Arctic Ecocide

By Kevin McMahon | 1989-06-01 12:00:00

Not long after starting out on a trip across the Arctic, I came upon a place called the Upper Base, where the panorama of devastation made me grin in the ugly way common to reporters. Part of my research was on the environmental impact of military development in the far North. The Upper Base, built on a hill overlooking Iqaluit, was everything I could have asked for. And more.

In the Fifties it had been a U.S. Strategic Air Command post for guiding and refueling nuclear bombers, employing perhaps a couple of hundred men. When the base became obsolete and was abandoned, the Americans blew it to smithereens, so that the Soviets, should they invade, could put it to no good use. Three decades later, the complex looked as it did the day they left, with its entrails of twisted cable, smashed concrete and battered machinery still strewn across the plateau.

There are dozens of similar places in the Canadian Arctic. When the American military arrived there at the height of the Cold War, it planned, with the quaint reckoning of the times, on an air battle of Gotterdammerung proportions about the polar flats and it dug itself in accordingly. Millions of tons of heavy machinery and building materials were airlifted north and fashioned into a front of air bases, support installations and the Distant Early Warning radar line stretching from Baffin Bay to the Alaskan border. By the early Sixties, technological obsolescence and a cavalier attitude about waste had combined to reduce half the sites to wind-blown piles of junk.

Most of the sites were contaminated with various toxins, particularly polychlorinated byphenals (PCBs). Over 20 years, more than 7,000 litres of the coolant leaked from broken electric transformers. Only in 1985 did the Canadian government get around to attempting a clean-up, lest the poisoning be used to stir opposition to the the new North Warning radar system. By then the PCBs had been widely distributed by Inuit and other travellers who had been mining the sites for building materials and fitting their walls and roofs with contaminated metal.

The harshness of the Arctic environment, paradoxically, makes it much more sensitive to this kind of intrusion than would be, say, a temperate climate. To begin with, there is no rot. Every bulbous fender and anachronistically gargantuan satellite dish ever brought north has been immaculately preserved by the dry cold, like an ice-entombed wooly mammoth with the head of Dwight Eisenhower.

In a cold climate, life is finely inscribed and miniature in scale. What would be a rivulet in Ontario is a river in the Arctic and a single tire tread can divert it, overturning a tiny perfect ecosystem and altering the migratory paths of animals with a mark which may take 100 years to disappear. At this level,the damage the military has done in the Arctic is simply incalculable. With its constant building, charting, testing, practicing and maneuvering, the military has travelled more extensively and more brutishly over the territory than any other Southerners. As well as their big, trashy footprints, they have left innumerable tiny scars, razor_thin but interminable persistent. A few weeks of military games, for example, have been known to divert caribou from an area for a decade.

The atmospheric nuclear test explosions of the Fifties and Sixties also had a disproportionate effect in the Arctic, even though most of the fall-out came down in the mid-latitudes. Arctic lichen, naively mistaking cesium 137 for potassium, sucked in every speck that fell and clung to it as if starving. Lichen is a staple for caribou, which in turn is a staple for Inuit. Well before most Inuit had grasped the concept of Nation, the shadow battles of the arms race were infusing them with 200 times more radiation than that suffered by the average citizen of either superpower.

In relative terms, however, the environmental impacts the military has made in the Arctic have been small potatoes. Measured in conventional ratios - roentgens per man or dead herring gulls per mile of coast line - nothing the military has done locally approaches the devastation wrought by, for example, the long-term importation of pollution in ocean and air currents or an instant catastrophe like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. More serious is the military's environmental impact by its effects on the northern culture.

When the domes of the DEW Line began popping up on the tundra in the Fifties, the Inuit gazed upon them as if they had come from Mars.These were people who lived pretty much as their ancestors had for many thousands of years. Although tethered to the trapping industry and dependent on rifles, they were traditional hunters, ranging gently over the landscape in a rhythm dictated by seasonal patterns of animal movement. People who left no footprints.

As word of the construction spread, all Inuit paths swerved toward the building sites in the hope of finding easy food and money. The elders, quickly grasping that a new force was taking hold in the north, began urging young men to turn away from hunting and take jobs. The huge influx of military men, equipment and money did more in its first year to undermine the subsistence hunting economy than had the previous 200 years of fur trading.

Historians are wont to say that the industrial infrastructure of air strips, communications lines and roads laid down by the military "opened up the Arctic." Places previously "closed" to all but the most intrepid could suddenly be reached in hours. Upon them now descended squadrons of Canadian bureaucrats, sent by Government worried over the obvious sovereignty implication of the American military predominance in the Arctic. These bureaucrats asserted their control in the only way bureaucrats can, by making the Inuit dependent through distributing unrequested welfare, health care and prefabricated villages, the largest of them outside military bases.

Consequently, most of what their harsh environment had taught the Inuit about the need for conservation and for conversation with the land, was forgotten. One generation later, the people find themselves in a confusing malaise. Only the oldest and the most stubborn call themselves hunters now. The rest imagine themselves to be working stiffs or unemployed. Their communities are bathed in the blue light of television and the people, particularly the children, are bewitched by ludicrous aspirations as reachable as the sun. The elders, with a certain guilt, fret endlessly about the fact that many of the young people now lack the skills to survive on the land and the youngest of them, glued to the tube, have little inclination to try.

Although they will argue, quite truthfully, that they retain an inherent respect for their environment rarely matched among whites, the Inuit will admit also that the trash_and_burn attitude which Western culture's bequest to human civilization has taken firm root among them. The residents of Arctic Bay are no less susceptible to the lure of short-term economic gain than those of Oshawa or Corner Brook. Whatever their dissimilarities, they are unified, now, in their belief in Progress.

When aboriginal people take up this belief, the hope that the main human consciousness will someday be in harmony with that of the planet itself becomes all the more distant, the consequences of which are too obvious and depressing to spell out.

Ultimately, the military did its most sweeping and profound environmental damage in the Arctic by carpet bombing the place with its political, economic and cultural ideas. As amorphous and insidious as radiation poisoning, they are, finally, much more toxic. And their eradication will not be so simple as twiddling one's thumbs for eighty years, waiting for their potency to decay by half.

Kevin McMahon is an environmental writer, author of Arctic Twilight.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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