The Arctic is more than what many imagine it to be. Adorning covers of National Geographic and haunting the internet with photos of starving polar bears, the Arctic has become a symbol of the climate crisis. Popular media portrays the Far North as a place devoid of the busy interstates and crowded cities that symbolize the output of carbon dioxide suffocating our skies and seas; instead, it is viewed as a place to be protected, a place where “wilderness” still exists in its true form. Except “wilderness” is a myth, and the Arctic is a central hub in fossil fuel infrastructure. Environmental activist and photographer Subhankar Banerjee has called this contradiction a “great irony” (Banerjee 2012, 4) because the rich ecosystem that facilitates such beauty also creates prime conditions for oil. But this is only a contradiction when we view the ecosystem as a place of either extraction or preservation. In reality, the Arctic is a landscape and seascape of tundra and ice floes that facilitate a seamless transition of life from ocean to land and back again. As environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth writes, “the death of one living thing becomes life in another” (Demuth 2019, 4) as the energy from sunlight makes its way between bodies in an endless energetic conversion from one life form to another through food. This is the conversion of sunlight to energy on earth that allows once-living microorganisms to eventually become oil, and it is this shared process that leads us to Banerjee’s “great irony.”
This irony exists only due to particular preconceptions of how certain spaces can be used and lived in. The basis that facilitates such irony is space imagined for either preservation or human use. Often, preservation meant the removal of the free human movement of those already living on the land, such as the injustice that occurred through the establishment of many US national parks (Gilio-Whitaker 2019, 93). However, human participation in the environment is not wrong or immoral—living beings participate in a constant ongoing exchange with their surrounding environment. Despite this fact, many conservation movements seek to restrict the ways in which humans, particularly Indigenous communities, can participate in this energetic exchange. Energy use in the Arctic is one example. As commercial oil companies continue in their attempts to exploit the energetic potential of the region for financial gain, Inuit communities are threatened by self-proclaimed animal rights activists and conservationists—they must fight for the right to profit from seal hunts, a traditional subsistence practice that provides financial security while facilitating energetic transfer through food. To return to the opening claim, there is more to the Arctic than what popular media portrays; the Arctic is not an empty expanse of ice but rather a busy place, where energy is constantly moving and converting between beings.
In Angry Inuk (Arnaquq-Baril 2016a), the activist filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril makes the Inuit seal hunt visible as an act of patience, labor, and care. In the film’s opening moments, her voice describes the hunt as part of her childhood over the image of Arctic waters, undisturbed, ice floating on the surface. A single gunshot is fired, and the hunters move to collect their catch and return it to the community, where the meat and skins are processed by hand and prepared for sale (figure 1). Arnaquq-Baril’s documentation of what she calls “commercial sealing” (Arnaquq-Baril 2016a, 00:16:02) for Inuit hunters in Iqaluit, Nunavut, reveals a deliberate process of energy transfer from ocean to human. She confronts audiences with a living portrait of the intimate and community-centered labor behind this energy transfer as an activist stance that centers the story of Indigenous people in the Arctic. These intimate moments imagine energy as something other than the output of industrialized fossil fuel extraction. Angry Inuk illustrates a lived, intentional relationship to energy while emphasizing the ways in which energetic transfer is entwined with culture, community, and survival. Protecting this relationship with energy also means protecting Inuit culture alongside the individuals the hunt feeds and supports.
As we will see, the history of the past two hundred years reveals the widely different ways that rich energy stores in the Far North have been conceived of and used; within the context of the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, these various modes of energy collection foster important questions of how energy is defined and who can profit from such resources. The problem is twofold. In one vein, we must consider the goal of conservation. In another, we must stop to ask ourselves what we imagine energy to be. Through both of these lines of inquiry, we will see that images and narratives that portray a pristine and uninhabited Arctic are limiting and promote a singular way of thinking and being in the world. Ultimately, these limits cause extensive harm. The essay’s emphasis on the Arctic stems from the region’s unique historical and contemporary energy metabolisms, which reveal the inconsistencies in twenty-first-century energetic understandings—namely, the regulation of which energy products one can profit from. However, the Arctic is a rich, culturally diverse, and historically complex region, and this essay does not intend to reduce these complexities to a singular experience. For the extent of the discussion, I specifically refer to the Arctic regions of northern Canada and the upper portion of the US state of Alaska. I take this approach because of the two regions’ similarities in regulation and colonial history, which has resulted in particular energetic formations.
