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Mining the Boreal North

Resource extraction decisions are not simply about wilderness preservation or development

Nancy Langston


Environmental history cannot tell us whether mining in a particular place should happen—that is a social decision, not a scientific or historical decision. But historical perspectives can remind us that there is nothing natural or inevitable about resource development. Resources are contingent and they change over time. Calling something a resource pulls it out of its intricate social and ecological relationships and isolates it in our gaze. Yet those isolations are illusions. We still live in intimate relationships with larger landscapes, even if we think technology isolates us from ecological constraints. When minerals are dug from the ground, when trees are cut in the forest, when flood waters are diverted, when rivers are dammed, when animals are changed from fellow creatures to livestock resources, we set into motion subtle processes of toxic transformation that have legacies far into the future.

Urban rulers long envisioned the north as a remote hinterland best suited for resource extraction. Yet what environmental history can reveal are the ways that the north is intimately connected to sites of industrial activity by animal migrations, by atmospheric currents, by historic legacies. Mining conflicts in the north are not about preserving wilderness or developing it. Rather, they revolve around what kinds of relationships to natural communities will be supported—and who has the right to decide.


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