How fake news and starving bears could keep more complex stories of the Arctic from being told

By Martin Breum - February 12, 2018

In Tromsø, the main Arctic city in Norway, mayor Kristin Røymo welcomed us with a warning. She talked of what she called “Google images of the Arctic.”

“There is hardly ever any people on these images of the Arctic,” she said.

Later, she explained to me: “Decision-makers all over the world make decisions that have consequences for all of us who live in the Arctic. We have to make sure they understand that the Arctic has been inhabited by real people for thousands of years. They still think that the Arctic is a deserted, white and untouched region. They have this twisted idea that you can save the world if you protect the Arctic. But the changes in the Arctic do not happen because of what happens here, but because of what happens in Australia, in South America, in Europe, North America and elsewhere.”

Then a few days later, as if to prove Røymo’s point about Google images, scientists from the U.S. and Canada, writing in Science on Feb. 1, published new video-based evidence of the difficult life of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea.

Three years in a row they fastened cameras to a number of bears to document feeding habits and other bear-data. We now know that the bears are finding it still harder to hunt down enough seals to feed themselves as the ice recedes. This is important science on climate change — and explosive video material. In a few hours hordes of eager editors chopped the videos to public-friendly bits now airing on millions of TV screens, smartphones and laptops across the world.

[Metabolism study signals more trouble ahead for polar bears]

Mayor Røymo issued her admonition from Tromsø as she welcomed us to Arctic Frontiers, a yearly gathering of Arctic politicos, scientists and others. In her sparkling modern city, complete with electrified and therefore ice-free January pavements, she was bursting to paint a more complex, richer picture of her urban, educated, innovative part of the Arctic. This is not the world of polar bears, but of, for instance, new high-tech partnerships between oil-companies nervously eyeing the soon-to-be carbon free world, and other businesses. The oil companies in Norway are teamed up with fish-farmers, deep-sea mining entrepreneurs and those doing renewable energy who can use their superb marine engineering skills to make a more climate-friendly buck. In this European part of the Arctic, innovation, technology, heavy investments in knowledge, universities and science is the name of the new Arctic game.

Of course, like the mayor of Tromsø, others across the Arctic and in particular indigenous groups have long battled to tell other than the predominant polar bear stories of the Arctic. Arctic arts-and-film festivals, Arctic news media and lately a proposed Arctic film-fund by the International Samí Film Institute (supported also by filmmakers in Greenland and Nunavut) bear testimony to this craving, but the more complex stories from and of the Arctic are up against very hard competition indeed.

In December, when National Geographic posted a 67-second video of a dying polar bear, it instantly went viral, just like now its fellows from Science.

A friend of mine, who is close to the National Geographic team, claims that this truly heart-breaking video got 2 billion clicks in a matter of days. (I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but a simple internet search indicated very fast global reach).

Soon, when HBO launches its ninth and reportedly final season of Game of Thrones, a mega-hit tv series, some 10 million people across the world (judging from previous counts) will suck up hours of brilliant drama carrying another set of spicy Arctic imagery. In Game of Thrones the world is divided in two: An Arctic-like part and a non-Arctic southern part. Humanity lives in the southern non-Arctic part. Here the rulers are obsessively trying to kill each other, basically making a bloody mess of everything and only slowly facing up to the real threat which comes from the north: The army of the dead, an utterly scary multitude of monsters which is, in this fictitious rendering of the challenge of our time, standing in for climate change. The only real people who live in the Arctic part of this world are small bands of skin-clad primitives, charming and hardy, but also somewhat prone to violence and the killing of things with wooden clubs.

Such Arctic imagery, happily devoid of any real Arctic people or more complex Arctic context, is — as mayor Røymo testified — not uncommon. I remember as another example “Chasing Ice,” a 2014 documentary that won an Emmy award for Outstanding Nature Programming. The film follows James Balog, a U.S. photographer, who set out on a crushing journey to document with highly sophisticated cameras the receding of glaciers in Iceland, the U.S. and Greenland — even damaging one of his own legs seriously in the process. He collected superb footage and sent an important message of climate change to a large audience (“Chasing Ice” is still available on Netflix.)

But this documentary also compounded an age old, southern image of the Arctic as menacingly uninhabitable, cold, icy, dangerous and just basically awful. (To be fair, one person from the Arctic does show up in Chasing Ice: An Inuit man driving a dog sled and filmed from behind features, as I recall, for about 15 seconds). From such images it is, of course, hard to tell that millions of people have, for millennia, lived happy, sunny lives in the Arctic and that millions still do.

Back in 2005, Robert McGhee, a curator of Arctic archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Quebec (now the Canadian Museum of History), broke new ground when he told us of the many wild and faulty stories of and by the early Arctic explorers that survived as honest truth far into modern times. His book “The Last Imaginary Place — A Human History of the Arctic World” still stands as a key eye-opener. It is now well supplemented by another scholarly work, “Contesting the Arctic — Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North,” about the key notions of the Arctic amongst modern day decision makers. Like the mayor of Tromsø, these writers illustrate how imagery is important for how we act, plan, invest and understand each other — and how this is particularly important in Arctic nations as many decision makers in these countries rarely find time to actually go to the Arctic.

Finally, at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø we learned how fake news and the way it now undermines our confidence in any and all sources of information might make it even more difficult for more nuanced stories of the Arctic to reach the world.

Klaus Dodds, professor at the University of London and an expert in Arctic governance, geopolitics and popular culture, asked the audience to accept how indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been, as he put it, the victims of fake news for centuries. Later he told me how, for instance, the several truth-and-reconciliation commissions in the Arctic, were to him evidence that “societies have been inattentive to the historical record in terms of how we have treated indigenous peoples. Northern residents have been dealing with fake news for centuries in so far as the stories that have been told in the south often bear little or no resemblance to their everyday realities.”

And now, just as Arctic communities are getting better at speaking up, people further south worry that everything they hear might be fake news.

“This is what worries me,” Dodds said. “We are now talking and worrying about a post-truth-world just as northern communities are becoming more confident and assertive in forwarding their voices and their experiences.”

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist and author specializing in Arctic affairs.

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