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Anthropocentric Position in the Arctic Sovereignty Debate

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  • Andrew Lawrence


Motivated by the search for new trade routes and imperial accolades and glory, the Arctic has long been associated with famous explorers such as Franklin, Parry and Amundsen. As these explorers attempted to plant their nation’s flags in this expansive region, so continues today the practice of territorial claims in the Arctic. Ever changing climate conditions in the Arctic have reopened a race for new trade routes with the melting of ice in the North West Passage, as well as opened the opportunity of access to a vast expanse of natural resources. This renewed Arctic interest can be examined under the auspices of the human geography concept of environmental ethics, and more specifically the positions of ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. As will be explored here, despite all of the evidence towards global warming and its drastic effects on the Arctic, a policy of anthropocentrism regarding Arctic sovereignty is still practiced by Canada and other nations.

Summary of Article

According to the December 9, 2013 CBC article and interview, Canada has submitted an Atlantic and Arctic seabed claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of Continental Ice. The Atlantic seabed claim has been submitted in full while the Arctic seabed claim is only a preliminary claim that requires further scientific work. The Minister of Foreign Affairs requested officials and scientists complete additional scientific and cartographic work so the submission also includes a claim to the entire continental shelf along with the North Pole. Preliminary findings outline Canada’s claim to the Arctic seabed beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. An extension of this zone would include any natural resources beyond the current limit. Other nations including Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States have staked interests in the Arctic region. In the press conference announcing these claims, the ministers referred to them as issues pertaining to national sovereignty and the securing of Canada’s last frontier.

Ecocentric and Anthropocentric Views and Their Relevance to Arctic Sovereignty

The discipline of environmental ethics seeks to examine the questions and concerns of human interaction within the environment, and also seeks to provide a means to conduct this relationship between humans and the environment in an ethical manner (Norton, 2013, p. 125). In the twentieth century, the positions of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism were added to this discipline (Norton, 2013, p. 125). In an ecocentric position, intrinsic value is placed on all parts of the environment equally rather than placing humans at the centre (Norton, 2013, p. 127 ). Contrarily, in an anthropocentric position humans are placed as the central fact in the world where their detrimental effect on the environment is often stressed (Norton, 2013, p 128. )

The concept of anthropocentricism is especially evident in the examined article and the current issue of Arctic sovereignty, through the policy of staking claims in order to gain access to natural resources such as oil. These claims would benefit from the negative impacts that climate change, as a result of fossil fuels, have already played in this area.

Interpretation of Current Issue

Once referred to as the global environment’s “canary in a coal mine”, the Arctic’s rapidly changing conditions provide a broader perspective and advanced warning system on the real impact of climate change (Kofod, 2012). To the surprise of many scientists, the Arctic has been the first region in the world to show evidence that global climate change theories are in fact true (Kofod, 2012). According to scientific study the mean annual temperature increase in the Arctic, 3.7 °C, is significantly larger than the global mean temperature increase of 1.9 °C (Kofod, 2012). This rise in temperature can be directly linked to the world’s consumption of fossil fuels. Despite this outstanding evidence, the continuation of an anthropocentric perspective in the Arctic for the benefit of humans continues. The examined article discusses how any extension of Canada’s and the other nation’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone through the continental shelf will include any natural resources they contain. Often thought to be the driving factor in Arctic sovereignty, nations involved have made no secret of their intentions to extract from the vast number of stock natural resources in the region. However, a policy that centres on the extraction of natural resources for human use and which has already been directly connected to global climate change seems counterintuitive to the already fragile ecosystem of the Arctic. This detrimental effect of Arctic sovereignty position is within the auspices of the anthropocentric perspective.

The subject of nationalism is another anthropocentric perspective deeply embedded in the policy of Arctic sovereignty. Nationalism is especially evident throughout the examined article and interview as both government Ministers refer to the policy of Arctic sovereignty as “drawing the last lines of Canada” and “Canada’s last frontier”. This anthropocentric view forgets the Native peoples living in the Arctic regions, who often live an ecocentric lifestyle, and have been forced to adapt, often more readily, to the southern problem of climate change. Often these Native people are used as political pawns in staking a case for nationalism and territorial rights within the Arctic sovereignty debate (Saunders et al., 2014).


My understanding of the issue of Arctic sovereignty has been enhanced through the application of geographical concepts that further explore the issue in greater detail. The flag waving, patriotism and need for military assets are often the only aspects of Arctic sovereignty reported by the government and media. Through the application of environmental ethics and the position of anthropocentricism to this issue it can be seen that Arctic sovereignty is a far greater issue than simply redrawing the boundaries of a country’s borders. Although on the surface it may seem Canada as a whole would benefit from Arctic sovereignty the examination of policies show that the Arctic and its people have already been negatively impacted by anthropocentric policy and a need exists to address this policy from an environmental ethics and put in place ecocentric policies.


Norton, W. (2013). Human Geography (8th ed.), CH 4: (116-157). Don Mills, ON: Oxford

University Press Canada.

Kofod, J. (2013). Arctic Economic Opportunities, Environmental Obligations and Security

Stakes. NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Sub-Committee On Transatlantic Economic

Relations. Retrieved from

Paris, M. (2009). Canada’s Claim to Arctic Riches Includes the North Pole. CBC News.

Retrieved from //


Saunders, D., Huebert, R., Shelagh, G., Byers, M., Simon, M., English, J., Davis, W. (2014). Is

climate change a northern catastrophe or an Arctic opening?. Arctic Circle Panel, Globe

and Mail. Retrieved from //


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