Global warming isn’t bad news for everybody. In Greenland, the big melt could mean a flood of new revenue from mineral and oil deposits— previously trapped under ice. Flush with prospects, the locals are talking about making a final break from their benevolent colonizer, Denmark. Call it the Thaw Revolution.
By McKenzie Funk
|The entrance to Greenland’s Black Angel Mine (photograph by McKenzie Funk)|
FIVE YEARS AGO, after Mininnguaq Kleist became Greenland’s national badminton champion but before he officially became a philosopher, well before he took the helm at the Office of Self-Governance, he discovered secession theory: the study of whether one country has, or doesn’t have, the moral right to break free from another. At the time, he was a master’s candidate without a thesis topic. He’d been frantically searching for six months, and the problem was getting almost as bad as his first philosophical crisis, when he’d tried to apply the Aristotelian ideal of the good life to every little thing in his real life and ended up paralyzed, staring into a theoretical abyss. Mininn guaq’s discovery of secession theory, like his discovery that not every action can be moral, was a revelation.
“I found arguments that are never used up here,” he says. Over the next year he wrote his thesis, “Greenlandic Autonomy or Secession: Philosophical Considerations,” at his university in Denmark, the colonial power that has ruled Greenland for nearly 300 years. He wrote it in Danish, and he pushed arguments that beat back the colonizers using their own rules, even as they ran slightly counter to those laid out in the nineties by the father of modern secession theory, Duke University philosopher Allen Buchanan.
“According to him, you have to be wronged to justify it,” Mininnguaq says. “Denmark has to wrong Greenland in a really bad way before we break away. I don’t agree with that part. Sometimes you have to view this as a marriage: adults, consenting people, divorcing of their own free will.”
I first meet up with Mininnguaq in the Kangerlussuaq airport, a building on the tundra of western Greenland that feels like a ski lodge in the Alps: lounge chairs, huge windows, a cafeteria with trays, rich tourists in Gore-Tex. Mininnguaq lopes in with a badminton friend, Kim, a handsome Dane with an iPhone who happened to be on his inbound flight, and we sit in the cafeteria and reminisce about their sporting years. “He always beat me,” Mininnguaq says. “Except in our last match.”
Among his friends, Mininnguaq goes by “Minik.” He’s 35. He wears horn-rimmed glasses—”my old-school Ray-Bans,” he calls them—and brown hipster kicks with thick blue laces. He has black hair and aquiline good looks that locked up the teenage-girl vote during his one, failed bid for political office, in 2007, when he ran to represent Greenland in the Danish parliament. He lives in a trendy part of Nuuk, Greenland’s 15,000-person capital city, where he recently blew thousands of Danish kroner on a tube stereo system. Friends come over and they all just sit there and listen to it. It sounds awesome.
To its natives, Greenland now officially goes by the name Kalaallit Nunaat—”the Land of the People.” As a colony, it’s been part of Denmark since 1721, when Lutheran missionary Hans Egede showed up and started saving souls. The first Danes taught the Inuit that Hell was very hot rather than very cold. They taught that communal living—shared food, shared hunting trips, shared wives—was sinful. They taught that rocks and birds were not endowed with spirits. Greenlanders had no bread or concept of bread, so Egede translated another pillar of Western belief—the Lord’s Prayer—to fit Greenlandic reality. “Give us this day our daily harbor seal,” they prayed. After 290 years, Greenland is oddly, lopsidedly modern—Scandinavian by design but not always by nature. Kim, whose wealthy family runs an electronics chain in Nuuk, is on his way to mainland Europe, where he went only a few months ago, hanging out at the Cannes Film Festival on Russian yachts with beds that rotated 360 degrees—”just for the views,” he marvels. Minik, meanwhile, is heading up the west-central coast to Upernavik, a thousand-person town with no sewage system, where, several mornings a week, the streets are lined with yellow bags of excrement waiting to be picked up by sanitation teams.
Upernavik is the first stop on the second leg of a road show led by the Office of Self-Governance, a department local authorities set up at the end of 2007 to bring independence—or at least the idea of it—to the people. It’s now early September 2008, and by November 25 he wants to have reached nearly all of Greenland: 57,000 people spread out in 57 villages and 18 towns across an area of 836,000 square miles, three times the size of Texas and 50 times the size of mainland Denmark. November 25 is the date of an island-wide vote, a referendum on divorce from Denmark. If it passes, then on June 21, 2009, the summer solstice, Greenland will wake up to a new reality. Not secession, exactly, but a big step in that direction.
In chemistry, there’s the concept of activation energy: Add heat, get a reaction. In Greenland, there’s the reality of global warming: Add heat, get an independence movement. Warming is melting Greenland’s ice, which is extending its shipping season and revealing massive oil and mineral deposits, which is making possible a mining boom and the royalties that go with it, which is convincing Greenland’s people that eventually they may not need the $600 million in annual subsidies they get from Denmark—more than $10,000 a person. Which is convincing Greenlanders that soon they may not need Denmark at all.
Climate change means oil finds and zinc mines and also better fishing: cod, herring, halibut, and haddock migrating north as the ocean warms. It means disaster tourists: people coming to see glaciers slide into the sea. (Since 2004, cruise-ship arrivals have jumped 250 percent.) It means farming: potatoes and broccoli and carrots growing where they didn’t grow before, more grass for more sheep. It means gushing rivers: an endless supply of freshwater that Greenland proposes to sell to a thirsty world.
Of course, it also means doom for distant countries like Tuvalu and Bangladesh, which may go under because of Greenland’s melting ice cap. The cap covers 81 percent of the island, and if it melts entirely—something that’s unlikely to happen before the end of this century—global sea levels could jump 20 feet. Since 2003, the cap has shrunk by more than a million tons, so much that the underlying bedrock rises four centimeters each year, like a ship slowly unweighted of its cargo. The land is rising faster than the sea.
It is climate’s role in the independence movement—the possibility that people could be set free by embracing a crisis, that for all the countries destroyed by global warming, one will be created—that’s brought me to Kangerlussuaq. Before we board our next flight, Minik introduces me to a pack of Greenlandic politicians, two women and three men who are part of his revolutionary road trip. They wear backpacks and street clothes: jeans, fleece, tennis shoes. One man carries a video camera. I wonder, for a moment, if I’m staring at people for whom global warming serves a higher good.
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