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A corporate catastrophe: Arctic melt and the race to exploit resources

Matt Withers on the double threat facing our vulnerable Arctic

Even the most bigoted of climate sceptics would have been hard pressed to snub this year’s record melting of Arctic sea ice, wherein the total surface area of the northern polar cap dipped markedly below half its 1980s average.

Such a dramatic reduction in sea ice has left most of us ostensibly anguished by images of starving Polar Bears, while of course doing nothing to rectify our consumption habits, our collective apathy is well and truly trumped by the veritable hard-on the unprecedented melt has given the mineral extraction industry. Far from exhibiting any concern over this wanton environmental destruction, oil conglomerates and mining giants are rubbing hands and readying drills in an ill-humoured take on the old adage that ‘one good turn deserves another’.

With the Arctic’s protective sheet of ice dwindling year-on-year, so too do greater amounts of the region’s resource-rich seabed become exposed to those looking to capitalise on the extraction of oil, minerals and even ‘untapped’ fish stocks. Thus, owing to our steady march towards peak oil and a global mining boom fuelled by China’s maturing industrial revolution, the Arctic has quickly become characterised as a new and lucrative resource frontier, ripe for plundering by unbridled corporate interest.

Two polar bears seek refuge as the Arctic sea continues to disappear at a magnitude unlike anything we have seen for 1500 years. Source: Canadian Environmentalists

With Shell already drilling, BP close behind and a host of mining corporations – including Australia’s Greenland Minerals – also moving in, the region’s future seems somewhat unambiguous.

Yet it’s not only the potential for oil spills and industrial pollution that will exacerbate existing environmental woes for the fragile ecosystem either. With new shipping routes and fishing sites subject only to the foggy jurisdiction of the eight-member Arctic Council – an institution whose lack of political clout is rivalled only by the UN – there is effectively a governmental vacuum over corporate behaviour in the Arctic.

In a sense, we can dub this scenario a ‘tragedy of the commons’ on a grand scale: a corollary of a nigh-universal economic ideology that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that individual, profit-motivated ‘rationality’ can and will culminate in collective irrationality of catastrophic and irreparable proportions. It’s one thing when such idiocy is allowed to play out in small-scale land tenure, as in Garrett Hardin’s archetypal tragedy, another thing entirely when one of the planet’s most vital regions is at stake.