The disappearing Arctic sublime

In the book, “American Technological Sublime”, author David Nye explores how the US has established its national character through the use of the technological sublime. Readers may be familiar with the work of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, who depicted the sublime. His paintings of orange-tinted moonrises and mountains, fog, and ocean waves dominating miniscule human figures evoke a sense of wonder at nature and the smallness of man. A stormy sea, a volcano eruption, the Grand Canyon – these are all instances of the natural sublime. Iceland might be the most sublime country I have ever visited, with both glaciers and volcanoes packed into less than 40,000 square miles. The observation of the sublime causes a certain type of fear, though a healthy one at that. Man, being astonished, better realises his place in the universe. He is overpowered, but not in fear of his life. The technological sublime, however, departs from the concept of the natural sublime. It is realised in gigantic manmade structures such as the Hoover Dam, which is a “spectacle in the midst of emptiness and desolation” that author Joseph Stevens notes “first provokes fear, then wonderment, and finally a sense of awe and pride in man’s skill in bending the forces of nature to his purpose”.

In the early days of the US, the nascent country sought to develop a national character. Nye argues that since the US lacked age-old institutions such as a royal family or national church, people instead harnessed the immensity of the American landscape to fortify their beliefs in the greatness of their country. I would argue that Canada is proceeding along similar lines with its northern landscape. Canada, of course, is technically ruled by a monarch, yet like the US, it is a relatively young country without too much historic heritage. Thus, the landscape, too, becomes an integral part of the national psyche. Whereas the US has constantly looked west throughout its history, following the creed of Manifest Destiny, Canada has aspired to go not only west, but also north.

The natural sublime and its counterpart, the technological sublime, were both used to dramatise the landscape and make people essentially excited and proud to be American. All sorts of festivities surrounded the opening of each new bridge, skyscraper, and tunnel, often with the president involved in turning on the first light. The connection between the political and the technological is important, for infrastructure such as bridges and railroads were seen as democratising forces. They tied together various parts of the country, increasing trade while also enhancing political ties. The Erie Canal, for instance, was seen as “a product of democracy”. It was men who built the canal and men who would benefit from it. Technological achievements such as canals and railroads became monuments to America’s “democratic virtue” and also to the country’s ability to tame the wilderness. The epic forests, mountains, and deserts of the US were symbols of the country at the same time as they were “transformed into a man-made landscape”.

Nature was seen as something that, once domesticated, would no longer be the dominion of Native Americans, but rather “this great Anglo Saxon race,” as Edward Everett, a prominent American Whig politician in the late 19th century, commented. In a similar way, we can view Canadian attempts to conquer the north through machinery and technology – Arctic Offshore/Patrol ships, research stations, and ports – as the government wresting power from the indigenous peoples who have lived there for centuries (and who have tamed the landscape in their own, though admittedly less visually imposing, way).

Technological sublime

In the US, the railroad was supposed to knit the country further together by tying the breadbasket of the Midwest with the industrial powerhouses in the Northeast and the factories around the Great Lakes. The Transcontinental Railroad went even farther, linking the Eastern Seaboard with East Asia by way of California. Yet while it became remarkably faster and easier to travel from place to place, Nye argues that the railroads did not actually unite the disparate states. Instead, they caused rifts. For instance, the railroads hastened the pace of industrialisation in the Northeast while turning the South into a “dependent, agricultural region”, becoming almost a vassal of New England. Regional economic specialisation followed as well, causing the South to fall further behind as it privileged agriculture over the more profit-intensive manufacturing industries of the Northeast.

When the Eads Bridge was built in 1874 across the Mississippi River in St Louis, a new narrative was emerging within the technological sublime. Nye writes that the story went from “discovery to conquest, the explorer giving way to the engineer”. This bridge, like others, represented the geometrical sublime, rather than the dynamic sublime epitomised by trains. The geometrical sublime was something massive and static that imposed itself over the natural landscape. Skyscrapers and other man-made promontories also were imbued with power and the magisterial gaze; those at the top could look down at the piddling masses below. In the Arctic, though, I would argue that this is one place where the explorer narrative has not given way entirely to that of the engineer. People still try to journey to the North Pole on skis, foot, or by boat, and they are often still lauded for their valiant attempts. To conquer the Arctic remains a badge of honor. In a way, the explorer has been more successful than the engineer in the Arctic, especially today. Technology has advanced enough to allow people to brave sub-zero temperatures in relative comfort, whereas petroleum engineers are still figuring out how to drill for oil safely. People cheer on the explorers, but not so much companies like Shell and Gazprom, whom many see as desecrating an almost sacred and sublime space.


