Notes from the Arctic Dialogue conference 2011, Bodo, Norway

If we think about the impacts of extractive industries in the Arctic, for us anthropologists this means first and foremost looking at what industry does on the ground with people for whom the places on top of the deposits are their homeland.
As anthropologists, we don’t need to be told that cultural, social effects and interpersonal relations are absolutely crucial to understand why people make certain decisions and not others. But I am impressed and positively surprised how much business and management studies also now emphasise cultural and social factors in Arctic resource development. Their argument is actually very anthropological when they say that management practices in Arctic Extractive Industries face increasingly challenges of intercultural communication, and we need sort of cultural brokers to make mediate between different understandings and end up harmonising activities from different sides, e.g. from Russia and Norway. They also agree that harmonising does not mean ironing out different traditions, but rather different actors can benefit from this interaction as a joint mutual enrichment process (Bourmistrov and Sorne 2007).
The Arctic Dialogue conference here has an exclusive focus on coexistence of extractive industries with other economic forms and livelihoods. So they basically follow the approach that we had at Arctic Centre Rovaniemi when carrying out the ENSINOR project that led to the seminal publication of Bruce Forbes, Florian Stammler and others in the journal PNAS (2009), and the applied “Ilebts” declaration of coexistence led by Florian with co-authors from reindeer herding, industry, administration and academia. What was missing this time at this conference in Norway was the view from the indigenous people, as well as from NGO’s. Both were not represented, and NGO’s figured only because industry mentioned their importance!
As Charles Emmerson, author of “A future history of the Arctic” states, the Arctic is really a nexus of the global and the local, and this is why we in anthropology also are well advised to engage in discussions with politics, industry, NGO’s. The international relations scholars from their end acknowledge that they should engage more with people competent on the local level in what Arctic extractive industrial development does to people and their environment. I think this opens up a lot of interdisciplinary avenues for us northern anthropologists not only with natural sciences colleagues, but with other social scientists.
It became very obvious during the PhD course on extractive industries how theory in our different social sciences fields all goes to the same direction: we all tend to go beyond studying static systems, conditions, situations, but much more processes, evolving developments, people’s practices and ideas, no matter if you rely for this on literature from anthropology, international relations, business studies or law. All these scholars have now come to agree that you gain a great depth of understanding when you use anthropological methods, meaning qualitative in depth work including participant observation. This will make it much easier for us to work together in the future.
One thing I am grappling with is the theoretical understanding of risk and uncertainty in this field. Anatoly Bourmistrov from the Bodo Business School says for them risk is something you can quantify, whereas uncertainty is more vague. But then Bente Nyland from the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate presents a slide where she quantifies uncertainty, not risk, stating that the Barents Sea is the most uncertain area for Norway in oil and gas development. Well maybe that is a bit theoretical and not too relevant for the practice of development, but it would be helpful if scholars working in that field could agree what they mean when they say risk, and what with uncertainty. But that’s the luxury of science to theorise about this. When we talk to private companies, we get working definitions. E.g. Erling Saebo from Norske Veritas explains that for them, risk is the probability of an incident times the consequences of an incident. It’s quite interesting to hear the statement that if we want to maintain the highest possible standards in extractive industries in the Arctic where the consequences of the incidents are higher, we need to increase the precautions and reduce the probability of these. A consortium of private and public institutions in the Barents region has therefore worked on drafting common standards. . But the problem is that standards, rules and laws are static in their nature. As anthropologists knowing livelihood in the Arctic, we know that the most stable understanding that we have is that everything is changing all the time, it is dynamic.
All these standards are of course all right, but one comment was therefore particularly useful, and guess from where it came: from Shell’s Arctic Theme leader Robert Blauw: Standards should be efficient in guiding, and HOW you implement them should depend on the particularities in the respective cases and countries. While this is useful as an approach, we should make sure that nobody can use this as an excuse for operating with a poor standard in one place and a high standard in another. Shell’s Blauw thinks that solutions tailored to the specifics of the place are the solutions, and it’s crucial that they make sense locally and can be properly explained.
This leads us to another interesting observation: Absolutely EVERYBODY agrees that we have moved beyond static descriptions of situations in our research using a finite and unflexible set of theories, or static prescriptive approaches in legal and other regulations by public bodies. EVERYBODY agrees that it works much better to  to work goal-oriented, performance-oriented when studying AND doing Arctic extractive industrial development. Actually, we could say that now all these people have started implementing a phenomenological approach, focusing on practices and processes rather than outputs. Nothing is finite in our current moving world, and therefore whatever we do has to be flexible enough for not only accommodating changes, but letting our advancement of knowledge be inspired by them, letting our research be shaped by and also shaping these changes.

The presentations by industry representatives was quite interesting, because it showed three important insights for us as Arctic anthropologists:

Posh cars in Bodo harbour. How can we make sure that oil wealth trickles down to people and is sustainable?

1) we should much better understand what industrialisation does with residents in the North, because it will affect more areas in the Arctic than we can imagine now! Just look at the resources and the plans of major oil, gas and mining companies. No matter what laws will aim to regulate, exploration and development will happen on a much larger scale and affect the people with whom we work in the Arctic.
2) As far as oil and gas development is concerned, the presentations made clear the huge differences that we have between European, North American and Russian frameworks for Arctic industrial development. For example, Frances Ulmer from the University of Alaska Anchorage remarked, the standards in the US are WAY lower than in Europe. On individual industrial project levels, we note that there is a huge difference between the ways in which work is being done, e.g. in the way feasibility studies and project documentations are done, projects are approved, consultations are carried out, and projects are implemented. Most participants at this meeting agreed that it makes best sense to develop corporate guidelines and standards and not wait for legislators to prescribe rules that will be outdated by the time they are adopted 😦 . Industry seems to have understood this very much. However, there is still MUCH more focus on the environment than on the people, although most have noticed that the Arctic is inhabited.
3) From the two points above follows that if we develop our anthropological expertise in extractive industries effects in the North, the ongoing increase in Arctic industrial activity opens up a lot of opportunities for us, maybe even responsibilities, where our research can make a real positive difference for Arctic livelihoods. Just two examples: IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, one of the world’s biggest NGO’s) teamed up with Shell for a Cross-Sector Strategic Assessment for Future Arctic Development (, where they ask at this moment for expression of interest to contribute. Anybody who is interested in doing so, please leave a comment on this blog and we provide you with details. Basically they are searching experts to provide the content. It would be good if we contribute to such efforts for making the best of such development for the people, and not only for the companies’ profit. The international Association of Oil & Gas producers ( is now working on a “Good Practice Guide” on environmental AND SOCIAL issues of oil and gas development. The social dimension of this is done by the global oil and gas industry association for environmental and social issues ( We should make sure that these people get also some of our research outputs, e.g. the Ilebts declaration ( for coexistence that we drafted with people who live and work on the sites of industrial production, that is reindeer herders, gas workers, constructors, and administrators.

On the bus back from the conference site, Shell Norway’s communication chief Jonassen asked me how we scientists think the industry has developed in their environmental and social performance. I said that the rhetoric has not changed much. Companies always released beautiful brochures, delivered great species about their responsibilities, their minimal footprints and their positive social effects for communities. But lately they have actually made efforts to deliver on such promises, so the time of lipservice is over! Obviously, whenever you Do things, they can also go wrong. The deepwater horizon oil spill has shown that. Therefore everybody’s expertise is needed to implement industrial projects in the best possible way for the benefit of ALL actors involved.