In the following pages, I respond to Christopher Jones’s call to resist the energy humanities’ obsession with oil (Jones 2016) and instead focus on the energetic potential of food and animal products. Resisting the obsession with oil is particularly important in the Arctic because such a narrow focus has resulted in the limited use and value of other (renewable) energetic resources. As environmentally minded regulations emerged to protect the Arctic, these laws overreached by regulating important Indigenous activities within the Arctic ecosystem. Reemphasizing the significance of food as energy in this way does more than just expand our definition of energy. It illuminates how energy use is inherently engaged with issues of environment, equality, politics, bodies, cultures, futures, and pasts. Remembering that energy goes beyond petroleum-based products and that we are all caught up in its cycle can help us make better, more thoughtful decisions and repair damaging policies from the past as we continue practicing both environmental and social justice.
With these thoughts in mind, the essay argues that food as energy needs to be recentralized in both popular and legal conceptions of energy, with a specific focus on resources that stem from Indigenous subsistence practices. Reconceptualizing food as energy is more than just acknowledging the energetic stores it creates in living bodies. When we truly think of food as energy, we also think of the energetic potential of its by-products, such as burning animal oils for fuel, wearing pelts, and financially profiting. Failing to acknowledge the energetic potential of subsistence practices has great impact on Indigenous populations that rely on subsistence hunting. Prohibiting these practices is a contemporary act of environmental injustice that stretches from an unjust colonial system. To showcase the impact of such prejudice, the following discussion examines the recent 2009 EU seal trade ban as an example of ongoing environmental injustice (Official Journal of the European Union 2009). By examining the specifics of this ban, its history, and works of resistance from Indigenous activists who fight to reclaim their rights, we can clearly see the harm of imposing limits on conceptions of energy.
The essay makes this argument through three sections. First, I emphasize the importance of situating food as energy in our ongoing discussions of energetic imaginings within the energy humanities, as this allows for the understanding of various energy formations. Second, the essay explores how the market value of different energy sources has historically changed depending on who can financially profit. Finally, it ends by identifying the ways in which Arnaquq-Baril’s 2016 film Angry Inuk is an activist text central to understanding the harm of limited energetic imaginings, as Arnaquq-Baril works to detail the impact of and reinsert Inuit perspectives into discussions of animal conservation policy decisions.
Before moving forward, it is important to understand that the purpose of this essay is not to identify solutions to the climate crisis. As Kyle Whyte states, Indigenous communities are often exploited “for information Indigenous knowledges might possess that could fill in gaps in climate science research” (Whyte 2017, 158). Rather, this essay seeks to illuminate the array of harm caused by our current moment of the Anthropocene. Environmental injustice occurs not only through the disproportionate impacts of a warming climate but also through biased responses to environmental anxieties. In the case of restricting the financial potential of subsistence activities, we see that some attempts at environmental protection are harmful and enact colonial ideologies.
Finally, this essay is written from my own position as a visitor in Arctic space. For some years (roughly mid- to late 2010s), I lived and worked in an Iñupiaq village in Arctic Alaska. This experience has been vital to my own understanding of Arctic space and to developing the writing of this essay, but it is above all the perspective of a visitor and is written in support of Indigenous Arctic communities.
Undoing the Obsession with Oil
In 2016 Christopher Jones wrote “Petromyopia: Oil and the Energy Humanities,” in which he outlines the field’s current preoccupation with oil, arguing for the energy humanities to expand its scope of research. In the piece, he describes a number of reasons this change must occur, including that oil is not representative of global energy production (Jones 2016, 2) and that focusing too much on oil inherently privileges this energy source over other forms such as electricity, coal, food, and renewables (Jones 2016, 7). To these statements, we might add another important reason to diversify: energy sources are deeply connected to cultural practices, and focusing primarily on oil results in the elevation of a singular way of existing in the world. Expanding the focus of the energy humanities will therefore not only expand discussions of energy sources but also decrease the tendency to privilege certain energy cultures over others.
This sentiment is reflected in the work of other scholars working in the energy humanities. Researchers contributing to the Petrocultures Research Group wrote of the dangers of overprivileging oil in their publication After Oil (Petrocultures Research Group 2016). Here, they caution against such narrow focus because the prevalence of petroleum makes it difficult to reconcile with other energetic understandings. They also write that energy forms are social, emphasizing a community’s right to “own, manage, and develop energy resources that conform to their desires and needs” (Petrocultures Research Group 2016, 16–25). In a later publication, After Oil contributors Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer reaffirm this position by outlining how large-scale energy infrastructures have fundamentally influenced modern culture. Here, they state “energy riches of the past two centuries have influenced our relationships to our bodies, molded human social relations, and impacted the imperatives of even those varied activities we group together under the term ‘culture’” (Szeman and Boyer 2017, 2). Following their assertion, the ways in which one conceptualizes energy profoundly shapes people and cultures, and the emphasis placed on fossil fuels by the modern era is simply one aspect of this pattern. It is important to recognize that this equation extends to other energy imaginings as well; expanding discussions of energy beyond oil has both important social and environmental implications.