So how does this all fit in with the Arctic? First, we can use the concept of the sublime to explain why the region has captivated so many. Fluorescent blue icebergs, mammoth glaciers, and seemingly endless stretches of tundra certainly inspire awe and astonishment. For thousands of years, the Arctic almost felt timeless, with an ice cap that seemingly would never disappear. Explorers such as Robert Peary crossed the snowy, icy expanses of the Arctic in order to test the resilience of the human spirit. Issues of colonialism, commerce, science, and evangelicalism also all played roles in early Arctic exploration, but there is no doubt that pure human endeavour was a main motivating factor.

Second, the appeal of the technological sublime – the ability to conquer nature – carries some weight in the Arctic and motivates many countries’ attempts to build infrastructure up north. Structures such as the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building all have a certain amount of power invested within them, whether it be state power or economic might. When a country can build a nuclear icebreaker to cut through the otherwise impenetrable ice, that assists in fortifying the national character. The opposite is also true: when the US lost such icebreaking capability, there was probably a collective sigh in several quarters of the country. The US, once the pinnacle of engineering and technological capability, has a superior in the Arctic.

We can also look at the core-periphery relationship that the railroad network helped to instigate and compare it to how development has proceeded in Canada. All of the runways, ice roads, and ports built in the territories have helped to allow corporations to extract material wealth from the Canadian Arctic. Yet the money from the resources in large part goes back to the south, while the territories largely subsist on transfer payments from Ottawa. Certainly, the North has benefited in some way from increased ties to the southern region and access to their goods and services. But the flow of wealth is predominantly from north to south.

Though there are no railroads to northern Canada, the Dempster Highway serves as a good example of the government attempting to build a piece of infrastructure for the ostensible purpose of better linking together the country, when counter-intuitively, it could serve to emphasise regionalism and the core-periphery divide. The Dempster Highway is the only existing all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle in Canada. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was reelected in 2011, he vowed to complete the highway so that it would stretch all the way to Tuktoyaktuk. Currently, the highway only reaches the town in the winter, when an ice road stretches the last 121 miles across the frozen Mackenzie River Delta. Harper observed: “In 1958, Prime Minister Diefenbaker set out his vision to construct a highway through the northern wilderness and connect Canada for the first time from coast to coast to coast.” His rhetoric underscores the idea of the “wild” north and Canada’s three oceans, turning the landscape into something that must be tamed and subsequently interconnected.

When the highway was first conceived in the 1950s, one of its main purposes was to link the growing oil and gas industry in the Mackenzie River Delta to the south. Thus, the road was built primarily for economic purposes – not to assist social development in the north or transportation connections between indigenous communities. Regardless, the idea that Canada could have an all-weather road connecting three oceans is quite impressive and seems to carry a bit of the technological sublime with it.

Roads, pipelines, and bridges alter the landscape, but they do not change the essence of its character, for the most part. Consider the Golden Gate Bridge: though there is a brilliantly orange span connecting Marin and San Francisco, the bay, the headlands, and the peninsula all remain more or less unaltered. Thus, these types of technologically sublime feats of engineering can often coexist with the natural sublime. In the Arctic, though, mankind is effecting likely irreversible change onto what is arguably one of the planet’s most sublime landscapes. It is one thing to lay a pipeline across thousands of miles or build an ice road across frozen lakes deep into the Canadian North. All of that creates a sense of wonder at the prowess of engineers and the ability of man to make his mark on the harshest of territory. Yet when the natural sublime itself begins to disappear, and only the technological sublime – or nothing at all – remains, then the earth surrenders a little bit of its power to astonish. When the day comes where there are no longer ancient glaciers or creaking ice caps, I believe mankind will lose something very important: the childlike sensation of being lost in the sublime, of viewing a landscape that is greater, more ancient, and more astonishing than himself.

