Governing a multifarious matter (J. Bruun)

Governing a multifarious matter

Johanne M. Bruun, Doctoral Researcher, Department of Geography, Durham University

“When water freezes, everything changes. You can walk on water”[i]

This statement was made in 1983 by Albert F. Wuori, Chief of the US Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory’s Experimental Engineering Division. The statement is suggestive of one of the premises of the ice-law workshop: namely that the ontological distinction between land and water is complicated by ice – in this case how the presence of ice changes military interactions with the environment. At least to some extent, law must reflect the physical (and perceived) environment that people inhabit. Yet current legal regimes seem to reify a land/water binary without regard for whether the water is liquid or frozen. This apparently ill fit between legal concepts of ice and practical uses and understandings of ice, most notably in the Arctic where the presence of indigenous populations complicates matters further, is the issue at stake. The following represents some of my scattered thoughts spurred by the ice-law workshop.

Complications arise not only from the materiality of ice which is simultaneously solid and dynamic; the semantic slipperiness and multiplicity of ice poses its own challenges. As was iterated in the ‘anthropological section’ of the workshop, Arctic indigenous peoples have complex vocabularies of ice reflecting its differing qualities and uses. However, as vividly illustrated by the conference manual which contained a lengthy glossary of technical terms for different kinds of ice, you do not need a complex polysynthetic language, like that of Arctic Inuit for example, to have a hundred words for ice and snow[ii]. These differences are, of course, not just semantic, but reflect different physical as well as qualitative properties of ice. Addressing questions of translation between different languages, experiences, knowledges, and values requires an understanding of the different coexisting knowledges of ice, which makes interdisciplinarity key to an ice-law venture.

Currently, Arctic governance regimes seem to be informed primarily by ‘hard’ scientific knowledge, and indeed, the links between the natural sciences (e.g. glaciology, climatology, geology, and geophysics) and (geo)politics have always been strong. Yet, the materialities of ice are not yet settled as gaps in scientific knowledge still exist. Though it would be wrong to assume that there is a necessary schism between scientific knowledge and, for example, social and cultural knowledges of ice, complexities inevitably arise when different spatial ontologies and languages somehow have to merge or hybridise as would be necessary to establish a comprehensive ice law.

Law is a space-making practice that intervenes in the geographies of the Earth[iii]. A premise of international law is some kind of agreement regarding what is to be governed. The semantic slipperiness of ice, the multifarious nature of the matter itself, and the multiplicity of functions it serves (a highway, an obstacle, a hunting ground, an oil field, a culture-scape, or a laboratory etc.) complicates the framing of broadly acceptable definitions and understandings which is required to make a legitimate legal regime possible.

Depending on how it is achieved, incorporating ice within international law might lead to a stabilisation of ice in accordance with particular sets of values. As was iterated by Beth DeSombre during the workshop, identifying the ‘relevant everyone’ who should have a voice in what these values should be is a complicated task. Climate change affects sea ice, but the presence of ice also regulates global temperatures and thus affects people living far from the poles. While the Arctic indigenous peoples’ right to be cold was a subject of debate at the workshop, the right of non-Arctic people to be relatively cold also seem noteworthy as the number of so-called ‘climate refugees’ increase. This is but one example of perhaps seemingly unlikely parties that may have a vested interest in what kind of interaction with ice is deemed appropriate, and how an ice-law might protect the matter.

Construing ice as a legal matter requires an understanding of different knowledges, experiences, understandings, uses and desires relating to human (and non-human) interaction with the material, as well as an understanding of how these may intersect. This is part of why an interdisciplinary (or at the very least multidisciplinary) scope of future research on the legal identity of ice seem likely to be most fruitful. Despite any tension that may arise when you bring together academics who speak different disciplinary languages, I think it may, at least partially, be within this tension that the most interesting ideas emerge. Ultimately, it seems to me that the gap between law, material geographies, and socio-cultural practices is more than a gap in the legal frameworks that currently govern the frozen spaces of the Earth. Indeed, it may prove necessary to revisit some of the very concepts of modern political organisation as suggested by Stuart Elden’s talk on territory and Jessica Shadian’s talk on sovereignty.

When water freezes, something changes. But the changes are perceived and known in many different ways as multiple geographies are configured through the same ice.


[i] A. F. Wuori quoted by Martin-Nielsen, J. (2012) ‘The other Cold War: The United States and Greenland’s ice sheet environment, 1948-1966’, Journal of Historical Geography, 38, pp. 69-80

[ii] See also Pyne, S. J. (1987) The ice: A journey to Antarctica, London: Arlington Books

[iii] See Blomley, N. (1994) Law, space, and the geographies of power, New York and London: The Guilford Press

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