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We must avoid seeing the new Arctic through an Old World lens

Scott Minerd
OPINION: As the Arctic continues to open up, large-scale change is inevitable. We must resist the temptation to apply outmoded ways of thinking as we are confronted with a world we can scarcely imagine. (Pictured: A French map from 1772 depicting the contemporary understanding of the North American Arctic.) Princeton University Library map

It would be easy to think those with a thirst for exploration were born too late — to assume that humanity has already reached every corner of the earth there is to discover. But one region — the Arctic — still contains uncharted mysteries.

As we fuel our curiosity by seeking to better understand this part of the world, we would do well to learn from the mistakes of the explorers who came before us.

As we in the United States recently celebrated Columbus Day — honoring the Italian explorer credited with discovering America — I am reminded of the challenges early explorers confronted.

Columbus stumbled upon America in 1492, having set out to find Asia. Two decades later, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama to discover the Pacific Ocean. Both men knew what they were looking for, but they were surprised by what they found.

Filled with memories of new sights and sounds, energized by new challenges, and bearing great riches, they could not fully express the magnitude of their discoveries. How could they explain things they had seen but could not yet comprehend?

The New World did not replace the Old. What the New World would become depended as much on what was found there as what the Old World expected to find there. The experience of the past limited the imagining of what might be in the future.

Today as we look to the Arctic, we are similarly captivated by the opportunity, and it is easy to define the region’s future with the vocabulary of the past. But as we chart a course ahead, we must make sure that we learn from the past, rather than mindlessly repeating it.

Like Columbus and Balboa, we are tempted to see the world through an old lens, one which evaluates opportunity by using outdated ideas about economic development.

Too often, we consider resource exploitation in light of past environmental failures and geopolitics. We think about globalization as a history of regional and national interests. Some are so troubled by the global impact of climate change that they would completely restrict opportunities for commercial activities, such as resource discovery and shipping.

Others look to the future, seeing opportunities to elevate the quality of life of indigenous peoples and local communities ... Opportunities to reduce the cost of trade ... And opportunities to raise the global standard of living by providing abundant resources to the global market.

Imagine waking up one morning and finding that an entirely new ocean has been discovered — a frontier, ready to deliver shorter and more efficient shipping routes.

Imagine exploring a continental region rich in oil, gas and other natural resources — one that is becoming increasingly accessible as the world’s best innovators develop breakthroughs that enable us to use natural resources more responsibly.

Imagine this taking place among developed, first-world economies with the highest standards, established laws, and unprecedented security.

That future can be a reality. But if economic development is to advance in the Arctic, and it will, we must embrace collaboration and cooperation ahead of self-interest. We must set aside old labels and failed paradigms.

What does this mean in practical terms? In the case of global trade through the Arctic Ocean, we must move beyond the outdated assumption that large-scale Arctic shipping is still decades away. In September, the Nordic Orion, under Canadian Coast Guard escort, shipped 15,000 metric tons of coal from Vancouver to Pori, Finland on a route once choked almost year-round with sea ice. By 2030, about 100 million tons of transit freight is projected to pass along one of the Northern Sea Routes — and many experts believe that is a low estimate.

While many dwell on the potential risks to the Arctic from shipping, the simple truth is, the possibility it will lead to a cleaner, healthier environment could be even larger.

By substantially reducing distance and time on the sea, pollution as a result of shipping between Europe and Asia may be reduced by 50 percent or more.

What’s more, the ability to use larger ships and barges in the Arctic — due to avoiding the size limitations of the two major canal networks — may well result in even greater reductions to pollution from shipping. Scientists and engineers will have the opportunity to develop a network of offshore platforms, significantly limiting the impact of shipping to the coastlines of the Arctic.

Seeing the world in a new way can create tremendous opportunities — but it is not always easy. We must resist accepting the false choice between regional interests and global interests. The people of the Arctic nations, and the rest of us throughout the world, stand to benefit greatly from the opportunities the region offers.

The Arctic belongs not only to the Arctic nations but to the world. Yet, it is the Arctic nations and those who seek to avail themselves of the opportunities there, of this New World, to safeguard the region as the stewards of this global asset.

It is for leaders of government and business to work together to define a framework which will not only serve our interests but will serve the interests of those indigenous to the region, and the global community which will be revolutionized by what we do.

Large-scale change is coming. It is inevitable. But this time, we have to work together — to secure and protect this vital region for the benefit of all mankind. We have discovered this New World of the Arctic. It is now time to prove ourselves worthy of the discovery. It is time to lay aside the limited vision of the past and embrace both responsibility and opportunity, to achieve a brighter, more promising future.

Scott Minerd is global chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.