Oil is a major point of discussion in the Arctic because of the impacts its extractive processes have on landscapes and communities. It is also a lucrative business that attracts flashy headlines and engaging stories. However, it is not the only critical energetic form located in the Far North. Food is another significant source, and one older and more necessary. As Jones writes, “for the vast majority of human history, food has been the main source of energy for humans” (Jones 2016, 7), a fact that some have seemingly forgotten. As many of us read about the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the subarctic regions of Alaska, another fight for energy justice is happening concurrently. That we may be more familiar with the fight against oil is the embodiment of the reality the scholars above wish to resist.
For the past forty years, Inuit communities in northern Canada have fought against unjust laws that prohibit or severely diminish their ability to profit from the seal hunt. The first ban on seal products was put in place in 1983 by the European Union and prohibited the trade of whitecoat harp seal pup fur. While the regulation included an exception for Inuit hunters (Council of the European Union 1983), the accompanying antisealing campaigns by animal rights activists diminished market demand for seal products. Consequently, the ability of Inuit hunters and community members to profit from the hunt rapidly decreased during a period that filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril refers to as “our Great Depression” (Arnaquq-Baril 2016a, 0:20:21). Seeming to forget the impact of the 1983 ban, the 2009 EU regulation again included an exemption for seal products obtained as part of Inuit subsistence hunts as it recognizes that “the hunt is an integral part of the culture and identity of the members of the Inuit society” (Official Journal of the European Union 2009, 14). Unsurprisingly, the ban still resulted in decreased demand. This is not accidental. The 2009 EU decision banned the trade and importation of harp and hooded seal products due to what they claim are animal welfare concerns. Specifically, the regulation sought “to take action to reduce the demand leading to the marketing of seal products and, hence, the economic demand driving the commercial hunting of seals” (Official Journal of the European Union 2009, 10). This very language discredits the previous remark acknowledging the integral nature of the practice for Inuit communities, as it directly seeks to diminish the ability to profit from any seal hunts, including those of subsistence hunts. Furthermore, harp and hooded seals are not currently listed as an endangered or threatened species by the Animal Welfare Institute (Animal Welfare Institute 2019), and thus one can infer that the animal welfare concern is based not on environmental protection but instead on bias against the practice of seal hunting in general.
Scholars working to highlight the injustice of these bans have cited the laws as enactments of colonialism under the guise of “putting nature first” (Kitossa 2000, 2), because in reality these laws work to erase Indigenous cultures and traditional practices. The Eurocentric viewpoint of the bans is obvious. While the bans seek to protect seals from hunting, the threat of marine harm from oil- and gas-related activities has not been extinguished. Recently, the 2016 five-year moratorium on new oil and gas activities in Canadian Arctic waters was extended through 2022. Assessments conducted throughout 2022 will influence whether the moratorium continues for another half decade, at which time the decision will again be reviewed. As oil development can have its own impact on marine life, the inconsistency in which energy formations are tolerated is evident. There will always be the potential of fossil fuel development as long as the moratorium is designed to be regularly reviewed, while the ability to profit from, and in some cases perform, traditional subsistence hunts continues to be diminished.
Prioritizing oil in our discussions of energy results in reduced attention paid to other energetic forms. That oil development continues to be pursued in the Canadian Arctic while bans make it difficult for Inuit communities to profit from subsistence hunting is a real-world example of the preoccupation with oil. The seal hunt is an important way in which Inuit communities are able to participate in the region’s energetic process. As mentioned, subsistence hunting is one way that humans transform and participate in energetic transfer in Arctic space. While not done on the same scale as industrial oil extraction, it can have similar results: both facilitate food consumption, provide warmth by burning oils, create clothing, and have financial value. However, it can be difficult for those living within the paradigms of petroculture to understand that the transfer of energy occurs in a different manner than that of the “temperate agricultural bounties [with] the industrial capacity to take the energy in things—tree, coal, oil—and turn it into propulsion and power” (Demuth 2019, 7). This expectation of the energetic process, to turn it into “propulsion and power,” places limits on the understanding of what energy can be and how it can function and move through the world. That these expectations are not met in the seal hunt does not mean the hunt itself should disappear.
The inclination to dismiss practices that do not fit into formations of “temperate-normativity” contributes to the largely colonial formation of imagining a “universal truth of how the Arctic must be known, depicted, and managed” (Smith 2021, 161). Jen Rose Smith’s discussion of temperate-normativity names the process by which an icy landscape, such as the Arctic, is seen to be nongenerative in comparison to subarctic temperate climates that rely more heavily on cultivation and sedentary living (Smith 2021, 163). In this formation, the land-based knowledges of subsistence living are seen by outsiders for their potential to offer a way through global climate change, but not for the value they provide the Indigenous communities living in these spaces. It also allows us to see how colonial mindsets continue to impose themselves on Indigenous communities, as one form of energy participation is deemed financially viable while another is discouraged.
