Another Failed Seaside Erection

“I promise not to do this to Greenland!” Donald Trump joked in a tweet featuring a photoshopped image of a “TRUMP”-embossed gilded tower looming over a small Greenlandic community. Trump was amplifying comments he had made earlier about the US buying the autonomously-governed country from the Kingdom of Denmark.

Yet America’s interest in expanding its Arctic sovereignty is no joke. In the Obama administration a warming Arctic had been a topic of concern to US national security and northern shipping, but the the actions of Trump and his administration reflect a different interest: climate change as financial opportunity. At an Arctic Council meeting in May, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the warming Arctic to be a region of “opportunity and abundance.” With new threats to what he called Arctic “real estate”—drawing from his boss’s lexicon—Pompeo declared: “This is America’s moment to step up as an Arctic nation.”

Trump’s play for Greenland is in line with his administration’s persistent efforts to thwart climate change mediation and development of green energy, and to enable the increase of fossil fuel usage. He sees the Arctic as a site for Western commercial development and resource extraction. Nearly 90% of Greenland’s population is comprised of indigenous Inuit. Trump’s reckless musing on purchasing a sovereign state for its resources follows the flag of a devastating history of 500 years of European practices of colonialism and attendant histories of indigenous genocide, ecological catastrophe, and enslavement. What is more in line with this history than an American administration seeing “opportunity and abundance” in a land targeted for colonialist acquisition?

The Arctic itself was not historically seen as rich or plentiful by the West, however. For five hundred years, as Europeans sought shorter trade routes to Asia through the ice-choked Northwest Passage, the Arctic was understood as unproductive, hostile, forbidding. Ironically, accelerating global warming has opened the Arctic more than any polar explorer could have imagined. The oil and gas deposits targeted for extraction today are only accessible because of the escalating and irreversible global warming presently melting the polar ice sheets.

Once, imperialist voyagers planted flags to stake their claims to land and resources for Western use and exploitation. Now we have Trump, offering the vision of another failed Atlantic seaside erection. The Arctic “abundance” that now presents itself to the Trump administration as an “opportunity” has become abundant only because of the relentless extension of colonialist extractive logic across the centuries. Indeed, climate change and rising sea levels will make all future coastal building a folly, whether in temperate or Arctic zones. The eroding coasts and whelming seas of the planet cannot bear the burden of another flag, another real estate developer’s tower.

Hester Blum: Long-time listener, first-time caller.