*Mia Bennett [2012] is doing an MPhil in Polar Studies. This blog was first published by the Foreign Policy Association’s Arctic Blog.


A gathering typhoon

The long-simmering rivalry between Japan and China, triggered by Japan’s purchase of several Senkaku Islands, is a gathering typhoon that threatens the entire region.

The US must take decisive steps to mediate this dispute, or it will paralyse trade in Asia, and by extension, global commerce. As a trade-dependent state, Washington has a major stake in keeping Asia’s maritime trade routes open.

To successfully resolve the dispute, it is essential that the US insist on multilateral mediation. American leadership in diplomacy would demonstrate its commitment to the region’s peaceful development and burnish the US’ position as a leader in Asia.

The purchase of the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, has sparked the most venomous anti-Japanese protests in China since the two nations normalised diplomatic relations in 1972. Japanese businesses throughout China have been vandalised and looted, prompting Panasonic, Toyota and others to suspend operations in China.

Both nations selectively use regional history and international law to justify their claims on the islands. The nation in possession of the island chain would have bolstered fishing access and exclusive rights to the expansive undersea resources, including large mineral, natural gas and bountiful oil deposits, purportedly matching Iraq’s total reserves.

There are also strategic considerations. Both nations wish to expand the operational reach of their naval and air forces. Defence planners see the barren rocks as potential hubs for runways, docks, and repair and fueling stations.

Leaders on both sides see the islands as a litmus test for national resolve and prestige. Nationalist sentiments are widespread and the belligerence of any one of the numerous naval commanders patrolling both sides could spark a conflagration at sea.

Since the end of World War II the US-led security framework in East Asia, largely enforced by the American Navy, has assured open sea lanes, enabling robust economic growth in the region through unprecedented trade.

As US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has said, mediation is essential to peaceful resolution. The US should renew its offer to serve as a third-party multilateral mediator for all of the two dozen East Asian maritime territorial disputes. Multilateral mediation, in addition to promoting regional transparency, reduces the opportunity for one nation to intimidate or coerce another. It would also mitigate the regional insecurity that is fuelling the contemporary naval arms race.

To signal its continued resolve, the US should honour its treaty alliance with Japan through increased vessel patrols, joint military trainings and continued technology sharing. Along with South Korea, Taiwan and Australia, Japan forms the bedrock of America’s East Asian alliance. America’s continued union with Japan influences US relations with important nations throughout the region.

India aims to thwart Chinese influence in South Asia, while the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia all seek to avoid Chinese dominion. The latter have hedged their bets with overtures to China rather than entrusting security to promises of American protection.

The US can stem the tide of this typhoon while advancing its commitment to open sea lanes and multilateral mediation, building momentum for a rebalancing of power in Asia that is essential for 21st century American leadership.

*Greg Nance [2011] did an MPhil in Management and is a Shanghai-based entrepreneur. He can be reached at Photo credit: Creative Commons and Jacques de Goldfiem. This is an edited version of Greg’s blog for the Seattle Times.

The second Green Revolution

Just over a month ago, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the Chairman of the World Food Prize called me to say that I had won the Inaugural Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. I will receive this award later this week at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa. As the father of Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug is much loved and respected in India. So this news was covered by almost all major newspapers, from the Times of India and the Hindustan Times to the Economic Times and Dainik Jagaran.

I started working on groundwater and irrigation issues in 2001 when I joined the IWMI-Tata Programme in Anand, Gujarat. As a part of that work, I helped design a survey of groundwater users in South Asia and the survey results surprised me. I realised that groundwater economies in eastern India were very different from those elsewhere in the country. This made me curious and I wanted to understand the role of groundwater in the agrarian economies of eastern India better. So, when I went to Cambridge, I decided to work on policy and institutional issues regarding access to groundwater in West Bengal. After my PhD, I joined the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka and continued this work.

