For more than a century, between 1807 and 1917, the United States extended its footprint and established greater territorial integrity by buying up huge tracts of other people’s land. It made some of the best property deals ever: the Louisiana Purchase from the hapless French in 1807, Florida from the Spanish 12 years later, Alaska from the Russians in 1867 (bought by then US secretary of state William Seward for the bargain basement price of $7.2 million) and then what became the US Virgin Islands in 1917 from Denmark.
It is the identity of the last seller that perhaps prompted US President Donald Trump to believe that buying Greenland would be a foregone conclusion. Greenland is Danish “property”, “real estate” ruled from Copenhagen. And there was also the presidential precedent of Harry S Truman wanting to buy the huge island from the Danes in 1946.
Outlandish as the Trump buy offer is, it was motivated by the same awareness of the oil reserves, mineral riches and strategic importance of Greenland that led to Truman bidding for the place. The climate emergency will make Greenland warmer and therefore easier to mine. Extracting its other natural resources will be simpler and cheaper, too.
There is also the considerable geopolitical positioning of Greenland. Alaska buttresses the US from Russia in the northwest while an acquired Greenland would shield North America – initially the northeast of Canada – from whoever and whatever the Americans think will come that way. Principally, Greenland hovers over the Arctic and the Arctic Sea, a prime jump-off point and base in the race to grab the riches there, which will be more and more accessible because of global warming.
Mapping the Arctic
Writing in The Guardian on 24 August this year, Simon Tisdall noted, “Trump’s cack-handed attempt to buy Greenland … shone a cold light on a rapidly developing yet neglected crisis at the top of the world – the pillage of the Arctic.” That danger has been inherent for a while, as shown by considerable differences in the mapping of the Arctic region in two successive editions of that magisterial global map book, The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.
The Arctic Ocean map in the 14th edition of the atlas (2014) is substantially better than its 1997 forerunner. It has the following to say in its “The Power of Maps” section:
“Polar projections have become increasingly important in recent years due to the growing environmental and geopolitical significance of those regions. Maps of … maritime boundary disputes in the Arctic region (and indeed the long-standing territorial claims in Antarctica) track an increasing interest in the natural resource potential of these parts of the world.”
More and more of the natural world is falling to the greed of the human race, in a resources rush that is hurrying the planet and its fauna and flora first to hell on Earth and then to extinction. The Arctic is warming at double the global average, which means that the great ice sheet of Greenland, intact and a protective shield for aeons, is melting more quickly than it ever has.
How different was the gigantic island’s past. Perhaps the finest glimpse in English of long-ago Greenland is offered by Jane Smiley’s historical novel The Greenlanders (Collins, 1988). Written in spare, clean prose, it immerses the reader in the lives of a 14th-century Viking colony perched on the southernmost tip of Greenland, at the very edge of the polar ice cap.
Smiley makes the landscape and the elements almost tactile: from the wave-swept seashore, the meadows kissed by the sun and the towering mountains that glower over all. This is a land of cold. Warmth is brought by summer and that season’s sun, an annual visitor that looms higher and longer in the sky.
But the existential reality is this, as one of the characters in the novel says:
“It seems to me that we have come to the ending of the world, for in Greenland the world must end as it goes on, that is with hunger and storms and freezing, though elsewhere it may end in other ways.”
The independence, courage and fatalism of Smiley’s characters reflect the virtues extolled in Norse mythology, and the whole of the novel is a stylistic homage to the great Norse sagas such as the Edda of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain, scheming powerbroker and supreme teller of tales. Here are some glimpses, in translation, of Sturluson:
“In this book I have written the old sagas … And although we know not the truth of those, we know, however, of occasions when wise old men have reckoned such things to be true.” (From the Heimskringla)
“Age of axes, age of swords … age of winds, age of wolves, until the world is ruined.” (From the Edda)
“Wisdom is memory.” (From the Edda)
And, of a piece with those ancient writings, Smiley once more:
“In the winter, as always in Greenland, every day was much the same, and every night. About the eaves, the snowy wind howled, but was muffled by the turfing. Snow mounded against the door, pressing it closed so that two men, or three, must press it open in the morning … Jon Anders and Johanna sat at the chessboard, for folk may not contemplate their fates all the time, and must play as well as work.”
Seven centuries on from that story, it is sobering to realise that in times to come the chess-playing might happen in the grip of an eternal heatwave.