Energy security in the North: Not what it used to be

My team and I at Sustainable Futures North have a new publication on energy security in the rural North. It offers an interesting discussion, I think, on how we think about the challenges that 'progress' have locked us into over time, and what potential there is for replacing vulnerabilities with strategies for resilience and sustainability. 

Sod homes were dug into the earth and framed with wood or whalebone on the coast. This archival photograph shows a dwelling on the banks of the Selawik River in Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska, c. 1929. Edward R. Curtis, courtesy of Library of Congress. Reproduced from Environmental Health Perspectives.

Sod homes were dug into the earth and framed with wood or whalebone on the coast. This archival photograph shows a dwelling on the banks of the Selawik River in Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska, c. 1929.

Edward R. Curtis, courtesy of Library of Congress. Reproduced from Environmental Health Perspectives.

Before Euro-American colonization of the North, people in Alaska were for the most part energy secure. Homes were highly energy efficient, such as the sod homes common in the Interior, and families' energy needs were limited to fires for cooking and smoking foods, oil lamps for lighting, ice and permafrost for storing food in the winter, and dog teams or human power for transportation.  

This has all changed, of course, and today rural communities in the North are tremendously dependent on fossil fuels, to power water treatment facilities, to heat homes that were not designed for cold climates, to fuel outboard motors and snow-mobiles, and so on. We explore these changes, and their social and ecological consequences, in our new paper. 

We are not making a value judgment in this work, implying that people ought to somehow "go back" to past ways of living; rather, we are simply pointing out that the transition was noteworthy, and was driven largely by colonialism and settlers' values for the North, people who wanted to remake the North to be like more 'civilized' places further south. As such, mistakes were made by people who refused to work with the unique biogeographies and cultural ecologies of northern places. The outcome--present day circumstances for rural residents--can be evaluated in terms of community resilience, vulnerability and sustainability. Communities are vulnerable and dependent in many ways, and these dependencies can hinder their ability to forge their own destinies in the changing Arctic. 

A prototype home in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, was modeled on traditional sod homes, and features an earthen roof, a passive ventilation system, solar panels, and an unheated cold room for storing wild foods. Photo from Environmental Health Perspectives.

A prototype home in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, was modeled on traditional sod homes, and features an earthen roof, a passive ventilation system, solar panels, and an unheated cold room for storing wild foods. Photo from Environmental Health Perspectives.

Some people are trying to look back at what worked as a way to be inspired about new ways to live in the North, new ways to replace these vulnerabilities with self-reliance, and this is among the many reasons we wrote this paper.

I also think it is important to have this discussion about place-based energy issues in the Arctic considering how much the energy security discourse internationally focuses on the economic potential of the region, as sea ice recedes and Arctic waters become open to oil drilling and shipping. I also think the case of Alaska can help us think about what energy security really means at the household level. 

If you don't have access to the journal, please contact me for a copy of the manuscript.