Over the past 25 years the marginal lands of extractive industry have extended to the world’s remotest regions, with the accelerated spread of large-scale international corporations, the extension of us economic imperialism and the growing tendency of corporations to collaborate on specific resource development projects. Against a background of rising panic at the prospect of a world energy and mineral shortage particularly in the last five years, the hidden treasure of these most distant areas has become accessible. As new economies of scale have been made possible, the long arm of development has begun to reach out even for the shores and islands of the high Arctic. Enormous economic changes are now taking place in the far north of Alaska and Canada, in the lands of the least developed peoples of North America,footnote1 and it is these massive changes which provide the context for the political formation of an underdeveloped ethnic minority.

Although the circumpolar lands have long been believed to contain vast oil and gas fields as well as rich mineral deposits, these extremely rich stores of non-renewable resources lay beyond economic reach up to 25 years ago. The Russian Arctic did attract fortune seekers in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the 19th-century quest for fur in the American far north-west turned into a rush for gold. But those early enterprises were based on individual or small group prospecting for relatively accessible and, £ for lb, exceedingly valuable resources. It was possible for one man or one ship’s company to snatch a small fortune in sea otter skins, baleen or gold. It was not possible to turn iron or zinc deposits into anything more valuable than survey maps or geological specimens, even where the size and quality of deposits were well known.

The costs of exploiting non-renewable resources anywhere in the Arctic are enormous. The highest grade ores present serious transportation problems; even pure iron is heavy for its price. Shipping cannot find all-year-round access to possible mine sites or oil fields; pipelines and air-freight costs threaten to price most operations out on grounds of profitability. To be viable, high Arctic resource exploitation depends on economies of scale: it is possible only if reserves are truly massive, their life expectancy very long, mineral quality very high, and the relevant world markets have the look of long-term stability or expansion. Even where these conditions are met (as they would appear to be in the case inter alia of oil, natural gas, zinc, lead, and quality iron ore) other limitations arise. In the far north capital depreciation rates and labour costs are both relatively high. The need for scale means that initial investment in machinery is extremely large, while initial research costs (a function of uncertainty with high outlay) and pressure from environmentalists tend to place capital at risk.

The costs are partly a function of remoteness. Another function of remoteness is the cultural and economic separation of the far northern peoples from their colonizers to the south. The Eskimos and Indians of the central Canadian Arctic have the shortest history of acculturation of any peoples in North America, Russia, or Greenland. But even in Siberia, where contact is long-standing, remoteness has rendered economic, social, and ideological transformation slow and uncertain. The Eskimos of North Alaska are all too familiar with southern traders and infectious diseases, but until only very recently many lived on a blend of semi-nomadic subsistence and fur-trading. In central Canada some Eskimos and a very few Indians still do.

Development of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic thus represents a convergence of the most elaborate technological enterprises and the least developed groups of people anywhere on the North American continent. Industrial enterprises investing billions of dollars and, in the secondary stages of development, employing thousands of highly paid workers, begin to appear alongside communities where material standards of life are extremely low, where groups have succeeded in balancing an exploitative fur trade with hunting and welfare to avoid actual privation. Communities where average cash income per family is in the nature of $200 per annum are conscious of, or even marginally participants in, wage-labour at minimum rates of $8,000 per annum.footnote2 In its ideological aspect the contrast is no less dramatic. The vast industrial enterprise involves accepting present loss for future gain, a habit which brings migrant workers to live in isolation and social impoverishment because they will thereby establish a resource for when they return south; this also means corporations spend millions of dollars now because they will profit many fold in 20 years time. It is scarcely necessary to say that such a habit of mind has no sure place in the ideological formations of northern aboriginal groups. Nor do they share in that necessary condition for capitalist industrialization which lies in a readiness to place desire for personal advancement above commitment to family and home. To them the ways of big business are at best bizarre or mysterious and at worst sheer folly. If the southern developers are not judged harshly, it is because they exist in a moral and cultural climate so remote and so distant as to lie beyond the realm where local moral conceptions are felt to be applicable.