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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2011

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Books Of Note


Baby, It's Cold Outside

Forget Horace Greely: Head north, far north, that is. And stay there. Real prosperity in the twenty-first century is nigh and looms before us on the icy horizons of the Arctic—or so proposes University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) geographer Laurence C. Smith in his bold new book, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future.

Smith's intriguing and informed “thought experiment” theorizes that the northern quarter of our planet or “all land and oceans lying 45 degrees North latitude or higher” will, in four decades, become an economic wellspring, a migratory hotspot (figuratively speaking), and thus a valued geopolitical hub. This would be especially true for the eight current landowners: the United States, Canada, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

The author successfully frames his thesis along complex and simple lines. “Everything is linked,” says Smith. And he provides the necessary factual linkage. Providing the nonrealization of cataclysmal events (“As in any experiment,” the author states, “we must first define the assumptions and ground rules upon which its outcomes are contingent”), four “world-changing” factors will contribute to Arctic urbanization: demographic trends, natural resource demands, climate change, and globalization. Each of these factors is supported by core events: the rapid increase of global urbanization, a future of water as “blue oil,” an estimated 2050 world population of 9.2 billion people desirous of or in need of space, and the reality of climate change. “The power of greenhouse gases is beyond dispute,” writes Smith. There are obvious and profound consequences to this—and enormous, equally profound economic advantages. Succinctly put, “climate change will make oil, gas, and mineral resources in the north more accessible.”

But accessibility is one thing, habitability is another. Smith's thesis wonderfully begets speculation—and more speculation. Can a vast frozen desert with an average annual temperature still below freezing accommodate more than migratory workers bent on commodity extraction? After all, a society by definition needs its shoppers, students, soccer moms, scientists, and a concomitant network of industry. Pioneer families, with parkas, need apply.

Why wouldn't they?

With millions of years of bold human migration a historical fact, and with the ever-present lure of greener pastures also part of our history, and given the current state of technology (driveway heaters, snow blowers, etc.), migration to the Arctic is just a matter of time. Compared to the intrepid, earlier explorers and settlers to the New World and in contrast with the daring of space exploration, the thought of arctic urbanization is, in relative terms, not all that daunting. The potential is the starting point. That another type of desert locale, Phoenix, Arizona (obviously of a different temperature ratio), overtook Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to become the fifth largest city in the United States may portend something for the next 40 years—albeit in a northerly direction. Why not a world of indoor spring training and soccer? “This is a book about the future,” the author reminds us.

And the future is not without its informing philosophy. Smith refrains from any indulgence in manifest destiny redux; his inspiration is more personal, even slightly romantic, but not without due sobering reflection and gimlet eyes on the big picture: “To experience true northern solitude is both spooky and thrilling, like being time-warped to another planet without us. The question is how many more years things will remain the same.” The answer is, not many. With the Western world in the economic doldrums, the hunger for the next economic boom will only intensify. Heretofore unimaginable as a commercial outpost, let alone regional urbanization, not even the tundra will keep market forces at bay. (Even the author is hopeful, admitting that he has “begun socking away Canada-region mutual funds” in his retirement plan.)

But before the plane boarding to Thule or the Baffin Islands begins, an interesting challenge awaits science and industry: how to convince a prospective business or future resident of the softening ways of the erstwhile curmudgeon “Old Man Winter.” Smith's book is a good start.

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.

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