As part of its monthly Book Review Forum, the IPAC-NWT Regional Group is pleased to present the following review for the month of March.

Northscapes edited by Dolly Jørgensen and Sverker Sörlin goes about finding the answer to the question “Is there a history of the North?” by examining the intersections of technology that has shaped the Northern environment.  The North has remained an empty space not just for environmental historians but also, more generally, for most historians.  Furthermore, the general history of the North, or of the circumpolar regions, has yet to be found.  The reason for this, as noted in Northscapes, is due to the fact that “the North” has until recently not been a region in its own right but has been divided due to national spheres of influence and colonial possession and has lacked unity in the conventional political and economic terms.  The North has been perceived as not having one history but many histories and Northscapes attempts to take up the challenge of providing a common historical framework on a professional scholarly level.

Northscapes presents how unique northern environments have resulted from the relationship between humans, technology and northern nature, and delves into the subject of the North being more than the Arctic – “The North is a place where challenges of geography and climate are typically related to cold and inaccessibility, especially as seen from the outside, or to home, hearth, and in certain periods (like the present) even warming” (4).  Using environmental historical approaches, Northscapes examines a broad range of geographies, including those of Iceland and other islands in the northern Atlantic, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Pacific Northwest and Canada.  It covers a wide time span, from AD 850 to 2000 and has further been divided into four themes: Exploring the North, Colonizing the North, Working the North and Imagining the North.  This provides the reader with an overarching framework for the types of environment and technology happening in the North.

The chapters under each theme demonstrate that the northern environment is not a given, fixed condition but instead makes evident the many layered complexity of the North.  It is a constantly changing phenomenon, moulded and shaped by societies, cultures, technology and above all else, history.  Like the North Magnetic Pole, the idea of the North shifts around, evading simple characterization and making it difficult to define the history of the North and how it has shaped the North as we see it today.  Within each chapter the authors demonstrate that the North changes over time and between contexts but by no means are the changes self-evident or absolute.

In reading the chapters one notes however that particular landscapes do not automatically lead to particular national and cultural traits, and similar environmental conditions do not necessarily create similar developments.  This can be seen from reading the chapters under the theme Working the North.  The chapter on sheep-raising in the Icelandic highlands (The Sheep, the Market and the Soil) discusses the history of sheep-raising that led to destruction of vegetation in the highlands especially in the nineteenth century, while the chapter discussing the transfer of agricultural knowledge between peripheries in the North (Traversal Technology Transfer) notes that Finnish and Swedish farmers modified their agricultural technology to adapt and cope with the northern environment.  This is also evident within the chapter on local reindeer herding (More Things on Heaven and Earth) which reminds us of the local differences within an environment and which took very different paths in two places that though not spatially distant were ideologically polar opposites.

Northscapes provides historical insight to policy makers, public servants, and other groups trying to navigate the ongoing changes observed in northern environments with both the advent of new technologies and the continuing productive use of many old technologies.  It demonstrates that the North has a long technological history that has shaped its current environment and has provided a framework to better understand the changing northern environment.  As noted by Bathsheba Demuth in the chapter titled More Things on Heaven and Earth:

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“…in the North there is no escape from timelessness into history simply through new technology.  History in the North, like history anywhere, is deeply human and trans-human; the land itself has a past and is changing… (191)”

In reviewing Northscapes, it should be noted that none of the chapters discuss or acknowledge military activities and technologies in the North.  This is of interest as enforcement of regional boundaries is in many cases related to environmental concerns and resources.  Further development in this area may be of use to policy makers and public servants as military activities and technologies have influenced and shaped the current environment, especially with the development of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) in the 1960’s.  Military activity and technology may continue to shape the northern environment with the North becoming of greater strategic importance with the possibility of decreasing ice coverage during the summer months, advances in technology and increases in shipping through the Northwest Passage.


This review was authored by SOPHIA GRANCHINHO, who is a Senior Technical Advisor with the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.  This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group.  Please note that the views expressed herein are those of the author and not of IPAC or the NIRB.

Northern Public Policy Book Review Forum
The Northern Public Policy Book Review Forum is an initiative of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s Northwest Territories Regional Group (IPAC-NWT) which reviews of leading academic publications with implications for public administrators and policy with a special emphasis on Northern issues.

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