BOREAS: Histories from the North: Environments, Movements, Narrative is an international research initiative in the EUROCORES research programme of the European Science Foundation

One of the six research groups chosen for participating in the ESF BOREAS programme in the fall of 2006 is called "Colony, Empire, Environment: A Comparative International History of Twentieth Century Arctic Science." The international review of scientific excellence that ESF organised was the ground for the Norwegian Research Council decision to fund the Norwegian part of this collaboration. Urban Wråkberg at the Barents Institute is co-Project Leader and one of the initiators of this international research group which consists of nine scholars from USA, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The group is led by Prof. Ron Doel at Oregon State University, Corvalis, Oregon, USA.

Until recently, histories of the Arctic landscape—of the natural spaces and the larger environment of the far north—were also often narratives of domination and conquest. Previous scholars showed little interest in comparative studies, visual evidence, photography, in situ analysis, or in field stations and their role in research. Indeed, field experience, crucial to many branches of the life sciences and earth sciences, especially in the polar regions, was largely neglected in the conventional treatment of modern science. Another poorly studied aspect of northern history is how international political conflicts, and their resultant demands for particular kinds of geographic knowledge, shaped perceptions of the Arctic and Sub Arctic and the kinds of research programs undertaken there. If the North was already a vital concern for the Soviet state by the first third of the twentieth century, it did not become so for the United States until emerging Cold War hostilities after 1947 recast the Arctic as a potential battleground for anxious Pentagon planners. Surprisingly few studies have explored how Cold War military patronage shaped research programs and the production of knowledge in fields other than physics. Yet the influence of military patronage on the emerging environmental sciences is not only a neglected historical topic; it is a vital issue in contemporary policy deliberations as well, one that promises to shed light on historical conservation practices and stewardship of natural resources. While our proposed research centres on the Arctic, the influence of patronage on amorphous disciplines such as the environmental sciences is an issue of global significance.

Cold War surveillance radars at Vardø
Cold War surveillance radars at Vardø, northeastern Norway. Photo: Urban Wråkberg.

Aims and Objectives of the BOREAS Programme: COLONY, EMPIRE, ENVIRONMENT
What we seek to achieve is just such an account: a comparative international history of changing conceptions of the Arctic landscape during the twentieth century. Such wide-focus projects are extremely difficult to achieve by a single scholar. We have created a network of historians deeply committed to the history of recent Arctic science. Collectively we can address significant questions: how did Western ideological conceptions of the Arctic environment keep the Arctic ‘open’ for colonialism as well as nature conservation? How did patronage—particularly military funding—shape which research questions were investigated, and which ones were ignored and overlooked? In what ways was indigenous knowledge of the Arctic landscape incorporated into Western science? Our proposed project—which also examines multinational efforts to explore the Arctic including the Second International Polar Year of 1932-33 and the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58—fits well within the framework of the forthcoming International Polar Year of 2007, which will incorporate historical perspectives from past IPYs.

The most important contribution from this project will be a greatly improved understanding of Arctic scientific research during the twentieth century, as well as deeper insight into the shifting meaning and significance of the northern landscape, as colonial domination was replaced by Cold War military activities and ultimately increased native autonomy. The landscape was literally transformed by new harbours, settlements, mines, military bases, and research centres, as well as new hunting and fishing methods. But these transformations were ideological as well: western interpretations of the Arctic landscape circa 1900 changed dramatically after World War II, when the Arctic became a potential battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States. In several branches of Western knowledge production, a shift from a colonial to a post-colonial mode of thinking and relating to the landscapes and cultures of the north and their natural environment is evident. We propose several case studies to examine this shift. Already we have evidence that the time-lines of these processes are not coherent when comparing different branches of knowledge production, and that old models of analysis (centre-periphery, metropolis science-local knowledge) remain influential. Without thorough historical insights, the hidden patterns of colonial administration, resource exploitation, and military logic will not be easy to discern or address.

COLONY, EMPIRE, ENVIRONMENT focuses on the history of Arctic science and Western attitudes to the North from the end of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth. Given its historical orientation, our collaboration will also address the question of northern community participation in its planning, execution and dissemination of its findings. Our approach represents a methodological advance in the history of polar research in that Western scientific knowledge will be regarded as a cultural product with the same epistemological status as that of indigenous and local knowledge. Several of the included projects will focus on questions involving democratic practices and decision-making in Western research about and exploitation of the North; our research will be based on state-of-the-art historiographic approaches in international post-colonial studies.

17th century fortress Vardøhus, northeastern Norway. Photo: Urban Wråkberg.

A copy of the European Science Foundation brochure on all projects of the BOREAS initiative in the EUROCORES research programme can be down-loaded from the ESF web site.


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