Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Arctic Ocean - The Final Frontier

As global warming continues to melt the ice pack in the Arctic Ocean, the possibilities of accurately mapping the ocean floor, opening commercial shipping routes such as the Northwest Passage into the Pacific Ocean, and, most importantly, extracting valuable resources such as oil and gas, have appeared on the near horizon. The Arctic Ocean is the least explored ocean but it is estimated that it may contain one quarter of the earth’s unexplored oil and gas fields. (National Geographic).

Naturally, this has triggered a frenzy of action and hubris by the nations that surround the ocean as they posture and position themselves to claim their share on behalf of their capitalist class who will be charged with developing the fields and reaping the profits. The reaction of the arctic nations – US, Canada, Denmark, Russia, Sweden, and Norway – is reminiscent of the nineteenth century scramble for, and partition of, Africa by the leading colonial powers of the day. It also confirms the socialist case regarding warfare – that it is the result of the competitive nature of the normal operation of the capitalist system where nations, acting on behalf of their capitalist class, seek economic advantages over other capitalist enterprises in the search for, and control of, natural resources, trade routes and alliances, and strategic positions. Will the scramble for the arctic lead to war? Not likely at present, but given the scarcity of oil and gas in the near future, all bets are off.

Each country is striving to locate, and lay claim to, its continental shelf, the submerged extension of its terrestrial land, as this is internationally recognized as part of the country and will determine what part of the pie each one is entitled to. Land claims will be settled by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, and countries will have until 2013 to submit data in support of those claims. To that end, Canada has invested $90 million since 2004, including deploying a world leading technology in the form of a robot submarine deployed at depths of 5,000 metres to amass its data. (Toronto Star, 13/Feb/2010). In addition, coastguard patrols have been stepped up and arctic military exercises have been undertaken.

Although Scandinavian countries are often held up as shining examples of how capitalism could work better, it turns out that they are just like all the others in the race for arctic wealth. Denmark has created an Arctic Command to coordinate military activity and assert its sovereignty in the area. Sweden has undertaken the largest military exercises since WWII, deploying some 12 000 troops, and warships and aircraft in the Arctic. Norway has purchased forty-eight new fighter jets suitable for arctic patrols and participated in NATO war games simulating exercises against an ‘imaginary’ country’s seizure of an oil rig (Russia protested the exercise). The United States arctic policy has shifted from scientific research to sovereignty and security. Recent war games with 9 000 troops were conducted in Alaska. Russia, with a vast coastline in the Arctic Ocean, stands to gain the most from economic development of the region, has not been slow to stake its claim. In 2007, it planted a Russian flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole.

In 2010, a Russian bomber flew towards Canadian air space prompting the expected military and diplomatic responses. Russia also announced plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first parachute drop at the North Pole by dropping a squadron of paratroopers there. Russia has also had submarines firing long-range missiles and has stepped up air and naval patrols over the ocean. Premier Medvedev has stated that the Arctic must serve as Russia’s resource base of the future and he considers the North Pole to be the ideal site for launching ballistic missiles because submarines can approach undetected under the ice and because distances from the North Pole (presumably to their arctic competitors) would be shorter.

Already in dispute, apart from the extent of continental shelves, is the Lomonosov Ridge, a vast area encompassing the North Pole (and the Russian flag) that is claimed by Russia, Canada, and Denmark, who all believe their continental shelves are connected to the ridge. Also, Canada and the United States disagree as to whether The Northwest Passage is in inland waters, and therefore Canadian, or part of the high seas and therefore common property. (Toronto Star, 9/Aug/2009) Although a good part of the rhetoric and jingoism is designed for the home audience to sell their policies and military expenditures, there can be no doubt that each nation is out to grab as much of the pie as possible by whatever means may be necessary. All the ingredients are in place for potential future conflict – an area of untapped resources, groups of competing capitalists represented by their governments, areas of disputes, and military build-up. The competition is on! The irony is, a large part of the profits made will end up paying for the increased military spending to secure the profit-making system, and so on, in a never ending cycle of waste. That’s the natural way of capitalism.

Let’s imagine for a moment a different system. One where a world body, elected and democratic, using scientific and expert input and governed by decisions of people’s representatives, would manage resources for the benefit of all; where human knowledge and skills would be brought together in cooperation, not competition, to solve the problem of safe and environmentally responsible development, or, perhaps, it would be decided against doing anything at all in the Arctic and reorganizing society to cope with diminishing oil reserves and use alternative technologies and life styles; where making profit did not dominate all aspects of life, restricting what needs to be done for the benefit of all because a huge portion of the wealth created had to go into the pockets of the few who owned the means of producing and distributing wealth; where common ownership of those means is used to provide all the necessities – food, water, housing, health care, education, for every human being. If you can imagine that, then you can imagine socialism, the system that is the next big step forward for human progress. SPC

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