How many academics do you need to fly to a conference on sustainability? One answer is zero, of course. But if we take serious our commitment to social change – including when it relates to our engagement with the environment and our own long-term survival – then conferences such as the ICASS conference just held at UNBC, Prince George, are important.
The hundreds of academics who attended would probably agree with this statement. A smoothly-run conference outside a small town with limited distractions also helped focusing everyone’s attention on the conference itself. To a newcomer to this particular Arctic circle the conference was also an opportunity to get a sense of the types of engagements, the fields of studies, and the prevailing ways of looking at the Arctic – in many instances, and this is clearly one of the strengths of ICASS as an organisation, from within it.
So, after 5 days, where I have probably religiously attended more sessions than I ever have, what impressions am I left with? One is the enormity of the scope of the conference in terms of sheer numbers of panels, which means that even the most ambitious disciples would struggle to hear 10 percent of the papers delivered. This also means that the selectiveness concerning what to hear has bearing on the scope of the impressions – broad – but still in terms of the overall conference very selective.
Sverker Sörlin delivered to me the most inspiring keynote, because of the way in which he elegantly negotiated his way through science on climate change in the Arctic as narratives of very idiosyncratic driven interventions. Sörlin’s talk also underlined the point that the Arctic for scientists and scholars is a deeply personal project, something which became even more manifest in the many papers focusing on oral narratives and histories. Finally, Sörlin also brought across the point that the Arctic is simultaneously a unique region of the world, but also a region which in spite of its thin population has enormous global impact – not least when it comes to climate change.
For me the most interesting panel, obviously apart from my own, was the one panel I attended which began in earnest to tackle the question of the consequences of the corporate-government alliance’s scramble for resources in the Arctic. The paper on the consequences of the traffic of goods between North America and East Asia through pristine sub-Arctic waters near the Aleutian Islands brilliantly showed how the extractive industries do not necessarily deliver any local benefits wherever they go, nor are they necessarily in a direct relationship with particular locations. I also thought that the paper that discussed how large corporations staged their intervention in the Arctic – beginning with highly (self-)profiled meetings typically in if not feudal, then certainly aristocratic settings – offered profound insights into the corporate world. The exquisite design, the choreographed performance, the meetings as spectacle – for members of an extremely select club – was a sobering counternarrative to the much more highly profiled, and often uncritically circulated, discourse on Corporate Social Responsibility.
Inevitably, there were presentations I was far less happy with. Sometimes because of my own idiosyncratic preferences, but then there are also more structural arguments that I think have a bearing on how papers, panels and conferences themselves occur. One is the broad range of approaches from oral histories, which at times give the appearance of merely holding a microphone, not really of mediating or contextualising the testimonies in any way, to political science/international relations presentations that can reduce the global, the regional, the national and the local to segregated levels – or preferably multicoloured models. Obviously, these two approaches don’t sit well together, but as I am suggesting nor do they necessarily sit very well alone. Then there is what at least to me came across as a very striking geographical division between the panels – and between their audiences. If the idea with these conferences is to enable discussion between scholars, local actors, etc across the Arctic, then perhaps part of the conference should in fact be framed differently to enable this.
There is, however, one very simple place to begin such an endeavour: namely, by ceasing to cram five papers into 90-minute slots, which does not leave time for a proper presentation nor time for discussion afterwards – and very frequently for the panels I attended, neither of the two. Size isn’t everything.