Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

What's Up with the Top of the World?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

What's Up with the Top of the World?

Article excerpt

Byline: FRANCIS SPUFFORD

THE FUTURE HISTORY OF THE ARCTIC by Charles Emmerson (Bodley Head, [pounds sterling]20) AS THE world warms, and the ice of the Arctic Ocean dwindles, the belt of frozen land that rings the sea at the top of the world is going to warm faster than almost anywhere else, with results ranging from interesting to cataclysmic, depending on how many of the triggers for further rapid change the process ends up pulling. One way or another, the Arctic is going to figure much larger in human affairs than it has until now.

That's the prospect that prompts this book -- but despite the title, it's not the place to go for visions of quaking Alaskan permafrost in 2030, or an ice-free North Pole thronged with Russian gas rigs in 2100, or rippling Greenlandic wheat fields in AD 3000. You could organise the different scenarios for the Arctic future in probability bands: this, if we stick at two degrees of warming, this for four degrees, this for the roasting disaster of six. It isn't what Charles Emmerson wants to do.

Disappointingly, he defines "future history" as the history of futures rather than the future of history. Here, yesterday leads not to tomorrow but to today's "motivations, hopes, fears and ambitions" for the Arctic.

He tells the histories in question with wit and verve. His reach is enormous, as it needs to be, for Arctic history is a Scandinavian story and an Inuit story, a Canadian and a Russian and an American one.

Emmerson carries us more or less right around the circumpolar landscape, datelining different instalments everywhere from Murmansk to Nuuk, and gathering as he goes fistfuls of different perceptions and grand strategies. There's room here for the details of 19th-century Canadian election results and for Shell's problems on Sakhalin island in the 1990s, for Icelandic investment bankers and for Finnish icebreaker design. For once, there's room too for a gigantic factor often pushed to the margins of polar history: the awe-inspiringly inhumane, deliberately antiecological Soviet programme for the development of the Arctic. "Let the fragile green beast of Siberia be dressed in the concrete armour of cities", he quotes. …

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