At its core, this is a question of who may profit from metabolic processes, and which metabolic processes are deemed fit to enter into the global market economy of the twenty-first century. As sociologist Hannah Landecker writes, metabolism is the interface between inside and outside, of matter to energy (Landecker 2013, 193). While the specifics of how one collects, uses, and profits from this process are social, in the most fundamental way, every metabolic process is the same: “living beings cannot exist except with materials from other beings that have died before them or were destroyed by them. Life is death” (Landecker 2013, 205). When viewing the question this way, we see the hypocrisy of pursuing the conveniences and profits of energy through extractive oil yet discouraging the financial profit that accompanies the transfer of energy from one living creature into another through food obtained during subsistence practices. Both practices are modes of engaging with the surrounding environment through energy transfer between beings, but the value placed on each mode of energy collection is different. This is when the process of energy transfer becomes political (Landecker 2011, 173).
Accepting energy obtained through fossil fuels while rejecting energy obtained through subsistence hunting practices highlights the tendency of many cultures living in the twenty-first century to privilege disruptive metabolic transfer processes over less removed, sustainable practices (Salleh 2010, 206). Often, this attitude is due to the large profit potential of industrial activities versus the smaller profits of less disruptive practices. That is, “the human metabolism with nature under capitalism [is] mediated by value” (Foster and Clark 2018, 8). Moreover, lawmakers and corporations consider the profits obtained from subsistence hunting to hold significantly less value than fossil fuels and thus see less reason to protect it.
Through formations like these, we can see how “energy systems are shot through with largely unexamined cultural values, with ethical and ecological consequences” (LeMenager 2014, 4). While the metabolic process might be the same, the way this process is valued is inherently social. Privileging extractive energy forms in spaces largely occupied by marginalized communities is what Macarena Gómez-Barris has termed the “extractive zone,” where resource-rich regions are reduced to the potential value of reserves to provide capital gain (Gómez-Barris 2017, xvi). Resistance to these projects, such as the fight against the seal trade ban, is therefore a practice of reestablishing Indigenous sovereignty over regions that have been taken or abused for profit potential. It is an act of resistance and empowerment, social and environmental justice. Practices such as the seal hunt allow Indigenous communities to participate in the global economic trade of energy products and by-products on their own terms, financially profiting from traditional practices in a mode that resists extractive industry and attempts at colonial authority.
As anthropologist Brian Larkin states, infrastructures are often promoted as symbols of change and futurity. There is a belief that “by promoting circulation, infrastructures bring about change, and through change they enact progress, and through progress we gain freedom” (Larkin 2013, 332). This belief is directly contradicted in situations within extractive zones where infrastructure is valued over traditional practices and, in the process, freedom is lost. The 2009 EU seal trade ban is a prime example of such a situation, where industry that lacks large-scale infrastructure is denied a place in the present. Fighting against such bans is an environmental and social necessity. In the attempt to protect hooded and harp seals for animal welfare reasons, the European Union actively disregarded the welfare of human beings. As stated in discussions of environmental injustice, excluding the leadership of people of color in environmental movements is a form of environmental racism (Pellow 2018, 9), showcasing how “power flows through the multi-species relationships that make up life on Earth, often resulting in violence and marginalization for the many and environmental privileges for the few” (Pellow 2018, 7). Lifting the seal trade ban would be the first step in reaching environmental and social justice for the Inuit communities in Arctic Canada. Doing so would signal understanding of the importance of energy forms beyond fossil fuels, as well as promote the livelihoods of Inuit communities in the area. It would also showcase a less inconsistent, harmful mode of being in the world, as US, Canadian, and European corporations historically profited from Arctic animal products.
Past Formations of Arctic Energy
While it is the goal of this essay to emphasize the unequal access to energy profits in our contemporary moment, to understand fully the degree of this inequality we must contextualize our current moment within its historical setting. Doing so situates the 2009 EU ban as another attempt to control Arctic space and impose settler values. This attempt largely follows from the “dark side of conservation” (Banerjee 2012, 9), where conservation efforts have historically excluded Indigenous voices in decision-making processes and removed Indigenous bodies from proposed conservation areas. We can trace this separation of human from nature to late nineteenth-century natural philosophies, which coded natural spaces as distinct from human activity (Cronon 1996). Nature became a place either to be protected or to be used for human activity, such as resource development and living spaces, with little overlap between the two. Decisions such as the EU seal trade ban showcase how this separation persists. Restricting the financial potential of subsistence hunting reveals the inability of lawmakers and conservationists to reconcile living and caring for a place while participating in the energetic and embodied experiences of that place. Imposing such perspectives is similar to Kyle Whyte, Jared Talley, and Julia Gibson’s assertion that “the goal of the settler is actually to eliminate themselves as a settler by remaking the land into their own social-ecological context” (Whyte, Talley, and Gibson 2019, 326). This seems precisely the goal of the EU trade ban—to impose from afar a specific social-ecological context that does not include the traditions of the Inuit communities actively living within these spaces.
