Svalbard, home to about three thousand inhabitants, sits 1,234 miles north of the Norwegian coast. Roughly half the size of New York State, the archipelago is a site on which the worst aspects of climate change have become inescapable. The Arctic is experiencing an increase in temperatures two to four times higher than anywhere else in the world. It has also become a geopolitical hot spot, particularly between Norway and Russia, which has the second-largest presence in the region. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 may have established Norway’s sovereignty and forbade any military activity on the archipelago. However, newly discovered oil and gas reserves around Svalbard have complicated relations between Oslo and Moscow. Russia and other nations are eager to exert influence over the Arctic Ocean as it rapidly loses more sea ice.
The Paradox of Svalbard: Climate Change and Globalisation in the Arctic, written by anthropologist Zdenka Sokolíčková, argues that this Norwegian archipelago, particularly the settlement of Longyearbyen where Sokolíčková did her research, encapsulates the broader tensions that a warmer world is creating. The climate crisis and its destructive effects, she argues, are also exacerbating xenophobic politics and gentrification. Sokolíčková makes the convincing case that Svalbard, despite being a sparsely populated area in the extreme north (by some estimates there are more polar bears than people), offers crucial lessons to the world. The first is how climate change accelerates and weaves together existing political injustices. The second is that we should be wary of uncritically embracing “green” market-friendly solutions.
“Make Longyearbyen Norwegian Again”
On December 19, 2015, an avalanche came crushing down on Longyearbyen, burying houses and killing a two-year-old and her father. The event was so devastating to the city’s inhabitants that over five years later a woman Sokolíčková interviewed was unable to recall the disaster without fighting back tears. But, as with other catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, its longest-lasting impact was on housing.
Rightly, the city deemed it necessary to demolish housing that would be vulnerable to future avalanches as a safety measure. At the time of the avalanche, employers provided most of the housing in Longyearbyen through a system not dissimilar from that found in the company towns prevalent across the United States in the early-twentieth century. After the avalanche, newly erected houses in Svalbard were only made available to those employed by state agencies, a change which had the effect of discriminating against the region’s large migrant population that struggles to find jobs in the state-run companies. As Sokolíčková writes, for the Filipinos, Thai people, and members of the over fifty-eight nationalities working in Svalbard, “Adaptation to avalanche risk became entangled with state efforts to (re)gain control over housing,” at their expense.
This use of housing policy to drive out the many non-Norwegians who call Svalbard home is a particularly egregious example of the shock doctrine, whereby capitalism seizes on disasters to advance corporate and nationalist agendas. However, Sokolíčková explains that it is far from the only state measure taken to impose a particular kind of identity.
Knowing how to speak Norwegian is vital for professional, academic, and personal reasons. Yet the state has eliminated, or made hard to access, much of the language tuition previously available in the region, making it more difficult for non-Norwegians to participate in the collective life of the city. Sokolíčková participated in a community-led effort to create Norwegian language study groups, but just as they were gaining widespread success, the state shut them down without giving a reason. Later, “a Norwegian language teacher . . . was willing to open a paid-for course in Longyearbyen.” When she “started to inquire whether she could possibly rent a room for a reasonable price . . . her request was declined.” Eventually, she had no choice but to give up the initiative.
Another frustrating example is how drivers’ licenses issued outside Norway will no longer be acknowledged starting in 2024 in the hope of “dampen[ing] down migration from outside Norway.” The Ministry of Justice even “approved taking away voting rights from anybody who has not lived on mainland Norway for a minimum of three years.” None of this should be surprising since, as Sokolíčková notes, “in a reader’s letter to the local newspaper, the leader of the local branch of the national Conversative Party writes . . . you are almost expected to have racist attitudes.” The letter goes on to bluntly state, “In Longyearbyen, it has become ok to discriminate on the basis of nationality.”
That so many policies are designed to project the image of a homogeneous, Norwegian population when Svalbard has only become more diverse over time appears contradictory. However, The Paradox of Svalbard consistently relates these specific instances to Norway’s political interest in “claim[ing] continuous sovereignty.” That sovereignty has been challenged in the past, though Russia’s demands to have more influence over the archipelago have grown more intense in recent years.
Russia, it is worth noting, does not even use the Norwegian name Svalbard but calls the archipelago Spitsbergen. Norway has continued to insist that “Svalbard is Norwegian just as much as any region on the mainland.” Refusing to acknowledge Svalbard’s diversity, and in fact taking action to make it “Norwegian again” by pushing out and marginalizing non-native Norwegians, as Sokolíčková documents throughout her book, is the result of cynical political calculus.
Norway has also tried to present Svalbard as a model for green solutions to climate change for political ends. It is true that Svalbard has transitioned away from the mining industry that was once central to its economy. But the tourism industry that supplanted it is neither green nor a solution. Sokolíčková writes that it “significantly increases air and sea traffic, which causes higher carbon emissions and leads to ocean pollution.”
The tourism guides interviewed throughout The Paradox of Svalbard constantly point out how their industry not only destroys the environment, but also contributes to “class divides [and] rising inequalities in working and living conditions.” Those who employ tour guides “are not legally bound to provide housing or language courses. There is no valid legal framework granting them a safety net when it comes to health care or unemployment aid” and “only few jobs benefits accompany the often seasonal, short-term contracts.”
This general lack of accountability naturally puts workers in a permanently precarious situation. Some are driven to sleep in tents on the street during slow periods. One guide Sokolíčková interviewed confided that their employer purposefully withheld part of their wages but the guide was hesitant to fight too hard for them. “Three times a year they can fire you,” the guide explains, “and there are so many standing in the queue wanting your job.” It’s telling that most of the workers in the tourism industry Sokolíčková spoke to did so only on condition of anonymity. It’s also telling that those most responsible for highlighting Svalbard’s beauty to the outside world are among the most mistreated workers of the entire community.
“Culture of Denial”
Sokolíčková offers plenty of paradoxes related to housing, tourism, and politics in Longyearbyen and Svalbard more generally. However, the greatest paradox may be the persistent “culture of denial” — something common enough in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere but difficult to fathom in a place where people can literally see their homes melting around them. But as much as denial in Svalbard, like anywhere else, functions as “a collective strategy used to respond to the overwhelming threat of climate change,” as Sokolíčková puts it, denial is also central to the presentation of the region as an exemplary site of both the contemporary global climate crisis and its solutions. It is a reassuring lie, Sokolíčková reminds us, that “we can tackle ecological ruination without abandoning economic growth, and without attending to issues of disempowerment, exploitation, and alienation.”
Sokolíčková notes at the outset that Norway has tried to present Svalbard as a microcosm of the world. But her ethnographic approach, which examines the lived reality of individuals, digging beneath state propaganda and considering it as a community separate from the archipelago’s geostrategic importance, makes it clear that the closer one examines Svalbard, the more singular it becomes. Therefore, if it is a microcosm of the world, it is only insofar as it is riven by environmental, social, and political paradoxes like everywhere else.
The Paradox of Svalbard makes it clear that green solutions, like supplanting mining with tourism as Svalbard’s core industry, will not automatically lead to an end to the extractive practices that led to this crisis. Such a reorientation of an economy can also serve nationalist ends, and harm workers in the process.