Not So Green, Not So Clean: Are Green Technologies Silencing Local Communities?


Norway is considered one of the ‘greenest’ countries on the planet but recently the country has come under fire for approving a copper mine in the Arctic described as the “most environmentally damaging project in the country's history”. While this mine is vehemently protested by the indigenous community, the Sámi Reindeer herders, the Norwegian government maintains that the mine is necessary to make a ‘green-shift’ and provide copper and raw materials for the country’s and world’s growing demand for electric cars and wind turbines. Using the case-study of the Artic mine and its clash with the Sámi Reindeer herders, this article aims to explore how green technology is still being recapitulated by capitalism and ‘business as usual'. Also, this article uses a gender lens to explore the relationship of nature, green technologies and capitalism. Thus, will work to establish the gendered dynamics and roles of nature with growth using Sámi culture and peoples as an analytical real-life example.

Mountains with grass and snow in Norway

From brown to green: will copper save us all?

If the ‘brown’ economy has been powered by fossil fuels such as coal, the ‘green’ economy’s hallmark is undoubtedly copper. Compared to coal, copper seems like a sustainable, renewable option and plays a major role in making the lofty switch to green renewable energy to meet these goals. Research commissioned by the International Copper Association (ICA) has found copper demand for motors alone could grow to 2.73 million tonnes per year by 2022. This demand is especially tempered by a rise in the demand for copper to build wind turbines and other energy-efficient technology, as well as improve efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of the automotive industry by building smarter and greener cars.

Norway is considered one of the ‘greenest’ countries on the planet and is one of the largest consumers and producers of copper. Norway is not only confronted with its own growing copper demand but also to power the world’s green transition and cement itself as a leader of the green economy. To do so, the Norwegian government has recently approved a much contested development plan for a copper mine in the Arctic described by Silje Ask Lundberg, leader of Friends of the Earth Norway as “one of the most environmentally damaging industrial projects in Norwegian history”. While proponents of the copper mine vehemently support the need for this mine to make the green-shift needed for future development of the green economy, opponents argue that building the mine in the already increasingly fragile Arctic can have unforeseen and unimaginable consequences that might even rebound the impact the green technology transition even brings.

During Rio+20, UNEP and OECD presented the green economy as a paradigmatic shift in world development, an almost antidote to ‘business as usual’ that would bring forth “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing the environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” Naively, UNEP anticipated that the green economy would place elevated value to maintaining the integrity of ecosystems.

However, as the Norwegian example shows, this is in fact not the case. Natural ecosystems are still at a lower priority of conservation than the quest for minerals to power the green economy. We are still dismantling the old natural ecosystems for the forlorn promise of techno-fixes: a green technological bullet solution for the climate crisis, one which still allows unhindered growth. Undervaluing nature systems that are irreplaceable for what is possible in the future, is painfully characteristic of capitalism as we have known it, concerned with its survival via growth. The green economy is not simply an alternative to ‘business as usual’ but is formed on the foundation of pre-existing power structures and policies. “Innovations do not simply happen; they are deliberate and interest-driven” (Fatheuer, Fuhr & Unmüßig, 2016) and capitalistic agenda for its insatiable appetite for ever efficient production is being recapitulated and repackaged within the green economy as well.

Clash of cultures: An indigenous ecosystem under threat

The indigenous community of Norway’s Arctic, the Sámi reindeer herders have been protesting the copper mine as it not only endangers their way of life and livelihood, but threatens their ecosystem further and exacerbates the climate crisis. In such, the green economy is not making good on its ‘promise of social equity’ or reducing ‘environmental scarcities’ as it places the needs of the ever-burgeoning economy before the sanctity of existing ecosystems and communities. The copper mine’s antagonisation of the Sámi reindeer herders shows a dichotomy of new with old, technological progress with nature, capitalism’s patriarchal push with mother nature’s nurturing bounty which, due to the unfettered pillaging of the earth’s resources, is slowly but surely changing to mother nature’s wrath. The Sámi have practiced traditional reindeer herding since the 17th century and today in the 21st century, it is still central to their identity and way of life. Even time is still measured in the passing of seasons and the residents of this community feel a spiritual connection to the reindeers that goes beyond use and consumption. 

Traditional Sámi religion is a form of polytheistic paganism with deep rooted ties to the earth depicted in their ancestral rock art. The Sámi divide cosmos into upper, middle and lower worlds. The Upper World is the world of the Sun and the Earth Mother figure Máttaráhkká and is associated with warmth and life.

While the Sámi view the Arctic’s ecosystem as their ‘mother’ and for centuries have had a mutually beneficial and nurturing relationship with the reindeer and land; the mining company Nussir views the land in terms of its use value. Nussir estimates the area contains 72 million tonnes of copper ore and plans to invest more than 1 billion Norwegian kroner (just short of 100 million EUR). While the company can anticipate its cost and profits, perhaps conservatively guesstimate externalities, the valuation and monetisation of the ecological cost is almost absent and probably, impossible to fathom.

Natural capital: how and how much do you value Mother Earth?

