The Arctic killers

The scramble for the Arctic's oil and gas has begun. Marek Kohn reports exclusively from Svalbard on

The first thing you see of Barentsburg is a frayed plume of black smoke, and this also turns out to be one of its few signs of life. Although the town ranks as the second largest settlement in the Svalbard archipelago, far to the north of Norway and just to the south of the Arctic ice, it can muster only about 900 inhabitants. Many are underground, mining the coal they burn to keep the place going. This is an offshore Russian colony, hanging on in an undead Soviet town as the coal reserves run out.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the population is swelled by about 10 per cent because of a party of British teenagers who have won a trip to Svalbard in Ice Edge, a competition for environmental projects organised by Edge, the educational foundation. They have come to meet scientists from different nations, see polar bears and stand on the rim of the polar ice, but today they are being reminded that underneath the northern quest for scientific knowledge lies the search for fossil fuel.

A bust of Lenin glares at them from a distance, as the guide points out "the only forest on Svalbard" - a fading mural of Russian birches, to help the miners feel at home. Those men did not really come all this way to dig coal, but to fly the flag. Under the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago, but the other signatories have rights of access. During the Soviet period, the state's principal strategic interest in the region was military; today it is the fields of gas and oil through which Russia intends to assert its global influence. Nearly a quarter of Russia's reserves lie off its northern coasts, and it hopes to gain ten billion tonnes more by demonstrating that its continental shelf is 1.2 million square kilometres bigger than is accepted at present. That is why, a few days ago, a Russian vessel, visiting the North Pole as part of International Polar Year, sent down mini-submarines to plant a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor. This old-fashioned gesture made headlines around the world.

Poisoned winds

Industry is already inescapable up here. At Ny-Ålesund, a cluster of international scientific stations - from Chinese to Dutch, the latter represented by a man in yellow clogs who studies geese - the school students meet Geir Gabriel sen, an ecotoxicologist. He tells them how the Arctic is becoming a "sink" for pollutants from the south, which build up in the fatty tissues of Arctic seabirds, polar bears and other predators. These days, the winds from the south are blowing for longer, increasing the exposure of Arctic wildlife to toxins from Europe and elsewhere.

Wildlife may also be exposed increasingly to industrial chemicals from closer at hand. Arctic technologists at Svalbard's University Centre are studying the properties of ice to assess the prospects for pipelines and drilling rigs. Offshore gas and oil extraction in the Arctic will push the limits of technology in an environment that is both extreme and fragile.

The current centre of attention in the Arctic energy landscape is the Shtokman field, off north-west Russia in the Barents Sea. Russia's energy giant Gazprom has selected Total, the French oil concern, as a partner in exploiting the reserves, which it plans to start piping in 2013. Shtokman is big, but its 3.7 trillion cubic metres of gas are only a small part of Russia's immense hydrocarbon deposits, which amount to 45 per cent of the world's known gas reserves and a fifth of the world's oil. Its Arctic regions also contain deposits of precious and base metals.

Looking at a map of the Arctic with the North Pole at the centre, one sees that this is Russia's natural hemisphere. Looking at the distribution of its Arctic mineral resources, one can imagine a Russian drive to intensify the industrialisation of this frontier as global warming thaws it. Similar opportunities may open up all around the hemisphere. At the first Arctic Frontiers conference, in Norway in January, Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, warned against "another Klondike" in the Arctic.

Indeed, all across the top of the world, the encroachment of industry into the permafrost is well under way. On the Russian Sakhalin peninsula, north of Japan, Shell is pursuing oil and gas extraction in the habitat of the world's last hundred or so Pacific grey whales. In partnership with Gazprom, Mitsubishi and Matsui, it is constructing two further oil platforms, two 800km pipelines and an LPG processing plant. Environmentalists claim the development has destroyed fishing areas and, with the influx of male workers, brought a wave of prostitution and HIV.

The Yamal peninsula in north-western Siberia holds Russia's largest natural gas reserves. Gazprom hopes to start extracting from the Bovanenkovskoye deposit by 2011-2012. "At Yamal, we are seeing serious environmental effects, with roads being driven through the reducing permafrost," says Rasmus Hansson of WWF Norway. "There are huge oil leaks as pipelines start to sink into the melting frost. The ecological consequences are massive."

The going is slow for Russia's hydrocarbon industry in the high north, and the industry is also coming under scrutiny in North America, which consumes more than 25 per cent of the world's oil. Last year, BP had to close the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield, 250 miles inside the Arctic circle and the largest reserve of oil in the US, after a spill caused by corroded pipelines. For environmentalists, the silver lining is that it makes drilling in the neighbouring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a long-held ambition of congressional Republicans - politically impossible for now.

