s Petroleum Directorate. She explained how PL219 goes to the heart of Norwegian statehood, as it sits at the centre of debates over whether the country can maintain oil production levels while demonstrating environmental superiority when it comes to Arctic drilling. Berit described how PL 219 is portrayed as holding ‘the best of what is left’ in terms of the most readily accessible and abundant of Norway’s remaining hydrocarbon reserves. At the same time, it is located very close to a part of the Norwegian Sea known for its valuable winter fisheries. Her presentation explored this conflict between oil and fishing interests and the relation of this conflict to the biophysical and geophysical materialities of the offshore realm. Berit also previewed footage from an ongoing documentary project she is making on the responses of local fishers at Røst to PL219.

Brice Perombelon discussed results from recent fieldwork in the resource development-intensive Sahtu region of Canada’s Northwest Territories. His paper, Narratives of energy production: dialogic alienation in an indigenous resource enclave of the Canadian High North, presented an ethnographic case-study of resource politics in the settlement of Tulita informed by the conceptual repertoire of literary theorist and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin. Brice’s account focussed on the ways in which indigenous peoples are marginalised in corporate-community interactions via a pervasive ‘narrative of progress’ that equates the extraction of natural resources to economic and social development. He argued that indigenous modes of speaking and thinking need to be accommodated in these interactions so that they become integral to the resource extraction narrative in Canada’s North (and elsewhere). A roundtable discussion followed the papers by Brice and Berit around the theme of knowing and valuing. Amongst other things, participants reflected on the histories of internal colonialism in the Far North, the multiple ontologies at work in the construction of resources, and what is at stake in how (as researchers) we describe how different ontologies articulate with one to another (e.g. collision vs. silencing vs. co-existence).

Kärg Kama and Gisa Weszkalnys gave a joint-presentation on the topic of resource temporalities in relation to their respective areas of research. Their paper, Resource Temporalities: anticipations, retentions and afterlives, built on the idea that resources are hybrid socio-natural entities (rather than fixed physical substances) to explore the value of thinking about resources as distributed and processual phenomena in which issues of temporality come to the fore. They drew on their respective research (Kärg on the constitution of oil shales as future energy resources in Estonia and elsewhere; Gisa on the protracted development of offshore oil exploration in São Tomé and Príncipe) to highlight the multiple and intersecting temporalities that surround resource-making practices. Their presentation offered a critique of ‘anticipation’ as a way of thinking about these complex temporalities that fold together both futures and pasts, and highlighted the affective dimensions (e.g. hope, anxiety) that surround resource-making projects.

Magdalena Kuchler reflected on the socio-technical imaginaries (e.g. of scarcity and abundance) and technologies of visualisation associated with a contemporary process of resource-making around shale gas in Europe. Her paper, Rendering post-conventional energy futures governable: implications for the Arctic?, showed how shale gas, as a potential global resource, has been made visible through techniques of classification, quantification, mapping and designation. She highlighted key shifts associated with this process of rendering visible and governable, in terms of the politics of resource development. Her presentation drew links between the recent experience of shale gas mapping and the USGS Circum-Arctic Resource Assessment (2008) of oil and gas resources which, nearly a decade ago, propelled significant interest in Arctic hydrocarbons. A roundtable discussion followed the presentations by Kärg, Gisa and Magdalena in which participants considered key themes and ideas that had been raised over the course of the workshop. This also included reflections on the initial framing paper in light of the presentations and discussion.

For more information, contact Gavin Bridge (g.j.bridge@durham.ac.uk) who is convening the Resources subtheme.