According to The World Bank, “putting a monetary value on natural ecosystems is a key step towards ‘green’ economic growth”. Natural capital is a hugely contested conception within green economics. During a lecture at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, George Monibot deemed putting a price on nature a “neoliberal road to ruin”. Recently 1.100 scientists worldwide have gone on record admitting that the impacts of climate change are exponentially larger than what has been previously made public knowledge. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and scientists warn that slight changes in the climate could further accelerate the warming in the Arctic. That is to say, it is virtually impossible to truly make projections how a project such as a copper mine in the Arctic will impact the ecosystem, so how can a monetary value even be calculated?

Reindeer herder Nils Mathis Sara believes that conservation of Norway and other countries is the only solution to tackle the climate crisis. “I am shocked by the government’s decision…Melting sea ice has allowed heavy polluting ships to enter habitats and nations are eyeing up its precious natural resources,” he told the Reuters news agency.

According to Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls, the green economy concerns itself with “developing methods…with which nature can be valued and accounted for…intervention approaches concentrate specifically on the economisation of ecosystem services and nature’s resources”. Rather than conserving the pristine Arctic, it has become the latest frontier in the quest for mineral reserves to fuel the so-called green economy. There is a willing failure to account for economic evaluations or price systems of natural assets such as ecosystems thus resulting in almost unchecked environmental degradation. The green economy sets itself apart by conceptualising ‘natural capital’ as a ‘rethinking of economy‘ and a ’redefining of nature’ but it is clearly failing to do so because it is still governed by capitalism.

Economist, Molly Scott Cato in her seminal work, Green Economics, posited that green economics is “inherently concerned with social justice…It has grown from the bottom up and from those who are building a sustainable economy in practice rather than from abstract theories”. However, Cato’s optimism is problematised as no matter how well-intentioned and impactful the green economy can be, the technologies that necessitate compromises are again based on capitalistic agenda rather than ’social justice‘. Capitalism has of course, recapitulated itself in the form of ‘green economy’ and unfortunately, till date, the green economy’s ‘natural capital’ still remains a contentious abstraction.

The exploitation of Máttaráhkká by patriarchal capitalism is at the ideological core of the green economy’s status quo as well. The Sámi are silenced as their way of life cooperates with its fragile yet powerful ecosystem; while companies such as Nussir gain socio-economic power and are able to lobby development to suit its growth and profit agenda. Just as women’s unpaid labor goes unchecked and unaccounted for within capitalism and the status quo, nature’s input remains unaccounted for within traditional and green economy alike. The Human Development Report attempted a valuation on women’s non-monetised work, contributing 11 trillion dollar to the world economy out of a 16 trillion dollar total for non-monetised work. Nature’s ‘work’ has been similarly made invisible purposefully by the dominative triad of patriarchy, capitalism and technology. Ruchi Tripathi in her work explores whether the, “[R]elationship with nature [is] something inherently feminine; or is there a sociological construct to it? Ecofeminists argue that in the patriarchal view, women are associated with nature, and men with culture. Nature which can be subjugated by culture, is perceived as inferior.” There is no doubt that the hegemonic culture of this century has been unbounded production and consumption, and nature has simply been the means of production that is controlled to justify the end of increasing growth.

Are Women Included in the Green Economy?

Ironically, as the climate crisis and 4th Industrial Revolution have taken hold, there is a sentiment within the world’s rising urban populations to go back to basics, to turn back the clock and slow living, production, consumption and hopefully, the economy. Be more, want less. Eat whole foods. Drive fuel efficient cars. This very culture however, is leading to more growth and consumption rather than protecting true ‘slow,' close-to-nature, ‘authentic’ communities as the Sámi. Our electric cars are being powered at the expense of the most ancient and treasured civilisations on Earth.

Until the fundamental blocks of the status quo that has carried on to the green economy are not shifted, dismantled and reassembled, that green growth - no matter how well intentioned - will continue ‘business as usual’.

For instance, the inherent discrimination against women in business and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) due to increased barriers to access mean that women are less represented within policy making for the green economy. As the Sámi people show, women are often at the center of indigenous community, leadership and ideology.They must be included at the policy and legislature level if the status quo of capitalism as we know it is to be changed and the human race is to have a chance at survival. Otherwise, the green economy is going to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and any green goals impossible to meet. “Researchers, political leaders and movement activists - including social ecologists - need to learn from women, peasants and indigenes to see how sustainability and justice can fit together," and to actually change the world’s modus operandi (Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics: Nature and Society).

There are endless possibilities and opportunities that the green economy can unlock, the most exciting of which is dismantling patriarchal mindsets within capitalism by not only elevating and respecting natural ecosystems but learning from the wisdom of the Earth and its peoples. The hope is that even if current systems fail to do so, there are individuals and communities fighting to have their say at the table, as now their very home and way of life are at stake. Inka Saara Arttijeff is one of a growing number of Sámi women who are speaking up for the Earth. The 33-year-old represents Sámi of Finland, Norway and Sweden as an indigenous representative at the UN’s climate change talks. “Before, the non-Sámis and non-indigenous were actually deciding for us. Now, we can be part of the decision-making, and they actually take us into account," she said. As a mother Arttijeff worries that her children will not be able to carry out the reindeer tradition due to the climate crisis but is fighting hard for protection of her heritage and ecosystem that is worth much more than metal.

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