Frederic Hauge, president of the Oslo-based environmental organisation Bellona, sees such industrial difficulties as a valuable respite. "The Arctic is struggling with nuclear contamination, toxins, pollution and climate change," he says. "Oil and gas exploration puts a huge amount of pressure on an extremely stressed ecosystem. The Arctic is like a canary in a coal mine: we see the effects of global warming there earlier than anywhere else. It's very scary. Oil and gas companies face a moral responsibility to act: we need to combat climate change with all the weapons we have. Norway faces a global responsibility to the world as guardian of this precious ecosystem: we simply can't look at this in terms of regional and personal gain. My hope is that oil and gas companies can be held off a little longer . . . Keeping oil and gas out of the Arctic is the single most important thing we can do."

Political stresses

When Americans looked at northern polar maps in the 1950s, they saw the Soviet Union reaching round the globe to encircle them. Today, the global threat arises wherever people burn carbon, but it would be unwise to overlook the potential political stresses in the Arctic. Across the Russian half of the hemisphere, a political-industrial complex appears to be taking shape in which state and commercial interests are in tegrated. Norway will also keep StatoilHydro, its major energy player, under state control. The Arctic states have a strong sense of their national interests in the region, and may not always live together as harmoniously as the international scientists at Ny-Ålesund do, eating together in the mess hall.

Not all the effects of climate change in the Arctic are yet clear. There may be more snow in future, for instance, and that might protect the remaining ice by reflecting the sun's light away. As the glaciers melt, pouring fresh water into the sea, they may slow the great ocean circulation that bathes Europe in warm water from the south, offsetting the greenhouse effect. The effects on sea level are another matter again. Recently the Nasa climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues warned of an "imminent peril" that melting in the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets might run beyond human control, leading to "devastating" sea level rises of several metres per century.

What is clear, however, is that the Arctic sea ice is shrinking, at its summer minimum, by about 8 per cent per decade: about 500,000 square miles have gone since the late 1970s. Svalbard's university is on the shore of Isfjorden ("ice fjord"), but for the past two winters it has been free of ice, and as its annual report notes, the university's supplies have been delivered by sea. The average temperature last year was 5° higher than the average over the past 50 years. As the research results come in from the International Polar Year, the world's polar scientists will map the changes that have occurred since the results from its predecessor, the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, in unprecedented detail. According to Hansson, the environmental hazards facing the Arctic can still be countered. "A growing num ber of governments are admitting a problem," he says. "Although the problem is increasingly serious, there is increased reason for optimism."

The fjord and the polluted wildlife show how everything is amplified here. Animals, needing protection against the cold, have more fatty tissue, in which toxins accumulate. Climate modelling indicates that if the world as a whole gets 2°C warmer, the average temperature in the Arctic will rise by over 6°C. As the scientific briefing for the International Polar Year points out, changes happen earlier at the poles. The Arctic may be a "sentinel" for the planet, where scientists can ob serve tomorrow's changes today.

As the ice recedes, the forests will march north. There may never be real birches at Barentsburg, but trees will replace tundra across much of northern Canada and Arctic Russia. Much of the remaining tundra will become "polar desert". According to a WWF speaker at the Arctic Frontiers conference, some 60 per cent of the tundra will be lost one way or the other, and the reindeer herds with it. That will put paid to what remains of the traditional way of life for those of the Arctic's four million inhabitants who still herd the reindeer. It will also destabilise the foundations of the modern way of Arctic life, with buildings collapsing and roads fragmenting as the permafrost melts.

Tourist footprints

The tourists are heading north, as well as the engineers and the forests. At Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost settlement in the world, the Ice Edge students have to wait for two large cruise ships to move away before they can land. Each time these ships visit, the scientists' environ mental measurements are spoiled by a tourist spike. We all arrive with green intentions, but can't help leaving our footprints.

The students have ideas for reducing their carbon footprint, from domestic energy monitors to blinds fitted with solar panels. Most are green, but one is yellow. Nathan Allen, Chris Balding and Jess Fok of Eltham College in south London suggest that infernal element, sulphur, as an alternative to coal. They've got it all worked out - immense reserves, high efficiency, huge demand for the acid by-product and, in a nice biotech flourish, bacteria from Icelandic volcanoes to digest the sulphur back out of the leftover acid.

At Barentsburg, this bold flight of chemical imagination strikes a chord - with Philip Pullman's reimagined Svalbard in Northern Lights, in which Tartar slaves work the "fire-mines" for the ruling polar bears, who in battle launch flaming sulphur from their "fire-hurlers". The mine itself stands as a reminder of some unpleasant truths about burning carbon.

During their trip, the students see one polar bear, stalking the shore in the all-night sun. In the real Arctic, the prospects for its kind are about as gloomy as Barentsburg's. As the ice goes, so will the seals, which need ice floes on which to pup; and as the seals go, so will the bears that feed on them. And as the ice goes, the more oil and gas will be extracted from under the sea, to make its contribution to global warming, which will melt more ice, and so on. Not only will it become easier to drill for oil and gas, but it will also become easier to transport extracted fuels and minerals across the Arctic by sea. The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific could become a commercially viable route, as could a Northeast Passage north of Russia. If warming continues, as some forecasters fear, ships could eventually sail straight over a watery North Pole, with no icebreakers required.

Additional research by Matthew Holehouse

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge