Thursday, October 29, 2015

Confusing poor John Franklin with conquistador Hernan Cortes

The 2014 discovery of Erebus increased interest in the Arctic, where climate change is more in evidence than anywhere else, while inciting commentary that has sometimes gone over the top. "What the Franklin Expedition glorified,” Roy Scranton wrote recently in The Nation, “was the war of Man—white men—against Nature. Franklin was indeed a tragic figure, and the tragic flaw he embodied was a will to power
that knew no bounds. He was doomed because ‘nature’ proved, finally, unconquerable, but in honoring his memory, we were celebrating and carrying on the war he’d waged." Ah, yes, the war of those awful white men against nature. That would be the same war that gave rise to the steam engine, airplanes, submarines, icebreakers, central heating, air-conditioning, the internet, smart phones, and of course the list goes on forever.
Scranton offers an excellent account of climate change, and also of his own expeditionary voyage through the Arctic. But having shown no qualms about accepting a free Arctic experience, including airfare, Scranton then declares adventure tourism “an ethically dubious proposition.” He continues: “Built on and often glorifying a tradition of brutal, racialized colonial domination, adventure tourism restages the white-supremacist conquest of ‘nature’ and ‘natives’ as a carefully controlled consumer encounter with ‘pristine wilderness’ and ‘indigenous cultures.’”
From nature we have slid to natives. But when he speaks of “brutal, racialized colonial domination,” Scranton appears to be thinking of the Spanish conquests of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations. He confuses poor old Franklin, who had trouble finding indigenous folk when he needed them, with figures like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizzaro, who did indeed wage “brutal, racialized” wars -- though the Aztecs, especially, were perhaps not without sin in this regard.
Still, let us admit that John Franklin was no John Rae, who made a point of learning from the indigenous peoples, and who championed the Inuit against the most powerful people in Victorian England, among them Charles Dickens. At the same time, I would suggest that adventure tourism, far from being part of the problem, is part of the solution. In the Arctic, whether we like it or not, climate change will require adjustment and adaptation. The greatest threat by far is that of oil tankers sailing willy-nilly through the Northwest Passage. Better, I think, to have adventure tourism creating jobs while clogging those waters with small ships and friendly passengers. That would, not incidentally, help make the Canadian-sovereignty case for controlling tanker traffic.

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