Essentially, this context is a form of what we might identify as a colonization of energy, where Indigenous and other ruled cultures are expected to work within and adhere to the energetic exchange systems (bodily and financial) of the colonizer. This is the most recent iteration of the colonizing state’s long history of imposing ideologies and power formations over the North American Arctic from afar. Since the nineteenth century, the North American Arctic has been a prime location for promoting national ideologies. It is in these moments where the myth of an empty Arctic was established (Craciun 2016, 9), and conquering the unfamiliar icy ecosystem became symbolic of a nation’s naval power and imperialist abilities (McGhee 2005, 218). In these attempts, intentional acts of Indigenous erasure took place in media reports and expedition publications to encourage a narrative that “preferred the seeming blankness of the ice to an articulate indigeneity” (Blum 2019, 229). The trade bans are one way in which Indigenous erasure continues. However, the goal is not to highlight national naval power but instead to make hollow attempts at performative activism that might signal a nod toward environmental concern yet shows a deep apathy for the reality of the region and its inhabitants.
This history also reveals the performative nature of the decision when one considers the history of whaling in the Arctic. The seeming desire to protect animals occurs after a long history of exploitation of animals and peoples in this area. Throughout the nineteenth century, concurrent with the pursuit of nationalist ideology, Arctic waters were crawling with sailors funded by North American- and European-based corporations. Around the Bering Strait alone, these sailors had decimated the bowhead whale population by the late nineteenth century (Demuth 2019, 54). When whales became hard to find, sailors turned toward walruses, diminishing their population by over three-quarters (Bockstoce 1986, 135). Because of this overhunting of traditional Indigenous food sources, many villages and nations across the area of the Bering Strait starved during the subsequent decades, leaving less than half of the Bering Strait’s coastal population (Demuth 2019, 80).
This history highlights the bias in what energy sources are deemed financially valuable. As long as an animal kept its value as a marketable energy source that large corporations could profit from, it remained a commodity—because whales and walruses during the nineteenth century were valuable for the profits made from their energetic potential, they were allowed to be hunted to near extinction. However, as petroleum slowly replaced whale oil, the energy gained from animal hunts lost value. Eventually, commercial markets no longer considered nondomesticated animals as energy sources. This history highlights the change in conception of what constitutes energy. By the time whalers abandoned the Arctic waters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the value of whale oil had greatly diminished in favor of petroleum extraction (Black 2000, 17). Cheaper than whale oil, petroleum facilitated a way to engage indirectly with an environment’s energy stores, rather than participating in a more embodied transfer between living entities. That is, “petroleum occurred as an inanimate mineral in pockets beneath the earth’s surface, not as the breathing creature seeking to elude or destroy the human attempting its harvest” (Black 2000, 18). While the shift to petroleum signaled the decline of the whaling industry, the centuries of interest in whale oil prepared the modern era for a reliance on fossil fuels. Used for similar purposes, the shift from animal-based energy products to an inanimate substance functioned as a sea change in the conception of what constitutes energy. One no longer needed to confront directly the metabolic transfer of energy, but was instead able to disrupt this process by working with already dead matter and disconnecting the harvesters and consumers from the process itself.
Since the transition away from whale oil, the question of what constitutes suitable energy forms continues to play itself out in Arctic spaces. At the center of this situation is the survival of Indigenous ways of life. The 1983 and 2009 seal trade bans are not isolated instances of excluding Indigenous subsistence products from global trade markets. In 1982 the International Whaling Commission proclaimed its goal of reducing all commercial whaling operations to zero (Fielding 2017, 89). In 2014 the designation of the polar bear as a potentially threatened species restricted both international and domestic trade of polar bear parts (“Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora,” n.d.). In both situations, the ability of Indigenous communities to financially profit from their hunts decreased. Geographer Russell Fielding describes the impact such rulings continue to have on Indigenous communities, carefully pointing out that the categories used to ethically reach such decisions prove more harmful than helpful. For example, distinguishing between commercial and subsistence use allows Indigenous communities to access these animals for survival but creates a hierarchy where food is seen as a necessity not extended to economic profit. In reality, “there is significant overlap and mingling between the two” (Fielding 2017, 91). Political scientist Kurtis Boyer further elaborates on the importance of economic profit, as such practices are crucial to maintaining the cultural identity of Indigenous Arctic peoples because “exercising economic self-determination is a necessary condition for cultural autonomy” (Boyer 2017, 107). Through these situations, we can identify a trend where Indigenous autonomy and cultural identity is placed as secondary to the protection of animals whose endangered status is questionable at best.
