Researchers’ Blog

The Anthropocene Arctic

The Anthropocene Arctic

One of the big issues a few of us (in particular, Simone, Berit, Britt and myself) have been tossing around with each other since the beginning of the Arctic Encounters project engages one of those academic buzzwords-du-jour – or perhaps it’s d’epoch – Anthropocene. The term* designates a new era in planetary history characterised by the overwhelming impact of human activity on the global ecosystem. It has been attributed to many factors: overpopulation, pollution, overharvesting, climate change (both natural and man-induced), habitat destruction, dearth of bio-diversity and simple ignorance, among other things (Bassett 2009:142). As Anna Tsing has pointed out, the era isn’t the result of humans finding a way to destroy the universe/planet, but rather one resultant from humans having invested in various forms of capitalist exploitation with little thought of the consequences – a period spanning the past century or two, in which ‘unrealistic dreams of the reach of human mastery fueled the scholarly divide between humans, ready to conquer, and non-humans, waiting for conquest’ (Tsing 2013). The term Anthropocene came about in 2002, when Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen conjured it up at a conference as a critical response to another scholar who had been referring to the Holocene as the current era. Compellingly – and this is one aspect that makes the topic particularly interesting for those of us on Arctic Encounters project – recent work on the Anthropocene has been linking multiple, divergent academic disciplines, bridges the centuries-old cultural and epistemological divide between the humanities and the sciences which has often thwarted successful cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Today, across multiple discourses, the Arctic is presented more and more as an emblem of the Anthropocene, central to narratives of what humans are (capable of) doing to nature. As a pure, wild and indigenous space, the Arctic is imagined from the outside as the destination for one of the last great wilderness adventures available on Earth. At the same time, it is the focus of intense political action (and intense political campaigning), as one of the parts of the planet that yields clear and patent indications of anthropogenic climate change, attracting scientists and environmentalists to witness to its material evidence, and politicians to employ it symbolically as an environmental credential. Higher temperatures, melting ice and increased accessibility of mineral resources have brought greater economic activity (Kristoffersen 2014), including mineral extraction, tourism (Amundsen 2012) and other kinds of commercial mobility (especially shipping). The region is thus increasingly seen as a space ‘of and for geopolitics’ (Dittmer et al. 2011), and one frequently viewed through an imperial lens (Steinberg et al. 2013). These views largely rely on a classical Enlightenment idea of nature as external to the human condition, one that fails to acknowledge the intertwined inhabited space of those who live in the region (Rybråten 2013), or inherited knowledge practices such as those related to sustainable fishing (Dale, 2011, Stuvøy and Kristoffersen 2013).

Anna Tsing, under the guise of her recently bestowed title of Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University, has just launched a new 5-year, $5 million USD project, Anthropocene: Discovering the Potential of Unintentional Design on Anthropogenic Landscapes, funded by the Danish National Research Foundation. Tsing’s project will look at how anthropogenic imaginations, as inflected in ruined, re-wilded, and unintended landscapes, can engender new designs for healthier living as opposed to new dangers to life on earth. As the project outline puts it, in this new geologic epoch characterised by ‘unprecedented human disturbance of the earth’s ecosystems … nature itself has become a cultural side-effect, a side-effect full of unintended consequences.’

We have been thinking about the increased role that tourism might be playing in these unintended consequences. If the Anthropocene is a designation that brings primary responsibility for environmental change to humans, what does an exponential increase in ecotourism and travel in the Arctic mean for this responsibility and how it governs human action? How do ecotourism enterprises seek to reconcile the contradictions of the Arctic’s unprecedented growth in tourism and concomitant increases in anthropogenic climate effects? There is a complex relationship between processes that romanticise the pristine necessary for effectively ‘selling’ the Arctic as a tourist destination, and the logistical functions in place for ensuring that such tourism preserves instead of destroys these landscapes.