We found that, after showing high growth in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, West Bengal’s agricultural economy had slowed down with an adverse impact on farmers’ incomes and livelihoods. In recent years, it has barely registered 1% annual growth. The groundwater economy contracted too. For example, according to the Minor Irrigation Census, the number of groundwater wells declined by over 100,000 from 2001 to 2007 – entirely unprecedented in India. This is a paradox given that the same minor irrigation census shows that in 80% of the villages, groundwater is available within less than 10 metres and that groundwater levels recover sufficiently after the monsoon season due to high rainfall (1,500-3,000 mm per year) and the alluvial nature of the aquifer [underground layer of water-bearing rock]. Yet, farmers found it difficult to pump water from aquifers for their crops. Why was this so?

We discovered that the reason was that farmers were facing high energy costs for pumping groundwater because of their dependence on diesel pumps and the fact that diesel prices have been increasing quite rapidly since the early 2000s. In West Bengal, only 17% of all pumps are electrified, compared to a national average of over 60%. The electrification of pumps would have been an easy solution, especially since West Bengal has been an electricity surplus state for a long time now. However, we found that farmers faced two difficulties in connecting their pumps to the electricity grid. First was the Groundwater Act of 2005 which required all farmers to procure a permit from the groundwater authority before they could apply for a connection. This process of getting a permit was fraught with red tape and corruption and often led to harassment of farmers by unscrupulous officials. And then, even if a farmer managed to get a permit from the groundwater authorities he had to pay the full capital cost of electrification of tube wells which was often much beyond the capacity of small and marginal farmers owning less than half a hectare of land.

We presented our research findings to Dr Mihir Shah, Member of the Indian Planning Commission, and with his help we took our results and recommendations to the top bureaucrats in Bengal. We suggested removing the permits system in all places where the groundwater situation is safe. We also suggested rationalising the capital costs of initial electrification. In addition, we suggested that funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) should be used in a targeted manner for the excavation of ponds in districts with alluvial aquifers. The government accepted most of these suggestions. On 9th November, 2011, via an administrative order, the Secretary of Water Resources changed the law whereby farmers residing in safe areas and wanting to install pumps with less than 5 Horse Power would no longer require a permit from the groundwater department. Similarly, the West Bengal State Electricity Board has also come out with a circular saying that farmers will have to pay a one-time fixed cost for electrification and this cost will be around Rs. 10,000 or so. They will, of course, then continue to pay a metered tariff.  Here, let me emphasise that West Bengal has one of the best agricultural electricity governance regimes in India. Unlike other states where farmers get free and unmetered electricity, in Bengal, electric pumps are metered and farmers pay quite high electricity tariffs for pumping groundwater. This gives them an incentive to make efficient use of groundwater and electricity.

With both these policy changes in place, it is expected that farmers will have easier access to groundwater and will be able to intensify their cropping systems, earn more and emerge out of poverty. Together these have the potential to drastically change the nature of agriculture in West Bengal and usher in a second Green Revolution. The state has 7 million land holdings, of which 5.6 million are less than one hectare in size and belong to small and marginal farmers. Thus the possible implications for agricultural output and poverty reduction of these two policy changes are huge. I also think that these policies are replicable in many parts of the eastern Indian states of Bihar and Assam with similar hydro-geological conditions. By providing timely, adequate and reliable irrigation, groundwater helps in reducing poverty.

*Aditi Mukherji [2003] did a PhD in Geography and is currently a senior researcher with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in New Delhi.

Ending unwanted pregnancies in Latin America

Latin America leads the globe in maternal mortality rates due to “back-alley” abortions, which account for 12 per cent of all maternal deaths in the region. With the exception of Cuba and the federal district of Mexico City, the procedure remains illegal throughout the region, with most countries criminalising abortion in all circumstances.

Some countries make the procedures available in cases of rape, incest, or health risk, but women will lack access even in these circumstances: in Argentina and Peru, for instance, judges withhold authorisations for legal abortions and doctors refuse to perform the procedures.  Nonetheless, criminalisation and inaccessibility have not eliminated demand.  Illegal abortions are sought in 35 out of 1,000 pregnancies, and total estimates of back alley abortions range from 30,000 per year in Nicaragua to 300,000 per year in Colombia. The magnitude of the public health risk cannot be understated.

The unmet need for contraception underlies this risk. Throughout Latin America, over 10 million married or cohabiting women lack access to contraception information and devices.  Many family planning programmes will not serve unmarried women and adolescents. The most restrictions are placed on emergency contraception (EC).  Based on the inaccurate perception that EC acts as an abortifacient, constitutional courts in Ecuador, Chile, and Peru have ruled that EC violates the state’s constitutional duty to protect life. The Honduran Supreme Court recently upheld proposed legislation that would criminalise not just EC, but the dissemination of information about it.