The colonization of energy is therefore systemic and representative of a bias toward which energy forms are deemed profitable in a twenty-first-century market. Dominant industry demonstrated no hesitancy or moral objection to decimating populations of nondomesticated animals while it remained commercially popular to do so throughout the nineteenth century. By the time the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling commenced in 1946, the animal’s economic value had largely been replaced by less-expensive petroleum (Demuth 2019, 262). This history helps us see that despite the same basic metabolic process that occurs through each of these energetic forms (petroleum, whale oil, seal products, etc.), the value placed on the forms differs depending on who is able to profit from the transfer. As the commodity value of energetic products shifts, international governmental organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union have made it clear that they no longer see nondomesticated animals as energy sources from which one can profit. Thus, Indigenous communities throughout the North American Arctic and subarctic regions must fight against conservation measures to maintain economic autonomy through natural resources. However, this is a complex fight to illustrate because lawmakers see Indigenous communities’ ability to hunt for food as fulfilling subsistence values. In reality, these needs are also met by commodifying energetic harvests in the form of furs, skins, and other animal parts, which allows subsistence practices to enter the global market economy. Moreover, selling these goods directly supports the subsistence activities themselves by providing capital to buy gasoline and equipment.
The transfer of energy from one body to another through food can be commodified in the remaining animal products. That the commodity value of objects acquired through subsistence activities is tempered by such policies seems paradoxical when one considers the continuing interest in oil development in the same area. The bias of profiting from one form of energy over another illustrates the colonization of energy. Policies such as the EU 2009 trade ban reflect a culture reliant on fossil fuels, dismissing the economic value of other energy sources. The history of commercial whaling signals that before industry relied on fossil fuels, there was not widespread hostility to using natural resources, specifically nondomesticated animals, to the point of exploitation and extreme harm. However, as North American and European societies stepped away from other forms of fuel and became increasingly dependent upon petroleum, the notion of what constitutes energy became more and more limited, as critics like Jones, Szeman, and Boyer reflect. Nondomesticated animals specifically, as we can see from trends started in the late twentieth century, lost their value as a commodity. Consequentially, policymakers have made it clear that the energy harvested from the bodies of wild animals should not be used for economic profit, a stance harming the Indigenous societies that have depended on them for this very purpose and continue to do so both for individual and cultural survival.
While subsistence products are still legal in the cases cited above, there is a failure to recognize the financial benefits of subsistence hunting and the ways in which these profits allow the livelihood of communities to continue. The basis of these practices is the metabolic energy transfer between bodies. What differs is the value placed on these transfers and their accompanied commodity value. While corporations can profit from oil extraction, a subsistence hunter cannot profit from the cash value (skins, bones) of their energy harvest. In this sense, animals are not simply a foodstuff or commodity but are essential to the maintenance of Indigenous ways of life and self-determination.
Activist Resistance in Angry Inuk and the Future of Arctic Energy
The injustice of the seal trade bans is the subject of Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2016 film Angry Inuk. The film, which has received numerous awards and extensive critical attention, emphasizes the importance of the seal hunt in Inuit culture for its subsistence, cultural, and economic value. Primarily, Angry Inuk is a documentary film that seeks to protect the seal hunt by informing its audience of the hunt’s importance to Inuit communities. The film is a prime example of how activists are working to resist the colonization of energy.
Angry Inuk illustrates the current and historical struggle to protect the economic viability of the seal hunt, as international organizations and activist groups seek to ban the hunting and trade of seal parts. The film specifically addresses the 2009 trade ban on seal products passed by the European Union, the same ban that is the primary subject of this essay. Arnaquq-Baril’s film describes the depth of impact experienced after the decision, as many communities suffer economically and are unable to hunt as often because the hunt itself no longer reliably pays for the gasoline or supplies it requires. As many have pointed out in regard to the economic hardship following these bans, Arnaquq-Baril reminds her audience that the seal hunt is one of the economies that generates wealth without destroying the environment. Finally, the most significant portion of her argument is the way in which she demonstrates that the hunt is integral to the community and the culture, and therefore must be preserved for the sake of identity itself. Importantly, the aim to reinsert Inuit perspectives on sealing into animal rights policy is evident even in the film’s title. As Arnaquq-Baril describes, the name Angry Inuk helps emphasize the urgency of the situation (Arnaquq-Baril 2016a, 00:13:04-00:13:53)—impacted Inuit are indeed angry, even when this anger is expressed differently compared to the more violent anger of animal rights activists. Indeed, the title emphasizes that even though this anger may look different, Inuit activists are still working tirelessly to achieve justice and reinsert their perspectives in discussions of the seal hunt.
