Book Review: Charles Emmerson’s Future History of the Arctic

The Future History of the Arctic by Charles EmmersonI expected to hate it.  The first I heard of it was in an online ad that described it as arguing that the world’s future history would be written in the Arctic.  I scoffed.  Let’s not forget India, China and Brazil after all! Then I found out that the author, Charles Emmerson, is British (gasp!) with the made-up title of “geopolitics expert” – not a single academic distinction or position to be found.  My intellectual snobberies erupted: a British freelancer writing the authoritative work on Arctic affairs? Please!

But after reading my free copy (no self-respecting PhD candidate in Arctic politics would buy it, after all), it turns out that it’s quite good. 

Too bad about the title.  This book is not about the future history of the Arctic. His cut-ish explanation of the phrase (“there are, in fact, multiple ways in which history and the future interrelate”) (!)  didn’t alleviate the fact that this book is really about the past and present of the Arctic, and barely speculates about the future.  I had imagined 2050 scenarios in my head.  There were none. 

There are other problems.  The book is peppered with excerpts of the friendly conversations Emmerson had with all varieties of actors across the Arctic.  For a normal person, this probably makes the book readable and interesting.  For someone who has just fine-combed her thesis to eliminate any kind of colloquialism, these passages are non grata.  But that’s just me.

It also seems as though Emmerson did most of his research on the Riches section (covering oil, gas and mineral exploitation) during the high times of Summer 2008, when the price of oil reached $138/barrel.  This inevitably distorted his perspective of the future geopolitical significance of the Arctic, especially as relates to the prospects for natural gas exploration.  Emmerson incorrectly asserts that gas prices, like oil, remain historically high (p. 205).  That is incorrect.  While oil has recovered nicely since the Fall of 2008, gas has plummeted amid news that it can be profitably extracted from shale, of which China and the USA have plenty.  This is a game changer, for Russia and the Arctic, since 80% of hydrocarbon resources in the region are expected to be natural gas.  Extraction is not profitable at current prices.  To whit, Russia’s already delayed $30-billion Shtokman project announced a second major delay today, with production now set to begin in 2018 at the earliest.  

There is almost nothing on the current Arctic governance framework, which in my mind is a major oversight – neither the Arctic Council nor the Ilulissat Declaration are even listed in the index.  As a result, the book is a tapestry of national events and issues, with no analysis or vision of the region as a whole. 

Finally, the book lacks a conclusion – some kind of coherent summary of the situation, and, you would think given his title, a prognosis.  Instead, it ends, unceremoniously, with details of Iceland’s dam politics.

But now for the strengths! This is a good read.  Although I opened it up expecting to be underwhelmed, I found I couldn’t put it down.  The first few chapters on history are great – detailed without being boring, and effectively balancing breadth with depth.  Also, the topics and angles Emmerson chooses are interesting and relevant.  He describes his childhood fascination with the Arctic in the introduction, and the passion he has for the region is clearly carried in the pages of the book.  It feels like a labour of love; like the journey of a curious boy in a rich and fascinating world.  None of the academic articles I have read on Arctic politics have carried quite the same sentiment.

This book provides a very good overview of the Arctic and the issues of the day – power, nature, riches, and freedom, as Emmerson defines them.  It is particularly useful for the casual reader who wishes to be initiated into the world of Arctic politics and the vagaries of individual Arctic states’ policies and perspectives.   

Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot is a Research Associate at the Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l'Arctique (OPSA) and the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook. She has held positions at the University of Saskatchewan, the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development and the University of the Arctic. She completed her doctoral degree in political science at the University of Calgary in 2011. She has published extensively in Arctic and northern governance, human security, and Indigenous economic development. Read Heather Exner-Pirot’s articles

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