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.


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