On Thursday I gave my last talk of 2013, a brief contribution to a plenary session at the ArcticNet conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a session on the law of the sea and the commission on the limits of the continental shelf, and I was asked to give a political geography/theory perspective. All of us were asked to speak for 10 minutes. I was partly in a discussant role, but had little idea of what the other papers would say, largely as we were all responding to Canada’s submission to the UN Convention on the seabed earlier that week (executive summary here). In the media this has tended to be reported as Canada claiming the North Pole, and so on, but what’s striking about the actual submission is that it only treats the Atlantic, and reserves for the future a submission on the north of Canada. As Michael Byers, who chaired the session, has been saying in the media, this is largely a product of domestic politics, with Stephen Harper unwilling to be the Canadian PM who surrenders the North Pole. (See also the IBRU report and links here.) This week’s news did generate a lot of interest in the panel, and there was some media presence – I was briefly interviewed by CBC after the session, though I’m not sure if they used the segment.
In the talk I spoke a bit about my broader work on territory, and then tried to link the four previous presentations around the four aspects of territory that I’ve discussed elsewhere – the economic, the strategic, the legal and the technical. One of the previous presenters had made the claim that there was nothing political about some of the techniques. While I made the comment that we could say that there is always a politics to the technical, I was most interested in turning his claim around, rather than disagreeing with it: suggesting that the political is always technical. I’ve made this claim before in relation to territory as a political technology, as dependent on all sorts of techniques for measuring land and controlling terrain. It is very much the case in the Arctic too – the amount of money and time being invested in scientific measurement and surveying is remarkable. In all the Arctic Five countries a lot is being done to bolster claims that will be made, and while there is much collaborative work being done, there is not going to be some objective scientific resolution to the overlapping seabed and legal jurisdictional issues. The techniques and the law exist in a complicated interrelation with the political. I used IBRU’s excellent map of maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic as my illustration.
The final part was the most speculative, but suggested how thinking the sub-marine was a good indication of why we needed to think much more carefully about the dimensions of territory, of territory as a volume rather than as a flat area; and how thinking about sea, ice and seabed could be part of a wider project of rethinking geopolitics – as a politics of the earth rather than global politics. The last two points are much more where my recent work has been – the ‘Secure the Volume’ paper (available here) and as-yet-unpublished work on earth, geo-metrics and regrounding geopolitics (links are to audio recordings).
In the discussion I was asked about the possibilities for an Arctic Treaty on the model of the Antarctic Treaty. I said that there were two key differences between the regions which would make a straight-forward translation difficult – the nature of material composition of the area; and that the Arctic, unlike the Antarctic, had indigenous populations that would need to be involved. I’m sure there are many more differences and difficulties. I didn’t elaborate the second point, but said that in relation to the first what was potentially needed was a law of ice to be negotiated, using the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as a model, rather than the Antarctic treaty. I was careful to say that this idea comes from Phil Steinberg, but it is such a good idea that it really got people thinking. (Of course, ice is important outside the Arctic too, but in Antarctica there is solid land underneath most of the ice, which changes the issues at stake somewhat.) I had a few conversations later with people working on Inuit rights and indigenous knowledge, including thinking the category of ice, and suggesting that the land/sea dichotomy that is sometimes assumed in Western political thought and geography is already more complicated in Inuit understandings. I’m sure this is true, and neatly links the two differences I was able to suggest in my improvised response.