My name is Mia Bennett and I’m a political geographer working at the University of Hong Kong. I’ve been studying and writing about the Arctic since 2009, both on my blog, Cryopolitics, and in peer-reviewed publications on topics such as the politics of post-Soviet ruins and the role of the Inuvialuit people in building Canada’s first highway to the Arctic Ocean.
Throughout my career, people have often asked me why I am studying the Arctic from far below its southern limits. For an Arctic social scientist, living in California and, more recently, Hong Kong certainly has its disadvantages compared to more northerly locations. It’s difficult to organize follow-up fieldwork visits when schedules and budgets don’t permit numerous trips north. Even single long-distance trips are expensive, tiring, and generate a large carbon footprint. But there are also many benefits to thinking about the circumpolar north from more temperate climes.
My research concentrates on the geopolitics of development in the Arctic, a topic I first became interested in while interning at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway – an indisputably northern country. The year was 2008 and climate change was becoming a hot topic, while global interest was rising in increasingly accessible deposits of Arctic oil and gas. During my internship, I helped organize a visit by the delegation from the U.S. Geological Survey that announced the widely-cited Circum-Arctic Oil and Gas Appraisal. After ten weeks, I returned to the desert city of Los Angeles, where my weekends were spent hiking up cactus-lined canyons rather than swimming in glacially carved fjords.
Taking classes at UCLA as an undergraduate and PhD student opened my eyes to issues beyond the Arctic from which parallels could be drawn, such as a course on the historiography of Native American Peoples and another on African ecology and development. Undertaking a MPhil at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute helped me gain a stronger foothold within polar research networks. Post-PhD, I spent a semester at the University of Vienna, where I worked with a team of anthropologists focused on infrastructure in the Russian Far East – a region that stretches up to the Arctic Ocean. Then, in January 2018, I moved halfway around the world to begin a tenure-track position at the University of Hong Kong in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages and Cultures.
I now live on an Asian subtropical island that is in many ways even less “Arctic” than California, where it is possible to drive to glaciers in the High Sierras for the time being. But I still see surprising glimpses of the north peeking through in this neon-lit, densely populated metropolis. Just a few blocks from my apartment, there’s a street full of shops selling carvings made from mammoth ivory dug out of the permafrost in the Russian Arctic. Hong Kong, in fact, sells more mammoth ivory than anywhere else in the world. When I was out jogging recently along the steamy waterfront, I saw a man running with a t-shirt from the “North Pole Marathon” race. And in an undergraduate class I teach on globalization and tourism, my students expressed a desire to travel to Iceland more than any other destination.
Hong Kong may not have any aurora dancing over its skyscrapers, but the shimmering city confirms that we are in the age of the “Global Arctic.” At the same time, working outside the region as an Arctic scholar serves as a reminder that there is a world beyond the north. The Government of Hong Kong, for instance, isn’t really preoccupied by Arctic shipping routes: the city is so far south that it wouldn’t benefit from a northern shortcut. The government of the People’s Republic of China has a greater stake in the Arctic, but the region still takes a backseat relative to more proximate concerns. This doesn’t necessarily undercut my research, though. Instead, it forces me to think creatively about how to make my work as an Arctic geographer meaningful to the general public and government funding bodies, which might not immediately appreciate the connections between Hong Kong and the Arctic that jump out at me as I walk down the street.
Despite the city’s relatively low interest in the Arctic, changes in the region will still affect Hong Kong. Sea level rise will impact operations at the low-lying port and airport and could cause flooding in residential neighborhoods. Demonstrating the significance of the connections that exist between Asian and Arctic environments, economies, and even societies is critical to making my research relevant to people and policymakers in both parts of the world.
Now, how to explain my research to my family at holiday gatherings is another challenge altogether!
Dr. Mia Bennett is an Assistant Professor in the Geography Department and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at Hong Kong University, where she researches critical and material practices of infrastructure development in spaces commonly thought of as "frontiers". She also is the founder and editor of a blog on the Arctic called Cryopolitics.