The care that Arnaquq-Baril takes to highlight each aspect of the seal hunt demonstrates a process of energy transfer that differs from the removed, extractive formation of large-scale oil infrastructures. The film emphasizes the hunt as an activity of patience, labor, and care. In the film’s opening moments, the audience witnesses Arnaquq-Baril’s family seal hunting. Here, her voice-over describes how she has been participating in the activity with her family since she was a child, an affair that is now passed down to the younger generation she accompanies in the film. The audience is shown an eye-level panning shot of Arctic waters, undisturbed, ice floating on the surface, the sound of the water quietly in the background (figure 2). A single shot is fired, and the hunters move to collect their catch. The seal hunt is a quiet, intimate process.
After the seal is caught and field dressed, they return to the community, where the meat and skins are processed. At this moment, the film takes us through another intimate moment that emphasizes the deliberate process of pelts being washed in water and the sound of ulus scraping skins, preparing for sale (figure 3). This is the process the filmmaker identifies as “commercial sealing” (Arnaquq-Baril 2016a, 00:16:02). Through this documentation, we witness the movement of energy from ocean to human, as seal meat is ingested and turned into cash. We observe the labor behind this energy transfer, as bodies work to capture and prepare the food and products. When confronted with this community-centered, deliberate, and thoughtful metabolic process, one wonders why this energetic process’s commercial value is discouraged while the large-scale infrastructure of the extractive oil industry is not. These intimate moments imagine energy as something that does not need to arrive only in mediated and fractured ways, but that can exist in more intentional, involved formations. The meat provides sustenance while the skins provide warmth and generate economic value. This form of energy production can produce capital just as other forms of energy do. The production that goes into preparing the skins for market, which we are shown in detail, highlights the economic value of the product, and although it might look different from other forms of infrastructure-based energy production, Arnaquq-Baril emphasizes that this is what commercial sealing looks like for Inuit hunters in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She therefore argues that this form of energy production has the same right to produce capital for Inuit communities as larger industrial energetic practices.
The contrast in actual process is not the only difference between these two energy formations. The seal hunt has deep ties to the community and cultural traditions. In the film, many members of the community participate in the hunting, processing, and selling of seal products. During an interview with Kimmirut community member and chair of the Hunter’s Association Mikidjuk Kolola, the audience learns that he and others hunt seals year-round. The meat they provide is distributed throughout the community, while the skins are used in various ways and provide income (Arnaquq-Baril 2016a, 00:13:56). In this particular interview, the film cuts between shots of Kolola and children playing outside. By interspersing the shots, the film links hunting practices with community well-being and futurity. This technique exemplifies the film’s concern with the availability of the hunt to future generations, demonstrating that protecting the seal hunt is crucial to protecting identity and culture in a moment when these very practices are threatened. The concern for the next generation permeates the film, as Arnaquq-Baril works to show that such bans threaten the present and future of Inuit culture.
While the film is about sealing, it is also a meditation on what practices and values shape communities and what it means to be in community with others (Wolfe 2019, 64). The seal hunt brings Arnaquq-Baril’s community together in the sharing of food, labor, and products (figure 4). The cultural significance of gathering this energy source differs from the more removed and passive energetic exchange commonplace in petroleum-dependent cultures. As Szeman and Boyer point out, energy sources aid in the formation of culture. While the ubiquity of fossil fuels in most modern settings may result in overlooking this correspondence, the connection is clearer in areas where energy sources are actively challenged. The deep cultural implications of continuing the seal hunt and its economic benefits are clear in Angry Inuk as a visible example of the deep ties between energy and culture. Importantly, the consequence of this connection means that altering or forgoing an energy source has profound impacts on culture. Angry Inuk asks its audience to consider our relationships to land, labor, and energy through a poetics that, as poet and academic Neal McLeod states, “puncture holes in the expectations and understandings of contemporary life” (McLeod 2014, 6). Recognizing the economic and energetic benefits of subsistence hunting challenges a strict reliance on fossil fuels and reveals a bias in energy imaginings.
Understanding that energy forms are numerous and that one can engage with energy in a variety of ways is important. This article does not suggest that one must choose between energy cultures, but rather seeks to illuminate that eliminating options forces choice. Oil is not absent in the discussions raised in Angry Inuk. In the wake of diminishing sealing profits, oil is another energetic resource in the area that provides capital and an option that Nunavut’s environmental assessment agency, the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB), has indicated could be explored in the future following extensive research (Nunavut Impact Review Board 2019b, 2). However, in an interview with CBC in 2016, Arnaquq-Baril makes an important point regarding the issue of choice when it comes to energy profits.
We’re commercial sealers, too. Just because we hunt seals one or two at a time doesn’t mean that the cash from those sealskins isn’t important . . . I want the world to know that when we don’t have the sealskin economy as an option for our young men and women, we’re more up against the wall to do things like mining. Of course they’re a part of life now but I want people to take part in that because they want to, not because they have to. (Arnaquq-Baril 2016b)
Her point here emphasizes that communities should have the right to decide which ways they can support themselves energetically and economically. However, when faced with policy decisions such as the EU seal trade ban, these options are diminished, and the ability to choose how one makes a living is narrowed. Both options involve the production of energy, and in this scenario, it becomes clear that extractive energy production has taken precedent over other nonextractive forms of energy.