Take Norway’s booming whalewatching tourism business, for example. As Lapland awakens from its long winter hibernation, as the days lengthen and the sun breaks away from its home below the horizon, the ocean’s whales begin to feed. The Lofoten and Vesterålen archipelagos lie several kilometres from the beginning of the continental shelf (eggakanten), whose deep water and nutrient-rich food supply such as squid make it an essential feeding grounds for whales – 40-ton sperm whales, for example, can dive down as deep as 3km to find krill, squid and fish. Andenes, at the northern tip of Andøya island some 300 km north of the Arctic Circle, has become one of Norway’s most successful fishing villages thanks to its proximity to these feeding-rich areas. But Norway has also offered whalewatching excursions to domestic and foreign tourists since 1988, with Andenes home to the largest and most successful Arctic whalewatching operation, Whalesafari Ltd (see for details on various whalewatching enterprises in Norway). The excursions take place aboard small vessels using hydrophone technology to scout for the sounds of whales – essential for locating the mammals without causing them disturbance (see, and for more on this). Andenes-based whale tours support the research and protection of offshore whale colonies; the village has also become a field station and research hub for whale researchers. But the whalewatching industry itself has significantly profited directly from increases in average water temperature: as the seas near the coast warm, herring move further North and the whales follow, meaning that one can now find whalewatching tours in Tromsø – something unheard of several years ago. Today, most Norwegian tour operators now claim a ninety-five percent chance of a whale sighting, and many will reimburse the price of your ticket (or offer you a free trip) if you don’t see any.

In light of examples like this, we are considering the extent to which tourism ‘sells’ an Anthropocene version of human-nature relationships in the Arctic, and the role an ecotourism ethics might play in these complex relationships, their marketing and their consumption. We are interested, furthermore, in the ways these ethics are being constructed and negotiated, since ethics ‘are useless as long as the categories it assesses are already set in place’ (Tsing 2013). Edward Hujbens of the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre at the University of Akureyri (Iceland) and Martin Gren of the Department of Organisation and Entrepreneurship at Linnaeus University (Sweden) are hoping to fill conspicuous gap in social science literature with a planned edited volume on Tourism and the Anthropocene, currently under review. Meanwhile, Simone, Berit, Britt and I are hoping to use an opportunity to contribute to the book to think about and explore the various roles played by tourism – and its ethics and aesthetics – in an Anthropocene Arctic.

*If the Anthropocene’s relevance and usefulness goes largely uncontested, its pronunciation does not: some say anthropo-SEEN, others anth-RAHP-uh-seen, still others use the two interchangeably. Take your pick.


Amundsen, Helene, (2012) Differing Discourses of Development in the Arctic: The Case of Nature-Based Tourism in Northern Norway. Northern Review, 35: pp. 125-146.

Bassett, Carol Ann (2009) Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution. London: National Geographic.

Dale, B. (2012) Securing a Contingent Future. How Threats, Risks and Identity Matter in the Debate over Petroleum Development in Lofoten, Norway, PhD-thesis in Political Science, University of Tromsø.

Dittmer, J., Moisio, S., Ingram, A., and Dodds, K. (2011) Have you heard the one about the disappearing ice? Recasting Arctic geopolitics, Political Geography, 30(4), 202-214

Kristoffersen, B. (accepted), ‘Opportunistic Adaptation: New discourses on oil, equity and environmental security’. In O’Brien K. and E. Selboe (eds), The adaptive challenge of climate change. New York: Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming 2014.

Rybråten, S (2013) This is not a wilderness. This is where we live.” Enacting nature in Unjárga-Nesseby, Northern Norway, PhD thesis in Anthropology, University of Oslo.

Steinberg, P., E., Tasch, J. and H. Gerhardt. (2014) Contesting the Arctic: Rethinking Politics in the Circumpolar North, I.B Tauris (in press)

Stuvøy, K. and B. Kristoffersen, B. (2013) “En feit og fin og norsk en? Lofottorsken i internasjonal politikk”, Tidsskriftet Internasjonal Politikk, 71: 1, pp. 109-119.

Tsing, A. (2013) ‘Inaugural lecture’ Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project. 06 November. Available at


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