The clearest path to improving maternal mortality – and eliminating unsafe abortions – lies with decreasing unwanted pregnancies. Across Latin America, however, cultural and religious beliefs prevent women from accessing family planning services. Even when federal laws guarantee universal and free access to contraception, as in Argentina and Colombia, local public health officials subvert these laws by withholding programme funds, restricting clinic hours, and delegating implementation to religious organisations.

This September, the Colombian Supreme Court found that officers in the national Human Rights Office – the very public officials charged with protecting women’s equal access to healthcare – knowingly distributed false information about the medical effects of contraception. This victory, while notable, remains a rare instance of reproductive justice. Latin American states lack the capacity to enforce their laws in every clinic, especially in rural areas, and resistance to birth control often extends from local doctors to cabinet ministers.

Yet many Latin American politicians, activists, and public health officials do support reproductive rights, and advocates are pushing their countries to follow Argentina and Colombia in mandating free, universal access to contraception.  Recent developments in Chile – where the constitutional court reversed its EC ruling and upheld a free contraception law – show that progress is possible. Successful campaigns highlight how contraception availability lowers maternal mortality. While legal change cannot instantly manufacture cultural change, laws provide advocates with clear avenues of redress.

International aid agencies can support domestic advocates by exposing the unwillingness of current governments to promote women’s health, and by providing the organisational and financial resources to address these shortfalls through the courts. Irrespective of their personal views on abortion, policymakers must act pragmatically: demands for back alley abortions will only decrease once women can control the space, timing, and number of their pregnancies.

*Jennifer M. Piscopo PhD is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Salem College in North Carolina.  She was a 2002-2003 Gates Scholar, receiving her MPhil in Latin American Studies. Learn more about her research at Picture credit: Inter Press Service and Creative Commons.

A season of transitions

This is the time of year when birds change their plumage: they lose their old feathers, which are tattered from defending their nests and young during the previous few months, and they grow new ones. This year, I am going through a moulting season as well: I finished my PhD and will begin a post-doctoral fellowship in California in the fall.

Doing my PhD at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar was even more extraordinary than I had imagined. I discovered what birds in the crow family do after they fight: rooks and jackdaws sit near their partners for support after fighting with someone else. Mates have extremely strong bonds year-round, rarely leaving each other’s side, and often intervening in conflicts on behalf of their partner. During my time at Cambridge, some of my strongest social bonds were with Gates Scholars, and the exchange of social support has led to timely collaborations. I attended the Gates Scholar/Alumni trip to the US Ambassador’s residence in London in 2012 and started chatting with the Gates Scholar sitting next to me on the bus. By the time we returned to Cambridge we discovered that I had the resources she was looking for to expand her project and vice versa, and we are now enjoying the benefits of our chance meeting on the Gates bus.

I consider myself fortunate to be going from one outstanding and interdisciplinary community to another. I will become a Junior Research Fellow at the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara this fall where I will study wild bird cognition. The Sage Center investigates the brain and mind by engaging as many disciplines as possible, and the fellowship will allow me to carry out my dream project: to investigate whether sophisticated cognition exists outside of large-brained birds using great-tailed grackles as a model system.

As we all know, Bill Gates Sr. is also transitioning from the Gates community, having stepped down from a twelve-year Trusteeship in June 2012. On his last trip to Cambridge as a Trustee, my PhD supervisor, Nicky Clayton, and I had the pleasure of giving him, Mimi Gardiner Gates, and other Trustees a tour of the aviaries where I did my PhD research. Nicky has developed a leading animal cognition lab so the tour included footage of the birds solving complicated tasks, meeting the stars of the show to feed them peanuts and larvae, and discussing the work that has come from the lab over the last 15 years. It was a memorable occasion to send us off to our next adventures.

*Corina Logan[2008] did a PhD in Experimental Psychology. Photo caption: Corina feeding Rome, a Eurasian jay, one of the species she studied during her PhD. Photo credit: Julia Leijola.