Within the area of the Arctic, where oil is so prevalent, nonrenewable resources can be an important part of economic development. A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat published by the Inuit Circumpolar Council in 2016 states the following declaration:
Responsible non-renewable resource development can also make an important and durable contribution to the well-being of current and future generations of Inuit. Managed under Inuit Nunaat governance structures, non-renewable resource development can contribute to Inuit economic and social development through both private sector channels (employment, incomes, businesses) and public sector channels (revenues from publicly owned lands, tax revenues, infrastructure). (Inuit Circumpolar Council 2016)
The declaration highlights the various ways Inuit societies can engage with energetic resources and profits. This assertion, along with others listed in the document, emphasizes the positive impact nonrenewable resources can have on Inuit communities by providing economic opportunities. The document also suggests that some Inuit communities welcome “responsible” nonrenewable resource development in certain regions. However, it is careful to note that preservation of the environment, traditions, and well-being must accompany this development. In the territory of Nunavut, this includes access to the seal hunt and its profits. Balancing the economic potential of two energy cultures is one example of what Erica Dingman calls “the great paradox of Inuit decision making” (Dingman 2011, 7) because these decisions intersect environmental security with socioeconomic development. To this equation, we must add cultural resilience, as energy consumption through subsistence practice aids in the preservation of Inuit culture.
Fighting to maintain the economic potential of subsistence activities is a way of resisting settler-colonial mindsets. The Canadian government has a history of exploiting Inuit lands for oil development and has even admitted to using such industry to “assim[ilate] the Inuit, using education and wage labor” because “[h]aving sedentary, acculturated Inuit communities was seen by the Canadian government as an important precondition for social and economic development of the North” (Tadiashvili 2018, 347). In light of this history, the practice of seal hunting is an act of resistance. From the history of whale hunts for oil to the attempts at animal conservation, corporations and lawmakers have continually attempted to intervene in the Inuit lifestyle and modes of living. Angry Inuk demonstrates the intersection of these histories through attacks on the seal hunt and threatened economic autonomy. The film invites a different perspective on energy use and economic viability that challenges the dominant energy culture of most modern spaces.
This essay has argued that energy use is tied not only to issues of environment but also to cultures, futures, and pasts. The recent emphasis on petroculture makes it difficult to embrace other energetic formations, such as food as energy. This attitude negatively impacts cultures and communities who depend on food materials for nourishment as well as financial security, such as Indigenous communities who rely on the food and profit of subsistence practices. When limits are imposed on engagements with specific energetic sources, it impacts not only the resource but also the cultures and communities that depend on it, making engagement with such materials an important environmental and social justice issue. As Bathsheba Demuth states, “Humans are of places; we sit deep in them and cannot help but change them. To be alive means taking up our place in a chain of conversions” (Demuth 2019, 316). To think of energy is to think of our place in the world and how one exists in space. The seal trade ban is one instance of how Indigenous societies have been constrained both economically and in relationship to place by conservation efforts and narrow energy imaginings. Restricting engagement with energy sources confines access to culture, histories, and futures. We must all accept that we take space in the world. To do so is to be human. It is what facilitates life, culture, community. These are not rights that should be denied.
I would like to offer sincere thanks for the comments provided by the reviewers of this piece, which provided vital guidance in revisions. I also extend my sincere gratitude to all participants in the UCSB Re-Centering Energy Justice Collaborative who aided my writing process. Finally, thank you to all my friends in rural Alaska in the Northwest Arctic Borough, who shared with me their love and respect for the Arctic and all its activities.
William Cronon writes that wilderness is an ideology, not a reality. He states, “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history” (Cronon 1996, 69).
Following the establishment of the moratorium in 2016, the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) completed a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) designed to evaluate the impact of potential oil and gas exploration in the territory of Nunavut (Nunavut Impact Review Board 2019a). In 2020 the NIRB maintained that continued “research, planning, and consultation” (Nunavut Impact Review Board 2020, 1) be performed before the moratorium is lifted. The NIRB advised that it will take a further decade to complete the necessary continued investigation, which would extend the moratorium into at least 2031.
These assessments, which are crucial in determining the future of Canadian Arctic waters, were delayed by federal and Nunavut election processes that resulted in the yearlong extension. The assessments will be completed by the end of 2022 by the Canadian government, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, and the governments of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut (Order Amending the Order Prohibiting Certain Activities in Arctic Offshore Waters, SOR/2021-272 2021).
The oil from whale bodies helped usher in the industrial age as the oil and grease were used for sewing machines, power looms, soap, fertilizers, and light (Demuth 2019, 26).